When I teach my Human Spirituality course to college students, I include a section on factory farming. Merriam-Webster defines factory farming as “a large industrialized farm; especially: a farm on which large numbers of livestock are raised indoors in conditions intended to maximize production at minimal cost.”
This sterile definition does not reflect the barbaric conditions in which chickens, pigs, cows, and sheep are raised in order to “maximize production at minimal cost.” For example, chickens are kept in cages with slanted floors, their beaks removed without anesthesia, and artificial lights kept on most of the day in order to increase egg production. Sows are kept immobile in metal cages, unable to nurse their young except through the slats of those metal cages. Male calves are taken away from their mothers at birth and placed in small cages to become veal after a few months. Male chicks, having no “value” in a factory farm setting, are placed on a conveyor belt that leads to being “ground up” alive. I’ve only scratched the surface of the horrors.
This past semester, after introducing my class to Ruby Hamad, a Muslim, feminist, public speaker, writer, and social justice activist based in Sydney, Australia, a student approached me and asked, “What does factory farming have to do with spirituality?” She didn’t give me a chance to answer before she added, “We didn’t even look at the pros of factory farming.” I asked her, “Did we look at the pros of patriarchy when we covered feminism?” I reminded her that we did articulate reasons why patriarchy remains firmly entrenched in our society. Those who benefit from the social system (usually white, powerful men) have the power to keep the system in place. In addition, many who live in patriarchal societies, even though oppressed by the system, often soak up the “truth” that it is in place “for our own good.” In the same vein, we looked at reasons why factory farming remains entrenched. Those who benefit from it (agri-business) have the power to keep the system in place. If we eat factory-farmed food, we have swallowed the “truth” that it’s good for us.
Ruby Hamad focuses much of her work on “intersectionality.” Here is an excerpt: “My argument is [that] Australian feminism has stalled and cannot go any further because it has not come to terms with intersectionality, all the ways in which various forms of oppression crossover….[I]ntersectionality… [is] discussed in feminist media and in social justice media as intersection of race, color, sexual orientation, class, but one vital equation that is almost always left out is the role of animal exploitation. As long ago as 1992, Bikini Kill singer and punk rock icon Kathleen Hanna sang ‘eat meat, hate blacks, beat your fucking wife, it’s all the same thing’. So while she’s recently said that if she wrote those lyrics today, she would change the last line to ‘they are all connected,’ which she says is a smarter way to talk about intersectionality, but the sentiment remains the same.”
When the second wave of feminism took hold in the U.S., it was a white, upper-middle class movement. American feminism started to pay attention to the intersectionality of race, class, and sexual orientation when women of color (especially) began to hold white feminists’ “feet to the fire.” Ruby Hamad is now showing us another intersection that sorely needs our attention. She says, “How can we as feminists…demand freedom for ourselves when we deny it to others and still claim to be on the side of justice? When we, humans, eat animals and wear animal products we don’t think of it as a deprivation of freedom we call it natural and normal and we point to the so-called food chain…that arbitrarily places some species above others. We claim our place at the top of the food chain insisting it gives us permission to eat and exploit other animals.”
I struggle. I won’t eat animals–cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens–any more than I would eat animals we commonly refer to as our pets. Ideologically, I am not opposed to eating some animal products such as eggs and cheese just as I am not opposed to the society in which I live being nourished by my contribution to it. However, I am opposed to eating animal products when they come from inhumane and barbaric factory farms which is where these foods are produced in the U.S. almost 100% of the time. No question about it–these animals are exploited and oppressed.
Ruby Hamad notes that “the key to ending oppression lies not in the worthiness of the victim, but in changing the mindset of the oppressor. Animal abuse and women’s oppression…happens because our mindset permits us to accept abuse and exploitation in certain circumstances, simply by denying to others rights that we take for granted….When it comes to animals, the rights humans take for granted, which is not to be enslaved or killed for the financial purposes of others, are denied to animals for the simple fact that they are animals. Now I know that this happens to humans too, but it’s generally considered not a good thing….As long as mainstream feminism ignores animals, it will never tackle this root of oppression, which is the existence of this oppressive mindset based on exclusion, which places some lives above others.”
I believe there will come a time when we’ll look back at the many millennia we ate animals and be appalled that we ever engaged in that practice just as we’re appalled today at our history of cannibalism. For me, seeing the suffering of animals forced to breed, work, exist, and die in wretched conditions arouses my sense of compassion in no less a visceral way than looking at the conditions human beings endured during our country’s shameful history of slavery where people bred, worked, existed, and died in wretched conditions as well.
I hope my student will reflect on the material we wrestled with in class about factory farming, integrate it into the concept of justice, and understand that one of the things human beings ponder is the broad and thorny question, How do we live justly upon the earth?
This is the Youtube video, featuring Ruby Hamad, we watched in class:
Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY.