Tag Archives: Maneesha Deckha

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.

IFLS Book Club [4] Maneesha Deckha (UVic) on Mrs. Dred Scott

Find all the other IFLS book club commentary on Mrs. Dred Scott here.

Find the next book club book here.

Maneesha Deckha from UVic sends us her thoughts.  Maneesha’s also going to be featured on the blog in the next week or so, since she was tagged by Daphne Gilbert in Daphne’s profile, so here is a link to Maneesha’s UVic page for now. Maneesha’s take on the book is different from mine – and made me realise how sometimes reading critically can mean you miss as much as you gain.  I lost so many of the moments Maneesha describes in my reading, because I was looking for something that wasn’t there. A good lesson.

I am so pleased that Sonia picked this book. I hadn’t heard about it until it was announced as June’s official selection and it would have been exceedingly unlikely that I would have picked it up on my own as historical works never top my list of books to read, either academic or fiction.

Lea VanderVelde has converted me with Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery’s Frontier. I learned so much from this meticulously researched and wonderfully narrated account of Harriet Scott’s life leading up to the infamous case.

There are many things to appreciate in the work, not the least of which is VanderVelde’s painstaking assembly of disparate historical records involving a vast cast of characters.  VanderVelde communicates these details in a narrative form that is truly fascinating and fluid.

I felt as if I was reading a historical novel, especially when VanderVelde described the domestic routines and social lives both when Harriett is living in the Taliaferro household on the frontier and when she is taken to St. Louis and hired out to a socially popular young couple. But I felt that it should not be so entertaining to read. I found that I was having flashbacks that I didn’t want to have – to reading the Little House on the Prairie series as a child during the descriptions of life on the frontier and to watching Gone with the Wind as a teenager during the descriptions of the military/society life that Harriett and her family were exposed to as slaves to well-connected families.

I soon found myself wondering: Where were the accounts of brutality and hardship? VanderVelde, of course, does not seek to underestimate the injustices of slavery or of the implications of the colonial encounter for Native Americans.  Indeed, the chapter on the making of the 1837 treaty between the government and the Ojibwa leaves no doubt for the reader as to the unfairness of the terms and the exploitative manipulation of the Ojibwa by the American Fur Company in pursuit of their capitalist interests. It is not really until the middle of the book, however, when she is describing the entrenched racial lines in St. Louis and the practices of the slave-traders there, that VanderVelde permits a similar contemplation of the injustices the Scotts would now suffer on a daily and system basis.

A reason for this might be VanderVelde’s observations that, comparatively, the life Harriett led, even as a slave on the frontier, but within the prominent household of government Indian agent Taliaferro, was certainly more sheltered than that which blacks endured below the frontier and in the South.  It was also less harsh than the life experienced by Native Americans and other individuals, though free, who were not housed in government or military compounds and had to find ways of surviving on their own in the merciless frontier winters where outside provisions were scarce. VanderVelde makes numerous references to how many times tribe members came to the residence for food and how it must have been Harriett who gave it to them.

Another reason for the implicit but understated account of the everday suffering and injustices of having one’s life, labour and body appropriated by others is precisely their quotidian and ever-present nature. It might be too difficult otherwise to dispatch the details VanderVelde needs to to fully outline the swirling social and political circumstances informing Harriett’s day-to-day life and life trajectory.

From this point on, the book focused on Harriett’s life and the litigation she and her husband pursued. In this portion, VanderVelde retains the incredibly close attention to detail by explaining as much as possible how the litigation must have unfolded, the likely motives for all parties involved, and the legal obstacles and personal hardship Harriett and her family must have encountered on a daily basis because of the momentous decision to sue for their freedom.

With each turn and twist of the grinding lawsuit, and surrounding political agitations against free blacks, I wondered how much more could Harriett and Dred endure as freedom litigants? What must it have been like to move between prisons and alleyways, subsisting in awful conditions, amid pestilence, poverty and the continual threat of violence and apprehension, while trying to raise two daughters?

VanderVelde does an impressive job of imagining, where the absence of written records does not fill in the gaps, what Harriett’s responses were to the drawn out legal process and the uncertain legal status of her and her family. Yet, I found myself wishing for revelations of Harriett’s own thoughts and reflections.

I liked that VanderVelde made use of what little of these she had recorded evidence of to introduce and close the book. For me, it left Harriet’s imprint on the book, that and the very last 4-line paragraph stating that Harriett died in the same alleyway housing she lived in during the trial – “less than five blocks from the courthouse” where she had first filed suit. It is characteristic of VanderVelde’s crisp and efficient style throughout for her to give us the details of Harriett’s death in a few words after 324 pages of closely unraveling the details of her life, but to fill them with poignancy.

And the very last line that follows is similarly moving, reminding the reader what VanderVelde stated at the onset: “It is amazing what can happen when an individual comports herself as if she is indeed entitled to justice and holds fast to the possibility.” Indeed, it is. For this inspiration alone, not to mention the academic edification and historical immersion that comes from this ambitious tome, Mrs. Dred Scott was so satisfying to read.