What Violence Is Acceptable to You?

Women engaged in peaceful animal rights advocacy in India were attacked in September by a mob of angry men outraged by their presence on a public street. The Western press’s reaction has been typical. The Washington Times decried the “Muslim mob” that descended on the women, failing to note that the women were themselves apparently Muslim. Another conservative journal was more explicit in its discriminatory bias: “These Liberals Might Stop Saying Islam Is Peaceful After What Just Happened To Them.” Of course neither press account noted the mass violence against women that occurs in the United States, a predominantly Christian country, with nearly one in five women experiencing sexual assault.

Growing up in India, I learned from an early age that the streets were not safe for women. A strange older man exposed himself to me at age 9, leaving me confused and stunned and grateful to have escaped what I later understood to be an attempted kidnapping. So-called “Eve teasing” – terrifying and continuous sexual harassment – is still common on the streets. Indeed, my father left the country when I was 12 because, with three daughters, he did not believe he could raise his family in safety.

I was therefore saddened when I heard about the recent attacks. A group of women, led by a Muslim in a hajib, set out to peacefully suggest vegan alternatives to the mass slaughter of goats that marks the end of Ramadan, the Eid al-Fitr. But their peaceful outreach was met with a violent reaction by a swell of angry men, who hurled stones and tore at the clothes of the women, leaving one hospitalized with severe facial injuries. Yet, while it’s easy to condemn the “barbarism” of a foreign nation, we should also look at the substance of what these women had to say before we act on that impulse. The women’s demonstration, after all, opposed the slaughter of animals, sensitive creatures with complex social, psychological and emotional lives no different from those of the dogs and cats we love in our homes. But the US kills the largest number of animals in the world, with nearly 10 billion land animals killed every year for food alone. And while we do not generally assault women for engaging in peaceful vegan outreach, most Americans ignore advocates’ entreaties for animals who are even more brutally violated than the goats in India—all while patting ourselves on the back for being a more civilized nation.

As an organizer for Direct Action Everywhere’s “It’s not Food, It’s Violence” campaign, which seeks to make visible the massive violence in animal agriculture, I have been inspired by the support we have received from activists across the world. But, while global movements to stop violence continue to grow, the receptiveness to these movements too often replicates discriminatory ways of thinking. Americans are horrified that dogs are slaughtered en masse for food in China, but do not flinch at the thought of doing the same to chickens here at home. We are outraged by the extinction of orangutans in Indonesia, but fail to even acknowledge the equally profound suffering of a mother “dairy” cow whose bellowing calf is taken from her and killed. And we condemn a “Muslim mob” for assaulting women, while routinely ignoring violence against women and other oppressed groups – including animals – that happens in our own communities.

The truth, however, is that the mentalities of the angry mob in India this week and the average American consumer unthinkingly eating a burger or drinking a glass of milk are one and the same. In both cases, empathy has been suppressed and violence has been normalized. The victims, our society tells us, positively deserve their abuse. In the case of the brave activists in India, in addition to their physical trauma, they now face legal charges for “outraging religious feelings.” In the case of a chicken in the United States, she is simply “meant to be meat”; a mother cow is “meant to give milk” for humans, and her baby is “meant to be veal.”

To truly become a progressive nation, however, we must rise above tradition and what is socially acceptable and see all of these for what they are: unacceptable violence. The story of the women assaulted in India is a cautionary tale about the sexist violence that occurs throughout the world. But it is also a story about the relationship between violence against women, and violence against animals – a story that should lead us to reassess our own violence against animals in the United States.