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Using Ecofeminism to Fight Patriarchy in India

Mesha Sagram
Gender in Indian Society
July 15, 2012
Dr. Indira
Gender equality is a goal many women have been advocating for, particularly in the past
half century. A movement for equal rights between men and women has been expanding at a
very fast pace in India as more women are realizing that they have the power to make a change.
India was ranked 129 out of 146 on the Gender Equality Index in the 2011 Human Development
Report (The Hindu). The movement for gender equality has been fueled by passionate feminists
who fight to achieve equality, dignity, rights, and freedom for women to control their lives and
bodies both within their home and outside. Feminists are aware of patriarchal control,
exploitation, and oppression of women. Women are fighting for equal rights by attempting to
alleviate patriarchy in Indian society. Patriarchy is the rule of the father in a male-dominated
family. It is a social and ideological construct which considers men as superior to women.
Through this hierarchy, men control women‟s production, reproduction and sexuality. The extent
of patriarchy varies between the different societies in India, predominantly among the different
castes (Ray).
There are many forms of feminism which vary in their approach to understand patriarchy.
Some of these approaches include liberal feminism, Marxist feminism, socialist feminism,
radical feminism, and ecofeminism. Ecofeminism is very unique as it accepts that the attitudes
and values of women are different from men. They believe that women possess the qualities of
creativity, sensitivity, and caring. These qualities cannot be developed to the same extent by men
(Ray). Ecofeminists see connections between the domination of nature and the exploitation of
women as a dualistic structure. Women and Earth also share certain characteristics and are both
exploited by men in similar fashions (Lorentzen and Eaton). For example, according to
ecofeminism, women and nature are both producers of life and they both are exploited by men.
Men are viewed as destroyers of life. In order to end patriarchy, ecofeminists believe a paradigm
shift is needed in terms of male gender roles. Women in India are also more dependent on their
natural environment than men. Also, it has been seen that women also suffer disproportionately
from environmental degradation than men. As mentioned, this degradation is mainly caused by
men. The Chipko movement is an example of ecofeminism where women sacrificed their lives
by clinging to trees to advocate against deforestation. Movements like this are a way to liberation
for nature and women. Through knowledge and unified action, we can put an end to patriarchy.
Nature in Indian cosmology is known as Prakriti in which women in India are an intimate
part of. Nature is symbolized as the embodiment of the feminine principal and is nurtured by the
feminine to produce life and provide sustenance (Shiva 38). Women and men both experience
the same destruction by man; for example, a „virgin‟ forest is awaiting exploitation, as yet
untouched by man. The role of women in the family is close to nature as it is centered on
physical requirements such as eating, sex, cleaning, and the care of children and sick people. In a
way, women are biologically forced to reproduce as men chose when and how much as many
women in India are still being raped by their husbands. They have no place in decision making in
most households since women are told that they are intellectually incapable (Plant).
Both women and nature are passive and are dominated by men. Earth is seen as a female
with two faces: one is the passive, nurturing mother and the other is wild and uncontrollable.
Earth is a giver and supporter of life as well as the image of disorder with storms, droughts, and
other natural disasters. It is for this reason why nature is commonly known as Mother Earth.
Mother Earth used to be seen as alive and sensitive in Indian culture and it was unethical to use
violence against her. For example, when mining, people believed that minerals and metals
ripened in the uterus of Earth; they compared mines to Mother Earth‟s vagina and metallurgy
was an abortion of the metal‟s natural growth cycle. Earth was so respected that rituals were
carried out by miners by offerings to the gods of the soil and the subterranean world, ceremonial
sacrifices, sexual abstinence and fasting. Today men are controlling and dominating of nature
and have complete power over it. It is now common to clear cut forests and build dams in rivers.
Nature is now simply thought of as an unlimited resource where there are scarred hillsides,
uranium mine tailings poisoning river systems, toxic waste, and human junk floating in space.
Men fear that nature is more powerful than human beings and try to control nature and assume
power over all life (Plant).
Attaining gender equality can be accomplished by various means. It is important that
when advocating for gender equality, we are not doing so through the masculinisation of the
female. The emancipation of women, „the second sex‟, should not be modeled after the first. The
liberation of women should not mean the freedom from biology and „battling against the
elements‟ to become masculine. It is thought that our species has been able to survive through
masculine creativity. However, scholars have proved that the survival of mankind has been due
much more to „woman-the-gatherer‟ than to „man-the-hunter‟. In pre-agricultural days, women
provided up to 80 percent of the food whereas men contributed only a small amount. Even
though the gathering of vegetables was more important for our early ancestors than hunting,
man-the-hunter and inventor of tools is thought to be the provider for the family and the model
for human evolution by means of violence and domination. In reality, humanity could not have
survived if man-the-hunter‟s productivity was the basis of survival. Man‟s relationship with
nature is violent through his use of tools towards nature as well as females. This involves using
his tools to destroy life causing destruction instead of production. His tools also gave him power
over all living beings including animals and women. The hunter can only appropriate life and not
produce it causing an imbalance in nature. His productivity depends on dominance over nature
instead of co-operation with nature, resulting in the exploitation of Earth. It is for these reasons
Marcuse states, “Inasmuch as the male principle has been the ruling mental and physical force, a
free society would be the „definite negotiation‟ of this principal – it would be a female society”
(Shiva 51). He also states:
Beneath the social factors which determine male aggressiveness and female receptivity, a
natural contrast exists; it is woman who „embodies‟ in a literal sense, the promise of
peace, of joy, of the end of violence. Tenderness, receptivity, sensuousness have become
features (or mutilated features) of her body – features of her (repressed) humanity. (Shiva
52)
It is for this explanation why humans need a paradigm shift to act in a non-violent, feminine
manner instead of becoming increasingly masculine and violent towards nature as well as
towards other humans.
Another aspect of ecofeminism is that for the most part, world environmental problems
generally disproportionately affect women. And the injustice is that these environmental
problems are predominantly caused by men (Little). One example of environmental exploitation
which significantly affected the lives of women was on December 2
nd
, 1984 when 40 tons of
toxic gas was released from a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India. This disaster
resulted in the death of 3000 people and the suffering of 400,000 others who were exposed. It is
the women who were the most severely affected as well as the most persistent in demanding
justice. Women protesting against the stationing of nuclear missiles stated:
Our “no” to war coincides with our struggle for liberation. Never have we seen so clearly
the connection between nuclear escalation and the culture of musclemen; between the
violence of war and the violence of rape. Such in fact is the historical memory that
women have of war... But it is also our daily experience in “peacetime” and in this
respect women are perpetually at war... It is no coincidence that the gruesome game of
war – in which the greater part of the male sex seems to delight – passes through the
same stages as the traditional sexual relationship: aggression, conquest, possession,
control. Of a woman or a land, it makes little difference. (Mies and Shiva 15)
The forest can also be thought of as a feminine principal. It has been worshipped as
Aranyani, the Goddess of the Forest, who is the primary source of life and fertility. Indian
civilization has formed principals around the diversity, harmony and self-sustaining nature of the
forest. As the primary source of Earth‟s fertility and productivity, the forest is considered to be
closely connected to women. In Indian tribal communities, women gather more than half their
food from forests. Even in non-tribal areas, Shiva states, “forests provide food and livelihood
through critical inputs to agriculture, through soil and water conservation, and through inputs of
fodder and organic fertilizer” (60). Since British colonization, deforestation has become very
common and it has led to the introduction of colonial forestry which can be considered as the
masculinisation of forests. By fighting against deforestation, women can take a step towards a
non-patriarchal society.
A group of women felt very passionately against this and decided to stand up for the trees
by clinging to them at the expense of their lives. This was known as the Chipko movement which
began following the 1972 Stockholm Environment Conference. They would save trees by
hugging them so that they could not be cut down and would chant, “What do the forests bear?
Soil, water, and pure air”. This movement protected trees, spread awareness, and fought violence
through non-violence. Sadly, their efforts were neglected and remained invisible while women
lost their lives while standing up for the Earth and women‟s rights. Fortunately, it has become an
historical landmark and has inspired many women and environmental activists. (Shiva 67)
There are many women around India who are making an effort to put an end to patriarchy
through various means of feminism. It is important to promote gender equality in order to
empower more women to get involved and take a stand against patriarchy. Ecofeminism is one
form of feminism which acknowledges that women and nature share common characteristics and
are both victims of man‟s destruction and violence. It is important to fight against the
exploitation of the Earth which in turn harms life, particularly the lives of women. Protests
against a gas spill or taking a stand against deforestation can go a long way to protect the rights
of women and nature.

Works Cited
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