04 Apr Feminism and Veganism
Content Warning: Sexual Assault
Gender equality: it’s about seeing groups of people as equal, despite our perceived differences and more importantly, despite our many years of cultural conditioning, still continuing today, which tell us women are inferior to men.
Thanks to the work of feminists who have stood up against sexism far beyond my time, and even my mother and grandmother’s times, I am in a much better position as a woman today. Firstly, something I have written has been published. My brain is respected, considered of value, much more than perhaps the brains of women in my family generations before me. However, this is not to say the fight is over.
So, what laws have changed, in the realm of gender equality? We can vote. We can study. The vast majority of us can drive. In Australia, there’s no longer a tampon tax. We can make our own money. We can (mostly) wear what we like, without our bodies being policed more than men’s. We have women in Government positions, where there previously were none. We are no longer the possession of men in marriage and it is against the law for a man, including a husband, to rape a woman (though our society is still certainly one that privileges the public appearance of accused men and rapists, over female victims and their protection and wellbeing). We can choose to work in any job we like, though we likely won’t be as well paid for it, and we may be systematically discouraged to do so.
It’s worth noting, the above given rights and progress is relevant to many parts of the world, but we must recognise some women face much harsher and dangerous forms of discrimination and systematic gender based violence than myself, as a white woman, in a country like Australia. It’s a work in progress, but we have more rights than the generations that have gone before. I am very grateful for that, to be alive now.
Why were women ever thought to be inferior in the first place? Why was our being different to men ever seen as a weakness?
The same question can be asked about a lot of forms of discrimination. Why? Why do we see them this way? I want to discuss why we see animals the way we do, and the way in which feminism and veganism must be interconnected, in order for a total empowerment of women to come into fruition.
Veganism. It’s about seeing groups of beings as equal despite our perceived differences and more importantly, despite our many years of cultural conditioning today, that has led us to believe that some species’ are inferior to others.
Humans are remarkable in many ways. We communicate in an incredibly nuanced and advanced way. We have brains that can do so many absurd and brilliant things – from creating wonderful works of art to creating machines that can turn plastic bottles into clothing.
That leads me to the remarkably terrible thing about us, too. We destroy and pollute so much of what is around us. Just as we have the capacity to reverse climate change, we are the ones who caused it. Just as we can discover ways to reuse our waste, we were the ones who let the oceans be filled with it to begin with. Much of our history, much of our present actions, are filled with bloodshed, cruelty and a lack of compassion.
Animals are different. We’re yet to see a dog who can speak eight languages like some humans can. We’re yet to see a sheep build themselves shelter. We’re yet to see a turkey do a cryptic crossword.
They also aren’t so different. We have seen pigs count objects. We have seen cows enjoy music. We have seen fish develop a fear of things that have previously hurt them.
In the ways that matter most, we are the same. We feel. When someone is good to us, we are content. When someone gives us affection, we feel joy. When someone hurts us, we fear them. We love. We grieve. We suffer.
If we are open to the suffering, to the disadvantage, the unfairness and persecution one group of beings experiences, we are more likely to be able to extend that empathy and compassion to others. This is where the intersection between veganism and feminism comes in.
I’d like please, for you to imagine that you were forcibly impregnated. The semen of a man was put into an instrument, which was then forced into your vagina by the fist of someone. You are most likely restrained. As you can imagine, this is incredibly painful and if you were free to escape, you would.
This is the first step in the ‘working life’ of a female dairy cow – of a non-human woman. Forcible impregnation, so that a female cow can give birth to a baby. A baby she has grown inside of her for many months.
The next step is for that baby to be separated from their mother. If the baby is a girl, she will share her mother’s fate and be introduced into the milking herd.If the baby is a boy, he will never produce milk, so is useless to the industry, and quickly killed..If a baby drinks their mother’s milk, there is not milk left for us humans to sell, to profit from, and to needlessly consume.
Mother cows are known to wail when their newborns are taken from them. Birthing fluids still hanging from them, they have been seen chasing farmers taking their babies away from them, crying out, pleading. Having never been a mother, I cannot begin to imagine such anguish, but being an empathetic human, I can feel a little of it, very deeply and painfully.
The exploitation of a woman, human or other, is a hard truth to bear.
In this instance, this is the truth of the purposeful, greed-driven exploitation of the sexual organs and anatomy of a non-human woman, a mother, a cow. This is the truth of animal sexual exploitation.
This is not to equate the experiences of any different groups. I was sexually abused and sodomized as a child. I do not pretend to completely understand the emotional trauma and anguish that comes from being attacked and raped by a stranger, as a grown woman. These instances are different. The emotional burdens that come from them, unique.
The purpose of my asking you to imagine yourself in the position of a female cow, is simply to exercise an extension of empathy. I know the gut wrenching trauma, anxiety, depression, complication, and deep-rooted pain that come from my experience. I do not know the exact pain, cognitions or emotions of another survivor. I do not need to know if her pain is lesser or worse than mine. All I need to know, is that there is pain. All I need to do is empathize with her.
Cows may not have the cognitive abilities of a human. They may not be able to speak in a language we can understand. They may have a lesser understanding of the exploitation involved in the industries they are entangled in. But they feel it. I know the deep primal howls of pain I made as a child. I know the torment I felt even when I did not understand what had been done to me. When I hear the crying of a cow, when I see the panic in her eyes, the frozen horror that paralyses her, that ends her attempts to kick herself free, I get it. I feel it. I do not wish any pain onto them, so I do not consume the product that brings this to them.
I extend this same empathy to hens. Just like cows, hens have their sexual organs, their anatomy as females, twisted and used against them.
An egg, just like the egg that comes from my ovaries and falls out of me in a period every month, is the reason for her exploitation. Over many decades and generations, hens have been selectively bred, so that they now ovulate almost every day of the year: about 300. In nature, chickens, like the red jungle fowl, lay between 10 to 15 per year – not so different to the 12 menstrual cycles I have in a year. I imagine my life – my body’s physical exhaustion – if I were to have my period for 300 out of the 365 days in a year.
I imagine that I was to take a one-way trip to the slaughterhouse after my body had been exploited for so long that it could not keep going. I cannot fathom such a reality, but I try. I try to imagine myself as someone who is killed at only eighteen months old, when the strain of living in my fatigued, mutated body means I can no longer continue to ‘produce’ in a way considered ‘financially viable’. I think of this, as I remember a hen, her natural life span once well over 10 years.
It is estimated that in Australia, 16 million hens are exploited in the egg industry every year. I see a hen who closed her eyes as I stroked her stomach, as she lay on the floor of a slaughterhouse truck. She was killed because she was no longer seen as profitable. Her life not treated with the value it deserved. Her body perceived as something to exploit and discard.
I mourn for her, 16 million times over.
It is estimated that in Australia, 1.6 million cows are exploited in the dairy industry. I see a cow whose panicked eyes darted past me, her head sticking out of the truck packed with bodies, as it turned down the road to the slaughterhouse. She too was killed when she no longer ‘served any financial purpose’. She too was seen as a body to exploit and discard. A cow like her is killed at about four years old, rather than being left to enjoy her natural lifespan, of fifteen to twenty years.
I mourn for her, 1.6 million times over.
It is estimated that in Australia, 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted. That would equal to 2.46 million women. I think of a woman, a friend who everyday feels as though she is without a little part of herself, which was robbed from her. She too was seen as a body to exploit and discard.
I mourn for her, 2.46 million times over.
There is no comparing trauma. There is no competition. There is no equating pain when it is something so uniquely personal and awful. There is no discounting or undermining of suffering that does any good.
But there is empathy. There is an extension of compassion, and the non-human women in our world desperately need it from us..
Animals are sentient; feeling beings, who like us experience fear, sadness and happiness. Who give and receive love. Whatever differences they may have in the way they understand their pain, does not discount that it is there, that it is burning and raw inside of them. We need only look into the eyes of animals in these exploitative industries to see their suffering.
I know that we are different, but the same.
It does not matter what form discrimination takes. There is always an ‘othering’ involved. A way to construct an ‘us’ and a ‘them’. For our world to be one of peace: one without violence against women, human or otherwise, we must feel our pain in unison. Feel their pain as ours. Audre Lorde said it best: “Because no woman is free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles look very different to my own.”
We have the opportunity to break these shackles, by simply refusing to consume the products that locked them on in the first place. By choosing vegan.
Author: Emma Hakansson
Producer/Ethics Consultant at Willow Creative Co
Sources used for slaughter ages and numerical estimates