ByÂ Tanima Tandon:
When we look at the various environmental movements in India, who do we think of? Right from Gaura Devi of Garhwal to Medha Patkar of the Narmada Bachao Andolan ‘fame’. Other notable names are those of Dr. Vandana Shiva, Maneka Gandhi and Sunita Narain. There are, of course, names of male activists such as MC Mehta, Chandi Prasad Bhatt and Sunderlal Bahuguna. But, somewhere, the question that lingers in the back of my mind is whether the relationship shared by women with their environment is different from that of the men and the environment. This is the question that shall be focussed on in this piece.
Let us first understand the concepts involved here. Ecofeminism, as a term, was coined by the French writer Francoise d’Eaubonne in 1974. It connects the exploitation and domination of women with that of the environment, and argues that there is a connection between women and nature that comes from their shared history of oppression. In the ecofeminist argument, therefore, the connection between the domination of women and that of nature is basically seen as ideological, rooted in a system of ideas and representations, values and beliefs, that places women and the nonhuman world hierarchically below men. This is further substantiated by the view that women are ideologically constructed as closer to nature because of their biology. Movements all over the world that are dedicated to the continuation of life on earth, like the Chipko movement in India, Anti-Militarist movement in Europe and the US, movement against dumping of hazardous wastes in the US, and Green Belt movement in Kenya, are all labelled as “ecofeminist” movements. But Feminist and social ecologist Janet Biehl has criticized ecofeminism for focusing too much on the mystical connection between women and nature and not enough on the actual conditions of women. Further criticism has been vociferously voiced by Dr. Bina Agarwal. She calls the concept of ecofeminism — “ethnocentric, essentialist, blind to class, ethnicity and other differentiating cleavages, ahistorical and neglects the material sphere.”
Then what is the solution and justification for describing this connection that is shared between women and the environment without making it insulting and degrading for the female activists? A viable alternative is presented by Bina Agarwal’s ‘feminist environmentalism’. The perspective is rooted in material reality and sees the relation between women and nature as structured by gender and class (caste/race) organization of production, reproduction and distribution. The women’s relation to the environment is socially and historically variable. Women, particularly in poor rural households, are both victims of environmental degradation as well as active agents in movements for the protection and regeneration of the environment. They act in both positive and negative ways with the environment. The unquestioning acceptance of woman-nature link and the idea that, since women are most severely affected by environmental degradation, they have “naturally” positive attitudes towards environmental conservation is, therefore, unacceptable.
The debate of this nomenclature of ecofeminism and feminist environmentalism is a focal point in the debate over gender and environment. It is not contended that the women share a special connection with the environment. The point of contention is essentially that of the nomenclature. Some may brush this aside by stating that it is irrelevant as to whether you call a soap a soap or a doll as long as it cleans. However, it is important as to what nomenclature is accorded to this relationship because it is an implicit reflection on the perception of women in the society.
Now that we know what both concepts stand for, it is up to us, the youth, to decide what course of action we want to pursue. I, for one, believe, that as a society, the least we owe to the women of our country is to not disgrace them by terming them ecofeminists which is in itself a demeaning status. As feminist environmentalists, their confidence shall be boosted since their relationship with the environment will be recognised and be viewed as a positive contribution to the society. This will inevitably lead to better integration of the women within society and through a seemingly harmless concession over nomenclature, pave the way for much greater achievements such as social integration. But, it remains to be seen whether we want to go with the concept of ecofeminism and treat women as inferior to men and assign a subservient status in society or to change our perspective and view them as equal, if not superior, contributors at least in the field of sustainable environmental development.