An Interview with Meghana Rajanahally
Meghana Rajanahally is a Toronto-area activist in the feminist, animal rights and environmental movements. She has been deeply involved in feminist work within the animal rights movement for many years. Over the last several weeks of the COVID-19 lock down in Ontario, she spoke with Currents editor Michael John Addario, via email, about sexism in the movement and the need to develop a more radical politics.
How would you describe your involvement in the animal rights community?
I have been involved in animal rights in one form or another since I was a child. My first memory is that of rescuing turtles from the lake at my school when we saw local villagers catching them to cook for a delicacy. Over the years, I have always tried to be a vocal and steadfast voice in preventing animal cruelty and raising awareness of the climate crisis. I never belonged to any group, mostly doing grassroots work alone or with those like-minded individuals around me while growing up in India and in my time as a marine biologist in New Zealand.
My first encounter with a major animal rights organization was getting involved with a marine conservation group called Sea Shepherd. I was a dedicated volunteer for about 4 years, in what is one of the most patriarchal, misogynist, white saviour organizations there is. During this time I was, like a lot of BIPOC activists, subject to racism and men preying on you with their positions of influence. But I endured for many years, as this is the way we survive in the world — be silent, don’t speak up and remember it is for the animals. This is never sustainable and it led to burnout and major depression which saw me step away from most animal rights work for 2 years. It takes many years and a lot of work to unpack your own oppression and learn to draw boundaries with that and the work you want to do and this was the same process for me.
As I slowly worked back into activism, I have worked with grass roots AR groups in India, Anonymous for the Voiceless and Save chapters in India, Germany and Canada and even threw myself into Animal Rebellion when the movement (and I) reached Canada last year. I started the Toronto chapter, was one of the main members of the Canada chapter and even worked remotely with the UK chapter for a while. I was excited that there would be something different in the AR world, not concentrating on individual choices and being a space that was non-hierarchical and anti-oppressive. A few months in, I found myself completely disillusioned with it: another AR possibility that was packaged differently but riddled with the same issues. When you have organizers that are mostly white and are organizers of some of the most problematic organizations in the AR world and funded by the same billionaire, real radical change is not possible. As an activist who is a BIPOC woman, it was impossible to work in the movement while being stifled in a space which was another case of anti-oppression washing. I have also worked in Extinction Rebellion Toronto and collaborated with groups such as MISN, CJTO, Rising Tide, SURJ and No One is Illegal. Intentions and aspirations in activism must be intersectional. Currently, I work independently in the intersectional social justice movement, providing a critique and a voice for radical BIPOC perspectives and hoping to create more awareness of the same. I am working on creating a platform called ‘Let’s Burn it Down’, to hopefully provide a space to examine where speciesism intersects with the other systemic oppressions (there will be an announcement soon on my social media account: @woollymoth).
You have been involved in some of the #metoo struggles in the animal rights movement. How do you see that playing out? Have you witnessed any changes in the dynamics of the movement?
I unfortunately have been witness to sexual abuse and harassment every time I have been involved in the AR movement. This is not a rare occurrence in this movement. I have been very involved in some of the current #metoo moment as someone who has spoken out about against harassment and inappropriate behaviour and have been pushing organizations and activists to question why we allow this behaviour in our spaces.
There have been many moments to address this issue, where animal rights organizations have allowed women to be subjected to an immense amount of sexual abuse. Instead, I have seen the resolve fade out as loyalties to organizations and individuals seem to prioritize tackling these issues. In the aftermath of recent abuse revelations, the Save movement is still standing, it is still recruiting, women organizers are still staying loyal because activists are afraid of losing their connection to the identity it provides them. Some will continue to stay because they have become financially dependent on these organizations that actually pay them to do what the rest of us grassroots activists have to fund by working other jobs.
There is definitely more awareness of consent and sexual abuse in the movement, but there is no dismantling of the systems that create these issues in the first place. Suddenly, all the single-issue activists and organizations have become intersectional and anti-oppression as a PR exercise to try and redeem themselves. Some are doing anti-oppression workshops, but these cannot be effective when they are run internally by people that do not have enough competence or expertise to do so and have vested interests by being members paid by the organizations. This work must be done by outside organizations and groups that have been consistent in anti-oppression and have expertise, and be run over long periods for real change to occur. Unfortunately, when the dust settles, we are still where we were, but with better packaging. This is a movement that seems progressive but is far from being able to create any change that is radical.
One thing that has struck me during this crisis has been the inability of the animal rights movement to respond to it politically. By this, I mean being able to intervene in the political spaces this moment has opened up: to put forward an animal rights position that could advance the struggle, galvanize new activists and that could potentially change the public narrative around animals as commodities. Nothing of the sort has happened. I think it’s fair to ask serious questions about why the movement is so weak. But one of the things that has happened instead was a series of social media campaigns. In part, many of these campaigns were initiated in order to compensate for the impossibilities of doing street-level protest actions under the lockdown. One in particular fell back on sexist stereotypes. Can you talk a little about that?
During the lock down this spring, many mischaracterized this experience as equating it to the experience of being locked in a cage or imprisoned. The two couldn’t be more different. How can we compare being in our homes with food, comfort and warmth, to animals that are born and live – and will die – in cages where they will barely be able to turn around? Think of BIPOC prisoners such as Mumia Abu-Jamal who has spent the last 30 years as a political prisoner, mostly under solitary confinement, for a crime he didn’t commit. Consider the situation of those in immigration detention camps and refugee camps that have no privilege of social distancing, access to doctors or even clean water, who are very likely to get ill and die.
It is estimated that over 50% of the deaths in North America will come from long-term facilities such as prisons, detention camps, and nursing homes. All of these institutions have populations that the capitalist system largely deems expendable and disposable and have been referred to as death camps for the ways in which they are epicentres for the spread of the pandemic. How can we compare this to the luxuries we have at home? This arrogant and shallow interpretation showcases a complete lack of awareness of one’s privilege and diminishes the experience of those living in these situations. Most of us are free, safe and can get all our needs delivered to our doorstep.
As if on cue, the Animal Save Movement co-opted the lockdown and used it to launch a social media campaign called the “coronavirus confinement challenge”. The challenge asks participants to choose a space where they replicate a non-human animal’s confinement, such as a cage or a fishing net. Participants then stay inside that space for a period of time and are encouraged to document the experience on social media with the hashtag #CoronavirusConfinementChallenge. The challenge went viral. In reality, this has further alienated the animal rights movement from other social justice movements with a focus on intersectionality. Other groups like PETA India and the Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) network embraced and co-opted the campaign.
The participation in the campaign by activists was fairly significant. Ultimately, it included a great deal of sexualized imagery. But there does not seem to have been any attempt at anticipating and cautioning against such imagery. Putting aside questions of how useful these social media campaigns really are, that should have been a critical consideration in designing these kinds of campaigns. What was the result?
There has been enough evidence and analysis of the misogyny in PETA’s campaigns that it does not warrant further exploration here. What is worth saying is that there is a recurring theme of portraying women as sexualized objects in their campaigns to reach a larger audience. As a consequence, women have been very much socialized to accept themselves as sexual objects for the sake of social justice activism, and as a result are much less likely to fight this oppression.
Corey Wrenn, of the Vegan Feminist Network, brings attention to the sexual objectification of women through an easy checklist: by asking us certain questions about an image and the ones that are most poignant to this challenge is when it asks if it shows sexualized persons as interchangeable. If it affirms the idea of violating the bodily integrity of a sexualized person who cannot consent and it shows a sexualized person as a commodity that can be bought and sold.
And these are the very same questions we should be asking when we see Save’s confinement challenge. There are photos of the actress Nina Bergman in what can only be seen as a form of soft porn. The pictures are accompanied by a caption that talks about how amazing a reminder it is about animals being in captivity. Hers is a series of highly choreographed photos that steal attention from the animals — animals that these photos are ostensibly supposed to raise awareness for — and instead appeal to those who might be ‘into’ the photo because it stimulates the same response as S&M. Apply the simple checklist above to these photos and you will see that it fulfills all the hallmarks of sexual objectification.
While high profile, Nina Bergman’s photos are not the only ones that interpret the challenge as such. There are scores of videos and photos of women and men in bondage which appeal mainly to sadomasochism in the minds of many viewers. By doing so we are following into the trap of the sexual politics of meat that was described by Carol J Adams. We are reinforcing patriarchal cultural norms of showing the consumption of a woman’s sexuality as the same as our consumption of animals.
By portraying the female body in this light, we dehumanize and commodify women in the same way we do to animals. This campaign encourages women to protest the lack of dignity with which we afford animals by taking part in a campaign which will be used by misogynistic actors to do the same toward these very women. Proponents will argue that men also took part in this campaign, but this shows a total lack of awareness with the differences between how male and female bodies are viewed by society, especially the disproportionate sexual objectification in mainstream media that this feeds into. A half-naked man is considered to be a sign of virility and masculinity – one who has the ability to make sexual choices according to his own free will, free from coercion. Whereas the same image of a woman objectifies her as a sexual object in a society where most women still do not have sexual agency inside their own culture, religion or family.
There will very likely be a number of women who will rebel against this deconstruction by claiming that their naked bodies are a form of liberation and self-expression. There is a nuance to distinguish our personal liberation from judgement of our naked bodies and representing animals in captivity that have no agency of their own. But by positioning ourselves in such a manner, we are perpetuating the social construct that women and animals are commodities – to be had and to be sold. To address these concerns, Save could have explicitly described the purpose of this challenge and used some critical thinking to develop specific instructions on all these details. Instead, like many other animal rights organizations, they jumped at sensationalism. They prioritized what would get the largest audience on social media instead of giving consideration to how it might perpetuate harmful social constructs.
You are describing sexism at a very deep-seated level here, at a very grassroots level…
“Meat is like pornography: before it was someone’s fun it was someone’s life”, these words were penned by Carol J Adams in her book, The Pornography of Meat. In these words, she captured the idea of anthropornography. This idea of non-human animals, women and people of color as consumables is what allows for men to be able to bond over misogyny. While animal rights groups may not treat animals as consumables, this idea is still ingrained. Thus, it’s often the case that animal advocacy deflects and silences women and people of colour from dealing with our own oppression, as we are told that animals come first and their suffering is incomparable.
While 80% of the movement consists of women, this movement is still largely characterized by white, male leaders under which women work. And a lot of these women face sexual harassment often but are often silenced and shamed for speaking up about it as these constructs are further enforced. Most animal rights activists and organizations are so focused on single issue activism that is centred around justice for animals, that they end up perpetuating harmful constructs such as patriarchy and misogyny within their community.
At first glance, the Animal Save Movement appears to be the exception as it is led by women and has several prominent female organizers. But as an organization, it too has fallen into this trap. Like so many other groups, a number of white male leaders have been paid to teach activism and start new chapters across the world. They then use their position of influence as a passport to travel the world and use this position to take advantage of women who admire them for their work — most of which is largely an exercise of social media branding. These individuals are not sufficiently trained to do these workshops. They lack anti-oppression or consent training. They are given no oversight and generally have zero understanding of the cultural complexities of the world beyond the west. They perpetuate white saviorism while on these tours, posting photos of themselves and not the people and activists of the places they visit. They care more about how many people engage with their posts rather than if the post is meaningful. This often results in a picture where the man poses shirtless with a background of animals that are about to be slaughtered.
Given this, the #coronavirusconfinementchallenge should come as no surprise for an organization that has demonstrated a lack of understanding of the principles of anti-oppression that help keep women and marginalized people safe. The recent revelations of a former Save organizer who sexually abused several women, and other Save organizers that openly support and enable such men, goes further to illustrate this point.
I want to come back to that, but you also understand feminist struggle very clearly as part of a larger set of politics, including struggles against capitalism?
In the age of the pandemic, one the likes of which most people alive today have never experienced, the many forms of oppression perpetuated by capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy and white supremacy are being laid bare for many to see. Animal rights organizations must use this moment to educate themselves in the same issues and have it reflected in the work they do, especially with any image driven campaigns designed to attract a large audience.
Many social justice movements are now starting to truly see the intersectionality of oppressions in our world. We must see this as the time to bring awareness to all of the oppression perpetuated not just to animals but to those marginalized workers who are being underpaid and put at risk during the pandemic – and for a great many whose lives are intertwined with the animals they exploit. These workers are mostly BIPOC, migrant workers and formerly incarcerated people with no rights, safety or any other possible means of employment.
How powerful would it be if we choose to stand in solidarity with slaughterhouse and factory farm workers across the world, without any expectations? Strike with them for better conditions, recognizing their oppression in this system at the same time as we are working to build a new system that doesn’t have violence at its heart. We must recognize that capitalism doesn’t just sacrifice the animals in these facilities, it also sacrifices the lives of the marginalized workers. Arundathi Roy aptly describes this as lives being treated as factory waste. We cannot engage in oppression comparisons when their issues and lives are so intertwined with each other. We must be in solidarity with all of the lives oppressed by capitalism and colonialism if we truly want animal liberation.
Instead, animal rights groups continue to push with campaigns that tend to further alienate us from all other movements and we make ourselves into pariahs, failing in our role as allies to animals. We misappropriate ancient Indian concepts such as karma to shame people who are eating meat. By wishing the suffering of many who are already suffering in a capitalist society that puts profits ahead of lives. We spread messages saying eating animals causes pandemics when several vegans and activists have themselves fallen ill to corona virus, by failing to address this as a systemic issue of industrial animal agriculture which exacerbates the prevalence of zoonotic diseases. As ever, we are making this about ourselves and our deep-seated trauma and prejudices. We are positioning ourselves as the saviours and protectors while ignoring the abuse faced regularly by the majority of this movement who are women. Instead, we must choose to be real allies to those that are already in resistance to their own oppression. We must choose to be aware and use critical thinking in how we campaign for animal liberation.
There is a lot of discussion about sexual misconduct right now. The #metoo struggles in the animal advocacy world have constituted an open rupture for the last 3 years. It is a serious matter, not just in bringing cases to light, but in terms of determining how sexism in organizing, expressions of misogyny, cases of misconduct and so on, can be most effectively dealt with within the movements themselves. How do you think these kinds of issues should be resolved? Is there a kind of formalized process you can envision for dealing with sexual misconduct?
I am a believer of transformative justice although I do not think we have systems in place currently that can support that work in its truest sense. For this to truly occur, those activists that are sexual abusers must first go through a mediation process with experts from local rape crisis centres or other qualified individuals. It is really important to keep this independent and external to the organization this issue is a part of. They then need to commit to and have access to professional help and therapy over the long term to be able to truly transform and be able to make reparations to their victims. If the victim chooses to participate, it should be up to the victim to decide what these reparations will look like and they must have the right to reject it if it does not meet their needs.
I do believe there needs to be a public call-out to safeguard other activists from their actions. We live in a world where it is so easy to create new activist spaces that are still riddled with the same issues, with some quick rebranding, without ever dealing with the repercussions of your actions. In the case of these white saviour males we have in the AR movement, this is a massive issue as this is the ongoing reality. There needs to be information shared especially with grant-making organizations so they are not able to get funding without showing considerable transformation and guidelines for them to not re-offend.
Considering we are all activists for social justice, the basic requirement should be to have principles of anti-oppression and this requires massive re-education of issues such as racism, white privilege, transphobia, homophobia, misogyny, colonialism and other related issues. There needs to be a commitment from AR organizations to commit to this re-education with competent experts and ensure proper “onboarding” procedures for new activists.
What do you think some of the other structural barriers are to doing feminist organizing in the animal rights/ advocacy movements? And what would you say to young women becoming involved in animal rights activism right now?
We live in a society that is a racialized and gendered space and this will show up in the AR movement as well. This is an issue that shows up in other social justice movements as well but perhaps, because they are human-centred, there is a possibility of a better understanding of intersectional oppression faced by humans.
The AR movement is largely a single-issue space, where there is an understanding of speciesism, but a real lack of awareness of any other issues of oppression. It is a movement that has also tended to concentrate on an individual’s blame for speciesism which is ironic as the very concept is rooted in systemic structures. This has caused a major rift with the broader left as it is impossible to speak to a mainstream AR activist without being shamed and blamed for consuming animals.
It is also a movement that is notorious for asking women to stand with men’s rights activists, silencing us when we speak out about abuse. It is a movement that has asked BIPOC and LGBTQ folk to stand with racists, homophobes and fascists. This hyper-focus on the oppression of non-human animals also means that the movement is often ignorant to the fact that all marginalized creatures (human and non-human alike) are oppressed by the same capitalist and colonial systems.
Most AR spaces in the west are dominated by liberal white folk who are often blind to the impact their unchecked and unacknowledged privilege has upon these spaces. Similarly, it is shocking to see a movement where so much of the work is done by women but there is little or no representation in leadership roles or roles of influence. For someone like me, the link between veganism and feminism is obvious but this understanding is not present in the AR movement today- we are subjecting women to the same marginalization that is subjected on non-human animals. There is a lack of appreciation for the care work done by women in this movement and BIPOC voices are rarely heard. For those like me that are women of colour, it is as if our work and voices are non-existent and our oppression is just a figment of our imagination and we must put it aside for the animals.
To young women becoming involved in animal rights activism today, I would say what I wish someone had told me 20 years ago: be loyal to your values and not to organizations. Be in spaces that respect and honour you, do not let them silence you. You do not have to put up with any abuse for the sake of the animals. Stay away from organizations that have cookie-cutter chapters across several countries, that have branding and need you to have merchandise to participate. Find like-minded people in your community that are quietly doing this work every day with no recognition and fame- find those tireless rescuers, women’s voices, those with an understanding of the history and complexity of animal rights of where you are. If you can’t find anything locally, be brave to stand alone, because there will be others that will be drawn to you with the same values. Use the power of social media to connect with like-minded people around the world to give you the strength and support to work locally, to do grassroots work trans-nationally.
And most of all, be kind to yourself. It is not an easy world to be a woman, especially one with determination and courage to speak up against oppression.