Being on a panel titled ‘Intersections and Solidarities’ at this year’s edition of Reel Desires — Chennai International Queer Film Festival made me realise that I have never addressed the overlap of environment and gender in this column inspite of the years I have spent volunteering with environmental justice struggles. While I have written about intersectionality and the merging of class, caste and gender identities, I suppose it’s never too late to lay out how the fight for gender justice is intertwined with other movements including health, disability rights and that of the environment.
The image invoked by the word ‘environment’ is often of lush farmlands, thick forests, sparkling rivers, the deep sea and tall mountains. An imagination of what it is to care for the above ends mostly with a ‘keep it clean’ board, similar to a museum card that reads ‘see but do not touch’. This approach is the same taken by an uninspiring ‘Swachh Bharat’ campaign that propagating the ‘clean is pure’ notion but wants to have nothing to do with the complexities of the production and life-cycle of garbage. The cause of the problem as I see it lies in the way literature and pop-culture feminise all things nature — beauty akin to that of a woman, or woman itself — resulting in the revering or protecting attitudes we have toward women extending to nature
But the subject of nature is literally touchy-feely, as we breathe, drink and eat from our environment. On one hand there is an emerging conservation approach to nature that cordons off communities that have been co-dependent on those very resources for several generations. This gives corporations and governments the power to determine the distribution of environmental resources, and takes away agency from communities engaged in artisanal trades to decide how to and who must access natural resources. On the other hand, marginalised communities that include women, children and sexual minorities are all denied full citizenship that comes with the right to clean air and water — examples of environmental racism. This is because toxic and polluting industries are situated in areas that marginalised communities live in or made to live in. These base the struggles for environmental justice in an obvious and larger social-justice framework, but this is also a feminist issue.
Women and children have traditionally been the gathered of firewood, food and water, and are directly impacted in the case of environmental degradation as their health and livelihoods go for toss; as well as the social reproduction burden due the time and distance they have to travel to make up for what was available earlier. Environmental issues then automatically become eco-feminist as they place women at the centre of struggles for both environmental and social justice.
While advocating for co-habitation with nature, enabling equitable access to resources and sensitive consumption patterns it is possible to get carried away by blind love for the environment without being mindful of privileges. It would of course help the world if we were all trying our best to reduce our carbon footprints, and find means to have fun responsibly. But it would be worth our while to ask who we hold accountable to degradation — often people at the lowest rungs with little buying power, only because they happen to live in the polluted area — and who we must hold accountable instead — polluters, government agencies and those with buying power. And it is therefore best to keep in mind caste, religion and cultural identities while advocating vegetarianism or veganism, class privileges while advocating for organic or sustainable lifestyles, abilities of people while advocating for a ban on straws or the sale of peeled fruits and cut vegetables and while advocating for a menstrual cup revolution, that it’s not only women who bleed, and not all women bleed.
The writer is a city-based activist, in-your-face feminist and a media glutton