In South Asia, where women are often subjected to a lot of pressure, climate change is also an urgent problem.

Pakistan’s recent and devastating floods showed that women are especially impacted by the effects of the climate emergency. This emergency is paradoxically being felt both in the form of water scarcity and in extreme weather events such as floods. Yet, despite their vulnerability, women are often excluded from talk of solutions.

In 2022, ecologist Emily Beasley gave a presentation to a Pakistani charity, of which I am a trustee. Her research highlighted that 80 percent of people uprooted by climate change are women, in part because of a lack of education and personal autonomy. Among Internally Displaced People and climate refugees, women bear the heaviest burden of unpaid labour and care work. Environmental degradation contributes to upticks in zoonotic diseases, school exclusions and incidences of domestic violence, further exacerbating the problems women shoulder.

Despite — or because of — this, ecofeminism has become a potent force. The movement wants women to engage with environmental concerns and be empowered by the pivotal role they can play in fighting climate change.

The term ‘ecofeminism’ was coined in the 1970s by French philosophers seeking to draw links between the oppression of women and the exploitation of the natural world. The fundamental idea of ecofeminism is that these forms of oppression are intertwined. They cannot be fully understood or addressed in isolation.

Ecofeminists argue that patriarchy, capitalism and other power systems have historically treated women and nature as resources to be ravaged. This extractivism must be resisted to create a more just and sustainable world.

We should re-evaluate our perceptions of embodiment. One way is through what new materialist Stacy Alaimo calls “transcorporeality”. This term describes the link between human bodies and the natural world. It urges a rethinking of the notion of the body as an inert, solitary entity.

Instead, we should see bodies as potent and relational, constantly shaping and being shaped by their environments. Incorporating and subverting the maternal body as a metaphor in storytelling is one tactic for creative writers to adopt.

Ecofeminism’s critics rightly argued that it was initially too focused on the experiences of privileged Western women. Early on, the movement failed to adequately address issues of race, class and global inequality.

It was, therefore, pushed to become more intersectional by thinkers such as Vandana Shiva. The Indian scholar-activist saw a straight line between the domination of women, non-white people and nature. Shiva’s pioneering research on India’s experience of the Green Revolution unveiled how industrialised agriculture was deleterious for women, ethnic minorities and the environment.

Arundhati Roy exposed India’s enthusiasm for dam projects and the resulting expulsion of vulnerable populations. Roy’s essay collection The Greater Common Good explores the harmful impact of big dams, despite Jawaharlal Nehru having hailed them as the “temples of modern India.”

Roy visited the site of the Sardar Sarovar Dam project and spoke with people in the Narmada Valley unhoused by the dam’s construction. She trenchantly criticises the project, zeroing in on its widespread and profound suffering. Nor have local people, who are disproportionately Dalits or Adivasis, profited from any benefits.

Throughout the book, Roy displays fierce opposition to dam projects and reinforces her commitment to standing in solidarity with the rural and dispossessed.

Recently, Pakistani thinkers such as Shazia Rahman and Saba Pirzadeh have applied eco(feminist) theories to Subcontinental literature. Using Alaimo’s framework of transcorporeality, Rahman and Pirzadeh bring ecology to bear on contemporary texts in South Asia.

In Place and Postcolonial Ecofeminism: Pakistani Women’s Literary and Cinematic Fictions, Rahman examines the work of Pakistani women artists, even when their fiction and films seem to have little to do with ecofeminism. She reads against the grain of key texts, which include Sabiha Sumar’s film Khamosh Pani [Silent Waters] and Sorayya Khan’s novel Noor.

Rahman pays close attention to their portrayals of industry’s destruction of nature, food and water. In so doing, she reveals the interconnectedness of violence against women and the environment. She covers regions that overspill boundaries, such as Punjab, the Thar Desert and Bengal. Rahman’s work makes a significant contribution to border theory, highlighting the overlapping effects of bonded labour, caste hierarchies and food insecurity in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, in a series of articles that transcend frontiers of nation and gender, Saba Pirzadeh offers a fresh perspective on the imbrication of fiction, man-made climate change and the othering of minorities.

In one article, about Nigerian writer Helon Habila’s Oil on Water, Pirzadeh examines how this novel limns the exploitation of the Niger Delta by the petro-industry. The destructive consequences of this pillaging are evident on both bodies of water and human bodies. Pirzadeh argues that Habila establishes a counter-current in the agency of water and its resistance to ecological plunder.

In another essay, Pirzadeh examines how Mirza Waheed and Nadeem Aslam show war discourse portraying the people and terrain of enemy countries as other so as to justify indiscriminate violence. She situates this within the concept of environmental othering. War strategies turn landscapes into militarised zones, erasing their ecological complexity and turning them into sites of containment.

Women must have a seat at the table for conversations and decision-making about climate change. Organisations such as the Aurat Foundation prioritise women’s rights and wellbeing. They also campaign for female participation in civil society, including environmental activism.

The battle against climate change in South Asia is uphill, but can perhaps be successful. As ecofeminism recognises women’s vital role in this struggle, it is a sharp tool for carving out sustainability. Listening to the voices of ecofeminists might just ensure a brighter, greener future for South Asia — and for the world.

The columnist is Professor of Global Literature at the University of York and author of three books

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 19th, 2023

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