The unbearable rightness of being vegan
The connections between veganism and feminism seem so clear to me to now, I wonder how it is that I didn’t see them until only three years ago. That’s when, after 16 years of convincing myself I was ‘doing enough’ as a vegetarian, I finally became a fully-fledged vegan.
I was already a self-identified feminist, and a vocal one at that, writing on women’s issues for some of Australia’s best-known websites and newspapers. Our treatment of animals is a terrible betrayal of their innocence, their dependency and their helplessness. It is also a betrayal of ourselves – of our own humanity and compassion. But concern for animal welfare should not be used as an excuse for racism because ‘othering’ has a devastating impact on us all, writes Ruby Hamad.22 August 2014
To put it most simply, I am a feminist because I believe everyone has the right to live their lives as they see fit. And while I certainly cared about animals enough to not eat their flesh, I always thought of vegetarianism as an issue completely separate, and, to be honest, lesser to that of, human rights and feminism.
That all changed in 2011 when two things happened. The first was in January when I came across a news story in the Sydney Morning Herald
titled, ‘Bobby Calves Endure the Milk of Human Cruelty.’ The report described how ‘surplus’ calves (bred to make their mothers lactate) were routinely slaughtered at just five days old. Even worse, some farmers wanted new regulations allowing them not to feed the calves for the last 30 hours of their painfully short lives.
As RSPCA spokeswoman Lisa Chalk said at the time, ‘We're talking about a five-day-old calf, and that's (more than) a sixth of its life that you don't feed it.’
Since I was already a vegetarian because I believed humans did not have the right to hurt and kill animals for our own gratification, I knew that in order to bring my actions in line with my ethics, I had to withdraw my financial support from all industries profiting from animal cruelty.
And the more I looked into it, the more I realised that, as a feminist it was the right thing to do. The exploitation of animals mirrors the historical exploitation of women in many ways. Dairy cows, for example, are regularly separated from their calves (with the effect on both being agonising), much as throughout history women from minority races and lower classes have had (and continue to have) their children taken away from them.
In both cases the assurances given are the same: They don’t love them like us. They won’t remember them like us. They are not us.
Going vegan felt like a momentous change that would impact on my relationships, so I decided I would transition slowly, giving myself six months to eliminate all food, clothing, beauty, and household products made from or tested on animals.
I was still in this ‘transition’ phase when the second thing happened. This was something that will resonate with many Australians: the live animal export scandal exposed by advocacy group Animals Australia.
On May 31, 2011, the ABC’s Four Corners
program broadcast ‘A Bloody Business’, an investigation into live cattle exports to Indonesia. As many reading this would be aware, the footage that emerged was among the most disturbing evidence of animal abuse ever recorded.
The large animals had no idea they were supposed to sit meekly as they were readied for slaughter. Instead they bellowed loudly, thrashing wildly in fear and agony as frustrated slaughterhouse workers beat them, whipped them, broke their tail bones, gouged out their eyes, and flushed water up their nostrils, all to make the confused animals comply.
There is no way to humanely kill an animal that wants to live, and those cows wanted to live. That is the most haunting aspect of all. The sight of their thudding chests, their futile attempts to escape, but most of all the questioning in their eyes.Why me?
They seemed to be imploring.
Because they are powerless. That is what it comes down to. Humans can do anything we want to animals because there is nothing they can do to stop us.
And that, right there, is the common thread linking all forms of oppression: wielding power over others who are weaker and cannot challenge their exploitation. Humanity's true moral test, its fundamental test, consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect humankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it.
-Milan Kundera (author, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
) Milan Kundera’s words haunt me whenever I think about that footage, or indeed, any form of animal abuse. Our treatment of animals is a terrible betrayal. Of their innocence, their dependency, their helplessness.
But it is also betrayal of ourselves. Of our own humanity and compassion. The unyielding cruelty in that footage spurred me to abandon my ‘transition’ to veganism and become a strict vegan overnight.
I wasn’t the only Australian to be affected by that footage. Butchers reported a drop in meat sales as Animals Australia and campaign director Lyn White became household names.Animal cruelty is endemic across cultures
But sadly, many Australians were unable to connect their own actions to what was happening in those far-off slaughterhouses.
Things may not look exactly like that in our own abattoirs at home but animal rights groups frequently reveal welfare breaches here too, such as the 2012 undercover footage of Wally’s Piggery in Victoria that revealed pigs were being clubbed to death with sledgehammers with other pigs looking on, cowering.
A 2010 state government review of NSW’s red meat abattoirs found that every single slaughterhouse failed basic welfare standards.
In an industrialised system, animal cruelty is not so much an aberration as it is an industry model. It is impossible to meaningfully consider the welfare of animals when the aim is to kill as many of them in as short a time as possible.
But, rather than use live export cruelty as an opportunity to look within, the overriding response from Australians was to demonise Indonesia and, more broadly, Islam.
Yes, those images were hideous. But not because of Islam’s halal
It’s true that Islam requires animals to be conscious at the time of slaughter in order for their consumption to be considered halal
But contrary to popular belief, stunning is not off limits. Many halal
-approved slaughterhouses in Australia and Muslim countries across the world stun animals immediately prior to slitting their throats.
It may be hard for many to grasp in the wake of this and other images coming out of Muslim slaughterhouses but Islam actually has a long tradition of respect and care towards animals.
The Qur'an even promises a reward for those who treat animals kindly: ‘He who takes pity even on a sparrow and spares its life, God will be merciful to him on the Day of Judgement.’
In regards to animal slaughter, the strict requirements were actually designed to minimise, not increase, animal distress. According to the Qur’an, it is haram
- Tie or bind an animal during or prior to its slaughter.
- Kick or beat an animal.
- Kill an animal within sight of another animal.
- Slaughter an animal with a dull knife.
Clearly, all of these conditions were being flaunted in Indonesia, just as they are in other so-called halal
slaughterhouses. So what went wrong?
Exactly what goes ‘wrong’ in every other slaughterhouse across the world: the industrialised nature of animal agriculture combining with our sense of human superiority.
We have failed animals because we treat them, not as beings, but as things. To us they are merely commodities, units of production. I have read that one US pig farming manual even instructs farmers to ‘forget it’s an animal.’Racism hiding behind animal welfare concerns
But what I saw after the scandal, and what I still see today, are people masking racism and bigotry behind a concern for animals. Sometimes that concern is actually genuine; other times it is a convenient excuse.
In the years since the screening of ‘A Bloody Business’, mainstream opposition to halal
slaughter has grown in Australia, ignorant of the fact that the majority of these slaughterhouses do stun.
Fast-food companies such as KFC are targeted, not for their general contribution to animal suffering, but specifically for serving halal
meat in certain outlets.
This bigotry is not limited to Islam. Any culture or country that is deemed to have worse standards of animal welfare is considered ‘savage’. China and South Korea are called ‘barbaric’ for eating cats and dogs while Japan is scorned for its whale and dolphin consumption.
While I am not defending those countries treatment of animals, I believe this response is the worst way to approach animal advocacy because it ignores the links between animal and human oppressions.
The first stage in any oppression is to ‘otherise’ the group you want to exploit, stripping them of any attributes that make them worthy of moral consideration. We ‘otherise’ animals by claiming they cannot suffer or feel emotions ‘like us.’ We say they are less intelligent, less self-aware, so different to us, so fundamentally unequal, that it is acceptable for us to do with them as we like.
But this process is replicated in human on human oppression too. As Kundera was implying, our complete otherisation of animals is where our oppression of each other stems.‘Othering’ impacts us all
All forms of oppressions intersect; they all originate from the belief that other groups are lesser than us. Animals are regarded as so far beneath humans that we can eat them, wear them, use them for entertainment, and experiment on them.
But in doing this to animals, we made it possible to do it to ourselves. Human oppressions came about precisely because certain groups of humans, including women, Africans, and Indigenous Australians, were likened to animals.
As animal advocates, if we want to change the system that allows for animal exploitation, we must not adopt the tactics of the oppressors, and that includes not engaging in racism against those cultures who we feel hurt animals the most.
It is not always easy, but it is always right. It is tempting to veer into misanthropy, to hate other humans for their relentless cruelty and apathy towards those most at our mercy. But the second we use animal abuse as an excuse to direct hatred towards others, we have already lost.
To blame the live export debacle, which is an example of human greed trumping human compassion, simply on Muslims and their religion is to deny the institutionalised nature of animal exploitation worldwide.
It is a system that every country is part of. While some abuses may be more egregious than others, no country – certainly not ours – is innocent of blame.
Our own hands are drenched in the blood of innocent animals too. To merely blame ‘others’ is to create more barriers to human cooperation, which is precisely what we need to undo the oppressive system we have created.
Vegans who claim to be driven by compassion should be at the forefront of moves to eliminate racism and bigotry. Because until all living beings are free of exploitation, then the world will go on as it is, with all of us – animals and humans of all sexes, races and religions – suffering.Ruby Hamad is an Australian writer focusing on feminism, intersectionality, race, and animal advocacy. She is a regular columnist for Fairfax’s Daily Life and a frequent contributor to ABC’s The Drum. With a particular passion for the intersection of feminism and animal rights, she is also an associate editor for The Scavenger. Connect with Ruby at: http://www.twitter.com/rubyhamad
This is an edited extract from Plant Powered Women: Pioneering Vegan Female Leaders Share Their Vision for a Healthier, Greener, Compassionate World, compiled by Kathy Divine.
It is available in paperback from all major online bookstores and as an e-book from Amazon.Images: Newborn calf (top, Wikipedia commons); Live export, Indonesia 2011 (centre) courtesy of Animals Australia.http://www.thescavenger.net/social-justice-to-all/social-justice-for-animals/947-the-unbearable-rightness-of-being-vegan.html
Details Published: 22 August 2014 Hits: 162