Ecofeminism: Nature and Beyond
Nature has been conceptualised in feminine terms for centuries, and the archetype of ‘Mother Nature’ has dominated the collective subconscious for just as long. This philosophy, combined with a perceived shared experience of oppression, has led a strand of the feminist movement to theorise that women’s oppression should be viewed in conjunction with exploiting the environment. Ecofeminism, as coined by the French feminist, Françoise d’Eaubonne, in her book, Le féminisme ou la mort, holds that there is a link between the degradation of the environment and the subordination of women, and an understanding of this link is fundamental for an adequate understanding of the oppression of women and the oppression of nature. The movement encourages the dual celebration of women and the natural world, beings that have been traditionally regarded as the Other under a patriarchal framework.
The movement has since diverged into two strands: Cultural Ecofeminism and Radical Ecofeminism. The cultural strand of ecofeminism rests upon the notion of physical oppression. It holds that cisgender women’s pregnancy experience, menstruation, and childbirth allow them to connect to nature on a deeper and more spiritual level, leading to a sustainable, rather than an exploitative relationship. On the other hand, the radical strand holds the view that women’s shared bond with nature arises from their experience of oppression perpetuated through gendered violence, the sexual division of labour, etc. This strand grew out of dissatisfaction with the mainstream ecofeminist movement. Disagreeing with the notion that women’s relationship with nature is absolute, they believed that the patriarchal system that forces a shared association between women and nature, to degrade both – women and the natural world are seen as being erratic and irrational. It is believed that only men can bring order to both. Like other strands of radical thought, it seeks to demolish present hierarchical structures of inequality completely and instead cultivate a culture of communal decision making within a more equitable system, which considerably diverges from the mainstream liberal feminist movement that advocates for reform within the present framework.
One of the main criticisms of the ecofeminism movement arises from its perpetuation of gender essentialism, the belief that the differences between women and men’s experience stem from biological factors, rather than cultural. Within the movement’s context, this can be seen in the insistence that all women hold certain qualities like compassion and empathy, which automatically attunes them to nature. Such a view is problematic in the sense that it rationalises gender stereotypes, rather than challenging them. As captured by Simone de Beauvoir’s iconic quote, “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman”, there are no traits that are inherent to all women. The assumption that all women must share traits of kindness or compassion gives rise to the belief that women are innately more suited to parenthood or are drawn towards the maintenance of the household, which has been used to keep women from attaining education and entering the workforce. Feminists, in general, have been fighting for liberation from gendered expectations. In such a case, it seems regressive to advocate for the adoption of the same ideals which have been instrumental in keeping women out of the public sphere and relegated to the private domain. Such views also centre womanhood around biological capabilities, rather than lived experience, effectively excluding many from its ambit. Besides, the generalisation of all women sharing a close bond with nature is hardly universal. Not all women have an equal relationship with nature: the experiences of rural women engaged in agriculture or coastal women who depend upon fish work for subsistence is vastly different from the westernised urban elites.
Another major criticism of the movement is the lack of attention paid towards intersectionality. One’s experience as a woman is informed by the various positions one holds in society with respect to race, caste, class, physical ability etc. Heralding gender equality in tandem with environmental justice as the fundamental condition for women’s liberation does a massive disservice to women who may be constrained by other facets of their identity. Besides, the ecofeminist approach ignores the possibility of women acting as oppressors to women who are marginalised on multiple counts. It ignores women’s complicity in capitalist systems of exploitation. One of the pioneering voices on the ecofeminist movement in India and abroad, Dr Vandana Shiva, has written how many of the development initiatives taken up by national governments do not benefit women and nature, but work towards perpetuating domination and patriarchal control. While this may be true to an extent, the adverse impacts of developmental projects are primarily felt by rural tribal communities that are economically impoverished and depend upon natural resources for subsistence. They often have to contend with displacement and loss of livelihood, to accommodate national welfare, often with little to no compensation. The 29th Report of the Commission of Scheduled Castes and Tribes has reported that tribal populations constitute 40% of the displaced in the post-independence period, despite only 7.5% of the population. Here, creating a man/woman binary to understand developmental projects’ detrimental impacts seems to be erroneous. It ignores caste/class privileged women’s complicity in acting as oppressors to the affected rural tribal groups, regardless of gender. The privileged upper castes and classes have overwhelmingly accrued developmental projects’ benefits while the marginalised have suffered without proportional gain. All sections of the affected societies have led protests against irrigation, nuclear and mining projects. Hence, all members end up being equal stakeholders in the fight against environmental degradation as their livelihood rests upon preserving natural resources.
Despite its shortcomings, the ecofeminist movement has made strides in the past few decades. What started as a strong academic and activist-oriented movement in the seventies, lost steam in the nineties. Yet, with climate change becoming more of a pressing threat each day, the ecofeminist movement has experienced a resurgence in the 21st century. Though the movement has largely suffered due to adoption of certain regressive notions and a complete overlook of the divergent relationships that women, both within and outside the movement may share with each other, these issues are increasingly being taken up. More and more women, especially those from marginalised communities need to be located at the helm if the movement is to achieve its goal of coming up with a feasible solution to the twin problems of environmental degradation and the oppression of women.
By Saberi Mallick firstname.lastname@example.org
The featured image has been borrowed from GettyImages.