IFLS Profile: Prof. Maneesha Deckha, UVic, scholar of human/animal relationships & law

As a coherent self-description …. I like the term critical thinker/educator.

Maneesha was “tagged” by Daphne Gilbert in our first profile feature, a semi-regular effort in which we let a colleague answer a few descriptive questions to give us a picture of the person behind the work.   Maneesha’s scholarship is varied, as you can see in this link to what’s showing up on google scholar.  Stem cells, law and literature, sex selection, race, gender, feminist theory are all in there.  But Maneesha is often remembered for the pathbreaking challenges she offers through her work on animal rights and species hierarchies.  For instance, in this article from the Wisconsin Journal of Law, Gender and Society, she argues:

Understanding the ways in which species and ideas about animals and animality figured into …discourses and continue to shape the actual concepts of culture, gender, and race shows the need for intersectionality to actively incorporate species difference in its theoretical and practical purview.

So.  Maneesha….

What’s on your desk?

Not too much because I am not using my office this summer. Right now, “my” desk is at the local café for the first part of the day and the local library for the rest. My laptop takes centre stage in both locations with all the fiction and nonfiction books that I covet at the library scattered around as my reading reward as I make it through my list of tasks for the day.

Fiction book you read in last 12 months that you most want to recommend?

How about in the last term? For that, I would say Kathyrn Stockett’s The Help. It was a compelling story that tackles issues of race, gender and class dynamics around caregiving. It provided hours of pure reading pleasure and lingers now as rich fodder for an intersectional feminist analysis.

[I think we might have to talk more about The Help, since my colleague Kate Sutherland @lawandlit has pointed me to the lawsuit brought against the author by a woman who claims to be the uncredited inspiration for the story – a woman who works for Stockett’s brother see here (NYT) and here (Salon) – a very complicated story]

How do you describe your feminism?

As a commitment to end the exploitation and suffering of all beings, both human and nonhuman, and thus to attend to multiple differences and a range of cultural discourses about them. Feminism has very much been the story of my adult and university life, permeating all aspects of my decision-making and aspirations.

Name the course you took in law school that you think about most now and why.

Feminist Legal Theory with Jenny Nedelsky in my third year at the University of Toronto and a directed reading with Craig Scott on the legal status of animals. [Only] [w]hen I finally took those “outsider” courses that I always wanted to and found most meaningful did I begin to feel part of the law school community and to imagine myself as contributing to it one day in the position I now have. For both these things, I am forever grateful to my teachers.

Qualities you appreciate most in your students?

Sincerity. Honesty. Broad-mindedness. Passion. Compassion.

Qualities you appreciate most in your colleagues?

Insight. Understanding. Openness. Flexibility. Friendship.

Name one Canadian academic whose work inspires you and who could be more widely known/read/loved.

[Queen’sU Sociologist] Myra Hird [link includes access to some of Dr. Hird’s published work]. She brings together critical animal studies, posthumanism, feminism and queer studies in such thoughtful and creative ways.

Maneesha suggests: Myra J. Hird, “Animal Transex” (2006) 21(49) Australian Feminist Studies 35 at 36.

How do you think your professional roles – scholar, lawyer, activist, feminist, teacher –   relate to each other? Do they ever all come together?  Have I left some out? Are there ways in which they don’t fit together very comfortably?

My professional identity is more a mix of scholar, feminist and teacher.  I rarely think of myself as a lawyer in my professional life. I think that has something to do with the few years of articling and public law practice I did before pursuing graduate studies and an academic career. What practice involved in terms of substantive focus stood so apart from my current teaching and research interests. Plus, the day-to-day rhythms are so different. I also have difficulty calling myself an “activist” although I do think I do that type of work in terms of my consultation activities, board memberships, media appearances, and teaching and scholarship. With my work on the treatment of nonhuman animals, I particularly feel this way as so few students and scholars have this issue on their critical thinking radar. Yet, [being an] academic brings with it so many institutional privileges compared to community work that I feel I would be eliding these differentials in using the term for myself.  As a coherent self-description of what it is I have devoted my professional being to, I like the term critical thinker/educator.

Because your work focuses on an area which is still not thought of as a core “equality”  or “feminist” issue, you are always pushing boundaries.

The momentum in academic circles to question human treatment of animals and explore human-animal relationships critically is very exciting since critical animal studies is growing by leaps and bounds in many disciplines. A lot of this work is by feminists, yet thinking beyond the human subject is still not a staple tenet in most feminist theoretical orientations including within feminist analyses of law. Creating a scholarly feminist peer network in this area is definitely a challenge. But even where I have been the lone voice at a feminist conference I have always found my colleagues willing to listen. In terms of encouraging my work when I first started as a junior scholar, I am so thankful for the amazing scholarship and support I received from Marie Fox at Keele University, who also works on animals through a feminist and otherwise critical legal framework. I am also grateful to my many feminist colleagues in my faculty who have also been so supportive of my work in this area.

Are there other struggles that you look to for inspiration and a vision of how things might change?

Actually, my interest in critically thinking about human-animal relations sprung from feminist and postcolonial courses I took as an undergraduate at McGill. Much of the course content focused on deconstructing naturalized social constructions including long-standing hierarchical binaries.

For me, it seemed “natural” to extend this critique to the human/nonhuman binary and critically examine our cultural discourses and practices in relation to animals, especially given the interconnectedness of gendering, racializing and dehumanizing/animalizing processes that affect humans and animals alike.

Where do you see the greatest possibilities? What kind of time frames do you use when you’re thinking about how the ground might shift in the area of “animal rights”?

I do see growing cultural awareness that the animal-based industrial food system is unsustainable environmentally as well as awful for the animals involved. While all exploitation of animals is a justice and fairness issue to me, the sheer numbers of animals that are made to endure the horrors in factory farming make animal consumption industries a prime venue for change. Despite more awareness of food production issues and politics, without widespread political and social support to change or abolish practices, it seems very unlikely a major legal shift in animals’ legal status will occur.

One of the points of critical animal studies and, indeed, many feminists writing in the area, is that so many of our identities – species, gender, cultural national – are invested in our relations/practices toward animals.

Consider the associations between “meat”-eating and dominant heteronormative masculinity – which has been canvassed so well in Carol Adams work [author of The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory]. These are identity investments that are not easily shed. There are notable legal rumblings here and there in other jurisdictions, but nothing really in Canada. For real legal change, i.e., the declassification of all animals as property, a seismic cultural shift will have to happen first and this, unfortunately, still seems a long way off.

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