Eco-criticism is a theory that examines the relationship between the physical environment and literature. It has four sub categories: Ecofeminism, Deep Ecology, Social Ecology and Eco-psychology.
This paper will attempt to analyze a piece of South Asian Fiction with respect to Eco-feminism.
The tem ecofeminism was first coined in 1975 by Rosemary Reuther. In putting the movement with its contemporary content, Val Plumwood asserts:
Ecological feminism is essentially a response to a set of key problems thrown up by the 2 great currents of the later part of the last century-feminism and the environmental movement. It is a combination of the movements of Deep Ecology and Feminism. There are different types of Eco-feminism but the central concern of all the variations is to link the oppression of women with that of nature.
Eco-feminists feel men dominate women and humans dominate nature. Consequently there is formed a link between women and nature. Eco-feminists seek to prevent this oppression. Eco-feminists feel that environmental efforts are essential to overcome the oppression of women. Eco-feminists do not want to attain equality with men for women. Rather they believe in achieving a liberation that can come through acknowledgement of women in the domestic arena such as women practices of child birth and nurturing.
Eco feminism says the oppression of women and nature arose out of patriarchy. The male qualities of reason, rationality and analysis are prioritized by the patriarchal system over the female qualities of intuition, emotion and compassion.
Eco feminism critiques the separation of nature and culture. According to them the feminist qualities of cooperation and nurturing are supportive of creating an environmentally aware society. It does not view men as being an enemy to nature and women, rather it fights for a common ground for both sexes. It says the male/female traits are innate in all humans. However, the female traits are imposed by patriarchy. Eco-feminism equates women and nature in that both are marginalized by patriarchy.
To understand fully the concept of Eco-feminism it is imperative to trace its origins in history.
Equating men with culture and women with nature is an ancient concept. Woman’s role as a child bearer identifies women with nature. Men on the other hand did work that was more prestigious and energy consuming. Hence, is formed a connection between man and culture and woman and nature.
The earth from which plants emerge is linked to the bodies of women from which babies were born. Women and nature were seen as objects dominated by men rather than as resources.
Plum wood in her master model shows how nature, women and other marginalized groups have been influenced by the workings of the characteristics’ of dualism: back-grounding where the usefulness of the other to the master is denied and instrumentalism where the other serves the master with little or no recognition.
The paper will now apply the theory of Eco-feminism onto ‘Noor’, a South Asian fictive text written by Soraya Khan, a Bangladeshi author living in Ithaca, New York.
Published in 2003, it is set in the background of the 1971 Bhola cyclone and civil war that led to the separation of East and West Pakistan and resulted in the formation of a separate state of Bangladesh.
The female characters of Noor, Sajida and Nanijaan are placed at the center of the novel. The paper will examine and explore how women and nature are exploited by a male dominated society.
Sajida knew the “exact moment Noor was conceived.” ‘Noor was Sajida’s secret’. The lines point to the relationship Sajida shares with nature. Sajida shares a secret with nature, a secret that is a source of power for her. It gives her solace and comfort that she s unable to find in the world of men dominated by reason and logic. Such a world has no space for irrationalities such as Noor. It can only be understood by the world of women, the world of nature. Being a woman the qualities of intuition, spirituality and compassion are innate to her. She becomes one with nature as she feels the presence of Noor in her womb. Although she knew the exact moment of Noor’s birth yet she did not know what Noor had in store for her. Noor was borne with a deformity-down syndrome. Her features were as Sajida puts it “otherworldly.”Once again the greatness and complexity of nature is exposed in its manipulation of a variety of features within a single mould. “Her colour was richly dark, her flat nose was bridged by oddly slanted eyes, and her perfectly sculpted, miniature ears appeared as if they’ve been meant for a far younger child. The girl’s white teeth seemed too big for her mouth, yet the crowded rectangle fit one another in an impeccable row of white.” The human imagination ad mind has its limitations too. It cannot know nature in its entirety because nature is omnipotent and omniscient.
Sajida, five or six, was stranded in the streets of Dhaka after her family had been enveloped in the arms of the cyclone. Battered and scared she is rescued by Ali, a youn West Pakistani soldier, who adopts her and calls her his ‘beti.’ Ali in an attempt to reconcile with the guilt of the crimes he committed in war, takes Sajida as an excuse to atone for his sins. Even Nanijaan, Ali’s mother, is not allowed to question why or how regarding Sajida. Ali’s male chauvinism points to a patriarchal setup. Nanijaan is to have no queries and is simply supposed to accept Ali’s verdict. Nanijaan is treated as an inferior or sub ordinate. She warns Ali against war: ‘War is an animal gone mad’, but Ali pays no heed to a woman’s words. Nanijaan is a woman. What would a woman know of war? Ali has tightly packed away the memories of war in a corked bottle. Khan rightly analyzes Nanijaan’s desire to stay close to her son and Ali’s love for freedom makes a soldier out of him. Ali wants to escape all responsibilities such as marriage, children, etc. Ali committed heinous crimes during war. He killed, raped and abused. In an effort to erase all memories of the past he builds a huge mansion with a ‘senseless architecture’ fortified by rooms on all sides and a courtyard in the center. The house has its back on the Margalla hills and is in the remote sector of Islamabad. It is symbolic of a patriarchal setup as nature is not allowed to enter it. However, nanijaan and sajida find their way into nature as they sit on the rooftop of Ali’s mansion.
As Sajida matures she is wedded to Hussein, a budding businessman. She has two sons and a daughter, Noor. She lived a comfortable and happy life till the time came for Noor’s birth. Sajida and Hussein had a strained relationship because of the presence of Noor.
Hussein representative of patriarchy is unable to accept the fact that he could have been responsible for the birth of an abnormality such as Noor. He cannot ruin the future of his boys because of Noor. He is a typical patriarch who cannot understand Noor’s deformity. His decisions are based around reason and logic. He separates himself from his wife, leaving her to face the difficult times. Sajida on the other hand takes decisions from her heart.
Sajida is heart broken but she cannot bear to isolate herself from Noor. This shows the resilience and patience with which Sajida acts in the face of oppression by Hussein.
Nanijaan too faces the brunt of male domination in her relationship with her husband. He beats her regularly while throwing a string of abusive language at her. He calls her a nagging and demanding woman. Nanijaan quietly puts up with him. Nanijaan is blamed by Ali for his death again, another example of male dominance and female strength. However, the power of silence and gaze shows how a woman’s silence is pitted against male verbosity. Words can cause only harm but silence can kill. Nanijaan having herself experienced a traumatic married relationship can empathize with Sajida. She takes a stand for Sajida, cursing Hussein for parting his way and asking him to reunite with Sajida.
Noor is a gifted child. She can paint very well. In her paintings she can bring back the past to Sajida and Ali. She paints a fish boat, a fishing net and oil barrels bringing back memories of the war and the cyclone . Both Ali and Sajida are able to reconcile their past through Noor.
Sajida shared a one to one relationship with nature. Soiled in the mud and rain left by the “wall of water”,the cyclone, Sajida is able to have a one to one experience with nature. Whilst Hussein is symbolic of culture as represented by the stiff Italian shoe that shows refinement and civilization, Sajida knew nothing but the law and language of love. The male qualities of reason and rationale are contrasted with the female qualities of spirituality and divinity.
The relationship of nature with patriarchy and women will be analyzed. The stiff italian shoes, worn by Hussein are symbolic of patriarchy. They represent culture. The foot is entrapped in culture and cannot reach out to the earth.
Sajida on the other hand has been in a one to one relationship with nature. She has been through the cyclone full of mud, slime, rain and thunder. She is unlike the cocooned, shelled, suited booted Hussein.Hussein is as refined as the culture. He is alienated from nature. His avaricious nature does not allow us to admire the wilderness and beauty of nature around us.
Sajida views Noor with positivity whilst Hussein views her with negativity. Sajida is able to find a remedy for the screaming Noor who is pacified by the sound of the running water. Once again a link is formed between women, wilderness and nature. Noor a specimen of wild nature is soothed by water (nature) and Sajida’s voice (woman)
It is Noor who is successful in reuniting her parents at the end. It is only when she is able to paint an exact replica of Hussein’s Italian shoe that Hussein accepts her extra ordinary gift. Noor yearns for her father’s love. She sees him kissing her brothers but shows no sign of jealousy. Rather she waits patiently for her turn.
The focus shifts to the environment of the ‘cramped row house’ includes a little patio. A small outlet for Sajida to vent out her thoughts is the patio-an urbanized form of nature, a tame and tidied nature. Sajida tries to breathe in fresh air, provided by the patio to escape the suffocation she is feeling in her room, Hussein’s room. She needs to exit the space to be able to recollect her dreams. The room signifies the space inhabited by patriarchy. She needed to pull back the ‘heavy curtains’ that are hiding nature and hence symbolizing patriarchy. It’s almost as if the physical gesture of expressing the hidden is like removing the blur in the vision of her past.
Val Plumwood equates nature and women. Both share the characteristics of being a mother a nurturing force. The young child from Sajida’s past is innocent and her high pitched shriek for ‘Ammi’ is a manifestation of how she needs her mother for remaining alive in this world. How Sajida is a form of impure nature, turns to her mother for fostering a link between nature (Noor) and her own quest for the self. Both women and nature undergo the trial of giving birth. They and only they are capable of understanding the sensation, the experience and the emotion. But there are differences amongst women, a phenomenon called hypatia, as the nurse calls her weak and unsuited for the birth of a son. Sajida hides the existence of the unborn child from Hussein because she is afraid that Hussein might be angered at her unique experience. Language is a social construct that the males take for granted. As the sons repeated ‘Ammi’ it became meaningless. Language for the sons was a power, a priveledge granted to them by social hierarchy. In this hierary females and nature were at the very bottom, equivalent to being voiceless and signifying silence. They lacked the means to communicate, but Noor had her own language: a language that had its own urgency, its own intensity and I quote ” But the Ammi that grew from the stange girl was different. It had an urgency all its own, absent in the wails of her young son, who took the word for granted, blending the two syllables into expectation, repeating it again and again until it was merely a sound.” Noor is a woman who wants to break free from the “dictatorship of patriarchal speech.”
To conclude, Eco feminism is significantly weaved into the narrative of Noor. The female characters are at the center of the novel and the relationship of women with nature with patriarchy is analyzed in detail.
“He says that woman speaks with nature. That she hears voices from under the earth. That wind blows in her ears and trees whisper to her. That the dead sing through her mouth and the cries of infants are clear to her. But for him this dialogue is over. He says he is not part of this world, that he was set on this world as a stranger. He sets himself apart from woman and nature.
And so it is Goldilocks who goes to the home of the three bears, Little Red Riding Hood who converses with the wolf, Dorothy who befriends a lion, Snow White who talks to the birds, Cinderella with mice as her allies, the Mermaid who is half fish, Thumbelina courted by a mole. (And when we hear in the Navaho chant of the mountain that a grown man sits and smokes with bears and follows directions given to him by squirrels, we are surprised. We had thought only little girls spoke with animals.)
We are the bird’s eggs. Bird’s eggs, flowers, butterflies, rabbits, cows, sheep; we are caterpillars; we are leaves of ivy and sprigs of wallflower. We are women. We rise from the wave. We are gazelle and doe, elephant and whale, lilies and roses and peach, we are air, we are flame, we are oyster and pearl, we are girls. We are woman and nature. And he says he cannot hear us speak.