But…They’re Just Animals by Esther Nelson

esther-nelsonWhen 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.

Author: Esther Nelson

Esther Nelson teaches courses in Religious Studies (Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Religions of the World, and Women in Islam) at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia. She has published two books. VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM was written in close collaboration with Nasr Abu Zaid, an Egyptian, Islamic Studies scholar who fled Egypt (1995) when he was labeled an apostate by the Cairo court of appeals. She co-authored WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY with Kristin Swenson, a former colleague. When not teaching, Esther travels to various places throughout the world.

25 thoughts on “But…They’re Just Animals by Esther Nelson”

  1. I agree with you that factory farming should be outlawed.

    One caveat, while the idea that the early second wave feminist movement was dominated by white women is true, the idea that all were upper class is not true, middle class, many, college educated, many, but not all, and don’t forget that those were the days when college education could be virtually free. Nor is it true that women of color were not present in it: Flo Kennedy Shirley Chisholm Audre Lorde Ntozake Shange Alice Walker Paula Gunn Allen and many others whose names are less well-known.

    Also, animal rights and vegetarianism are not new themes in the feminist movement. Ecofeminists early on made the connection between the domination of women and nature and many argued early on for animal rights. (See Woman and Nature, 1978)

    That some aspects of the feminist movement got more press or are more well-known, should not lead us to forget our history.

    You are right that the feminist struggle for animal rights has not yet won the day. Moreover, the ecological and animal rights discourse in the academy often ignores the contributions of ecofeminists.


    1. Thanks, Carol. It is true that some feminists have made the connection between domination of women and nature and animal rights, it’s a minor chord in the feminist symphony. I appreciate Ruby Hamad’s efforts to have that connection strike a major key.


  2. Great post. I was wondering if you give me permission to translate it into Spanish for my own blog. I will, obviously, give full reference and include a link to the original one.


  3. We seem caught in the tentacles of greed that includes much if not all of creation. Feminism has a “partner” in opposition in those areas where faith/spirituality/religion is rediscovering the sacredness and wonder of all creation.

    As someone who has tried to eat less meat protein and found it doesn’t work for my body, my next question was: “how do I eat what I need in a way that is least harmful to others?” I’ve deleted the next 50 paragraphs and just leave the question.


    1. Thanks for your comment, Barbara. People who are into the study of food tell us that all the essential amino acids needed for us (humans) to thrive can be found in grains. We need to know how to use them in order to get the nutrients our bodies require. For example, when I lived in Nepal for a while, most of the population did quite well–aat least, nutritionally, with dal bhat–rice and lentil combination. They ate this every day. I think, though, that the question you ask is something that we need to answer individually. Causing the least amount of harm is a laudable goal.


  4. Thanks for this passionate post, Esther! As a vegetarian, I also reflect on how grains and vegetables are grown in the agribusiness model, the conditions agricultural workers face, the effect of pesticides and genetically modified crops on bees and other pollinators as well as on water and soil. Yes, everything is connected! I am fortunate to live in an area where there are lots of community-supported farms and an organic food co-op just up the road. We also raise some of our own food, and my husband keeps bees. Many people do not the luxury of buying fresh, local food. Food, how it is grown or raised, how it is packaged, how it is shipped, who has access to good nutrition, is an issue we all face and as feminists we need to include in our thinking. If women, as there is reason to believe, invented agriculture, let us be in the vanguard to reclaim it. I live in a semi-rural area, but one of the most exciting possibilities I see is urban gardening, on rooftops, in community gardens. There are even urban bee-keepers. To know the provenance of our food, to participate in bringing it to the table is potentially revolutionary!


    1. Thanks, Elizabeth, for this excellent comment. Absolutely true–everything is connected. I think once we begin to think about (and act on) all of the ramifications of food production, positive changes can happen.


  5. Hamad begins by talking about ‘tracing back’ to justify her equation of veganism and feminism, an equation that I do not think is coherent. If you trace back veganism it in fact has a very short history that begins in the mid-20th century with British men who thought they knew more than they actually did. Such a diet, if strictly adhered to, is dangerous. For example, at that time Vitamin B-12 had not even been discovered and its importance is still yet to be fully understood. But a deficiency of it is closely associated with Alzheimer’s–a disease that seems to affect women more than men. To supplement a vegan diet, as is typical today, requires relying upon industrialized production of vitamins and minerals otherwise readily absorbed in a non-vegan diet and therefore cannot in any way be considered a ‘natural’ diet. By contrast, if you trace back what is inappropriately called ‘vegetarianism’ (the name implies you should not even eat minerals) it has its roots in the West in goddess worship that was associated with consuming all non-violently harvested products of the ‘goddess’–ie anything a female animal produces (unfertilized eggs and milk) and anything that grows out of mother earth.


    1. Thank you for comment, Stuart. Not everybody agrees that a vegan diet necessarily is deficient in B-12. I’m thinking of Gary Yurofsky (not my favorite spokesperson for a vegan diet) but somebody who has been a vegan for years and does not suffer from B-12 deficiency. My focus in this particular post is the suffering of sentient beings. When we as a species come to the point that we no longer tolerate (or endorse) the horrific suffering agri-business tells us is essential to feed ourselves, we (humans) have shown ourselves to be creative enough to find alternatives that are not destructive.


      1. Esther I did a poor job of tying my comment into that focus. It is not just the B12–in my experience a vegan diet tends to rely on manufactured/processed supplements and foods (eg faux meat or ‘milks’ that are obviously not really milk). That seems to me to disengage one from the entire life process of harvesting, preparing and consuming food and that such disengagement is troublesome because it is what the agri-business relies upon to market its products. I worked on a small family run dairy farm in Norway one summer and while I realize that dairy products are often produced in horrific conditions, every time I drink milk I think back to my summer in Norway.


      2. Yes, Stuart, that is one of the problems in veganism – people trying to maintain the “look and feel” of foods they are familiar with. I prefer “plant-based, whole-foods” diet – one that focuses on foods as they are when they are harvested. As soon as we start “processing” foods, we run into trouble…


      3. Stuart, I agree with Katharine regarding the processing of foods and vegans. The U.S. is BIG on food processing and I think we’d be wise to eschew processed foods for many reasons. My vegan friends do not rely on processed foods, nor supplements, in their diets. Are you aware of recent studies showing that milk is not the “perfect” food we once thought it to be? This is but one of the many links available on the subject: http://www.nutritionmd.org/nutrition_tips/nutrition_tips_understand_foods/dairy.html


        1. Thanks. I have been meaning to write about the history of vegetarianism and this is motivating me to get going with that!


    2. I am a vegan and live in Spain and, although I do buy vegetable drinks for my morning coffee, I rely very, very little on processed food. As for B-12 debate, I suppose you know that, if you eat meat, you are taking it also from artificial sources, indirectly, though, since it is in the food that they give to the animals that are later eaten. I have not personally discovered any B-12 deficiency, but if I did, I would see no problem in taking the occasional supplement. Moreover, I read somewhere that, after 50, everyone – meat eater or otherwise – should take occasionally B-12 supplements. i wonder whether it has something to do with problems in absorption after a certain age?


      1. Regarding absorption: my impression is that not enough research has been done on a variety of issues related to B-12 but that in general as you get older digestion gets less efficient and hence there is a preference for sublingual drops for B-12 in particular. I intend to do a post on diet and spirituality (perhaps in March) and try and explain myself better than I did in my comment to Esther’s post.


  6. There’s a recent book out by Carol J. Adams and Lori Gruen, titled: “Ecofeminism: Feminist Intersections with Other Animals and the Earth.” When I first read that title it opened my mind suddenly because it talks about us and “other animals.” We and them, no difference, we’re all animals.


  7. Thank you, Esther, for pointing out connections that many would prefer to ignore. I am vegan and I believe that it’s possible to live a healthy life without consuming animal products. We vegans have to obtain B-12 from supplements because it exists in what we refer to as “dirt,” which animals ingest (making it available in animals who are eaten), but which we remove from the vegetables we eat, in our efforts to eat “clean” food. “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer should be required reading for everyone. We are all connected, and while eating animals may have been necessary at some points in history, there is no need to continue this destructive and inhumane practice any more. It is bad for the animals, for us, and for the earth.


    1. Thank you, Katharine. Excellent comment. My local organic market will sometimes give as “samples” whole carrots that have just come in from the farm. They still have remnants of the soil on them. Those of us who partake of these samples know how rich in minerals (especially) this soil is and we gratefully ingest our delicacies. And I certainly agree with you that meat-eating is passé.


  8. Thank you, Esther, for bringing attention to these important, ethical, and spiritual connections. As a feminist and a vegan I truly admire and support your convictions and work. Thank you for this wonderful post.


  9. Great post, Esther! I’m glad that feminists are addressing this issue. When I was at seminary I wrote a paper on animal testing for my medical and health care ethics class, and I read some of Carol Adams’ work and found the link between animal abuse and the abuse of women fascinating and horrifying. Thanks for all the great comments, too, everyone!


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