Chanida Chitbundid — Sexuate Knowledge in Environmental Justice Movement: A Case Study from Thailand 

Social movement scholarship (Sms) downplays grassroots women’s knowledge due to the reference toneuter subjects in neo-liberal politics. In order to highlight Global South women’s knowledge, this paper aims to answer the question: What knowledge has been produced by village women who fight against the state? I engage with the concept of “sexuate difference” of Irigaray to elaborate on how village women create sexuate knowledge in the environmental justice movement by using a case study of Thailand. I argue that the Thai grassroots women who fight for their community resort to specific sexuate knowledge in their commitment to the state resistance movement, which is different from their male partners. However, these different forms of knowledge complement each other, which results in redefining a politics based on mutual respect for sexuate difference.  

In my research, I first critically review the limited knowledge of Social movement scholarship from a postcolonial feminist perspective in terms of  a single subject creation, of universal female subordination and of binary oppositions resulting in the considerable gap in scholarship regardinggrassroots women’s knowledge. I engaged with Irigaray’s concept of sexuate difference, sexuate rights and democracy to approach the grassroots women’s knowledge from the case study of Thai environmental justice movement.    

Then my preliminary fieldwork of research project focuses on a case study of local people led by women leaders who have been fighting to protect their communities from a coal-fired power plant project in the western part of Thailand for ten years, and who continue to protect their community from other development projects. Resorting to Irigaray’s concept of sexuate difference, I inquire aboutwhat sexuate knowledge has been produced by grassroots women. I also ask: how do these marginalized women redefine the social movement, politics and democracy?   

Irigaray contends that sexuate difference is a key to achieve civil coexistence between other forms of difference (Irigaray, Democracy Begins with Two, p. 13). Therefore, to interpret the history of a social movement, we must reconsider the impact of sexuate difference on social knowledge resulting frommen and women who co-create the movement. Moreover, Irigaray sustains  that the rights of women have to include not only the right to be different from men but  also the right and the duty to be diverse between themselves (Idem, p. 14). Acknowledging village women’s knowledge can pave the way to understand the diversity of knowledge among women in social and women’s movement scholarship. Irigaray argues that “the unfolding of autonomous feminine subjectivity would, in turn, create space for the possibility of recognizing – philosophically, culturally and politically – a non-hierarchal sexuate difference. It enables women to exist as autonomous sexuate subjects, not defined in relation to ‘Man’, and allows them to have access to a socio-political realm of self-defined women” (Roberts, Irigaray and Politics, 2). According to Irigaray (“Speech in the XVIII Congress of the Italian Communist Party”, in Journal Sophia, 61,1, p.103), women need sexuate right to protect their homes and their environment. Creating a truly democratic world requires us to care about an  environment which respects living beings and their own development, a development which happensnot only at an individual level but also at a collective level  (Irigaray, “Dreaming of a Truly Democratic World”, in Sophia, 61,1, pp. 105-15).  

The lack of acknowledgment of sexuate difference in Social movement scholarship results from the dominant perspective regarding equality of civil rights between the two sexes. This ignoresdifference(s) between the sexes causing women’s lack of acknowledgement and knowledge. White Western and middle-class feminists tend towards perceiving women of the “Third World” as victims of development and violence (Mohanty, Under Western Eyes). While there has been a recent attempt to focus on women in scholarship on social movements, this has been done primarily from an essentialist perspective and has created a dichotomy between the sexes (Macgregor, “From Care to Citizenship”). The hierarchy of knowledge between men and women misreads the complimentary of both sexes of grassroots people in questioning the uneven social structure of a neoliberal philosophy in political, economic, and cultural aspects.   

Thailand is the only country among its Southeast Asian neighbours that has never been directly colonized by the West. But its society reproduces traces of “colonization within,” an internal colonization within the state system, which is deeply connected with the domination of the Thai elite and middle-class power. The complicated structured whole in which the competing political interests of the king, the military, bureaucratic aristocrats, civil servants, court, businessmen, and elites play out results in a corrupt political system, driving the country towards a modern capitalist economy. These forces culminate in a state violence against grassroots women as top-down development projects, environmental devastation, and civil rights violations. Furthermore, the  projects aim to support acapitalist economy  based on businessmen and  middle-class  requirements rather than on popularcommunity vital needs. These top-down projects bring about tremendous changes in community lands and lives. To implement these projects, the state seizes community and household lands of local people and forces them to leave their territories. Some sell them to investors to obtain state compensation in the “development by-product business.” As a result, local people become landless, and their community rights are weakened. 

These complicated mechanisms are linked with the global organization underlying development and human rights discourse of the neoliberal economic narratives, generating “Development of Women” discourses and practices that silence grassroots women’s struggles and knowledge. In other words, themodern technology, which has to do with the capitalist system, supports “monosexuate values” and reproduces Western “mono-subjective culture” (see Irigaray, “Equal or Different?” in The Irigaray Reader; and Democracy Begins with Two). All that does not contribute to women’s liberation, butinstead  favours an uneven development, natural resource destruction, and social injustice regardingmarginalized women. Furthermore, the state violence against women involved in grassroots politics is justified as well as the suppression of grassroots women from knowledge projection.  

The case studies of my research prove that grassroots women do not surrender to these circumstances. This phenomenon resonates with the fact that they are  increasing social movements in Thai rural areas, where women fight for different agendas, most of which share various problems originating from state violence. My paper focuses on women’s claims to obtain or recover  community rights in Thailand by resorting to three characteristics of knowledge that grassroots women use in theirmovement: a non-hierarchical movement organization; independent funding and domestic resource mobilization; non-dichotomy in space usages. In fact, these marginalized women create new values for insurgent struggles which can strengthen  social movements based on  people of the ground andinclude both sexes to redefine a truly democracy from below – taking account of both sexes while considering their difference(s) in civil coexistence and way of being in politics.