Intersectional Feminism What it means, how it works, and why you should practice it
07, Mar 2018 | Mansi Mehta
Consider the various aspects of your identity: your job, your marital status, your favourite food or book or colour. More importantly, consider the most basic aspects that identify you: your gender, your sexuality, your caste, your religion, should you choose to embrace one. In this context, it is vital to question which parts of your identity afford you privilege, and which parts of your identity result in your oppression.
For example, in a world that remains heavily patriarchal, a poor, low-caste man may still have the advantage of being a man, while continuing to be oppressed because of his caste and financial status.
The questions to ask are: One, do you think it is possible to separate the various aspects of your identity from each other? Could you dissociate your caste from your gender from your religion from your financial status? According to intersectionality theory, the answer is no. You may have numerous identities, but they do not exist independently of each other; they are, in fact, overlapping, and how they interact/intersect is key to understanding privilege and oppression. These are nebulous terms, but it helps to think about the aspects of your identity that you can ignore, that are generally/widely accepted without question, that give you advantages over others. As Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a legal scholar who coined the term ‘intersectionality’, said to the New Statesman, “At the end of the day, it really is a question of power: who has the power to end the debate? To walk away? To say, “I’m done talking about it, and I can go on with my rhetoric in a ‘business as usual’ kind of response?”” This is what privilege means.
Intersectionality and Black Feminism
Crenshaw first used the term ‘intersectionality’ in a 1989 legal paper titled ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex‘ to explain how the discrimination that Black women in the United States face “do not fit neatly within the legal categories of either ‘racism’ or ‘sexism’—but as a combination of both racism and sexism,” the International Socialist Review says. Crenshaw employs the example of a traffic intersection, writing:
Consider an analogy to traffic in an intersection, coming and going in all four directions. Discrimination, like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction, and it may flow in another. If an accident happens in an intersection, it can be caused by cars traveling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them. Similarly, if a Black woman is harmed because she is in an intersection, her injury could result from sex discrimination or race discrimination. . . . But it is not always easy to reconstruct an accident: Sometimes the skid marks and the injuries simply indicate that they occurred simultaneously, frustrating efforts to determine which driver caused the harm.
Intersectionality as a term may be less than thirty years old, but the concept has been around for much longer, especially within the context of Black feminism. In 1851, Sojourner Truth, a formerly enslaved Black woman who became a women’s rights activist and abolitionist, spoke at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention. Her now-iconic speech, ‘Ain’t I A Woman?‘ raised the issue of intersectionality, because she outlined how she faced discrimination both because she was a woman and because she was African American. In her speech, “she implied that all too often ‘woman’ actually meant ‘white woman,'” MsAfropolitan has noted. Truth said:
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman?
Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.
Other writers and scholars, including Black women like Audre Lorde and bell hooks, have also discussed the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality. “In every generation and in every intellectual sphere and in every political moment, there have been African American women who have articulated the need to think and talk about race through a lens that looks at gender, or think and talk about feminism through a lens that looks at race,” Crenshaw stressed to the New Statesman.
Here’s a quick primer on intersectionality:
The Women’s March through the lens of intersectionality
Today, intersectionality and, by extension, intersectional feminism, are at the forefront of social justice discourse. United States President Donald Trump’s election seemed to have worked as a flashpoint moment in activism, with the anger that simmered during his insurgent campaign coming to a boil as thousands of women across the country and around the world mobilised. In January 2017, and again in January 2018, thousands marched in women’s marches, a collective show of strength. However, several women have pointed out that the marches were not as inclusive as they would have liked. Take first, for example, the Pussy Hat, the pink hat symbolising a vagina. These hats “set the tone for a march that would focus acutely on genitalia at the expense of the transgender community,” Marie Solis has noted in Mic adding, “Signs like ‘Pussy power,’ ‘Viva la Vulva’ and ‘Pussy grabs back’ all sent a clear and oppressive message to trans women, especially: having a vagina is essential to womanhood.” In response to someone placing a pussy hat on famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman’s statue in New York City at this year’s Women’s March, Taylyn Washington-Harmon wrote in Self, “The vagina, especially a pink vagina, should not and cannot serve as a universal symbol of womanhood across racial and gender lines. To put it simply: Not all women have vaginas, not all men have penises, and not all vaginas are pink.”
Another fault line seems to have emerged at the intersection of feminism and the Black Lives Matter movement. S. T. Holloway, who attended the 2017 Los Angeles Women’s March wrote in the Huffington Post,
…in a sea of thousands, at an event billed as a means of advancing the causes affecting all women, the first and last time I heard ‘Black Lives Matter’ chanted was when my two girlfriends and I began the chant. About 40 to 50 others joined in, a comparatively pathetic response to the previous chorus given to the other chants. At that point, I was ready to go home.
Outlining concerns that plague Black and brown women in the United States, she continued,
It is these issues affecting women of color, along with the effects of mass incarceration on our communities, the rate at which our children are disproportionately punished in schools, the lack of access to quality and affordable health care, the threat of destroying families as a result of deportation, the disproportionately high number of black trans women that are murdered, and so on, that are often met by deafening silence by our white sisters.”
Holloway chose not to attend this year.
Where is the #MeToo movement for Dalit women?
Intersectionality is a theory, but it should not just be theoretical. Inclusivity is and must be inherent to practicing intersectionality. ‘White feminism’ has rightfully been criticised for focusing solely on issues plaguing white women, and excluding not just women of color but also women with disabilities, and women who are poor, among others. In India, too, “feminism has tended to represent the interests and concerns of upper-caste women rather than reflect the experiences of Indian women en masse,” Himal opines. This is in spite of the fact that poorer women, lower caste (Dalit) women struggle with their own oppressive systems. With limited or no access to healthcare, education, and other public services, Dalit women are also a “key target of violence”. Studies have shown that “the conviction rate for rapes against Dalit women is under 2% compared to a conviction rate of 25% in rape cases against all women in India,” according to the International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN).
“Dalit women are placed at the very bottom of South Asia’s caste, class and gender hierarchies. They suffer multiple forms of discrimination – as Dalits, as poor, and as women,” notes a document submitted to the UN. Dalits still face systemic and systematic discrimination despite there being a ban on ‘untouchability’. The global #MeToo campaign sparked by widespread allegations of sexual abuse in Hollywood has impacted India as well, prompting conversation about women’s safety in the workplace, especially in Bollywood. However, although movement has given women a voice, it isn’t to the voiceless, but to “women who are already heard,” as women’s rights activist Ruchira Gupta told Reuters. Gupta, who founded Apne Aap Women Worldwide, said the movement does not acknowledge the voices of “prostituted women”. According to Dalit writer Sujatha Gidla, the campaign does not acknowledge Dalit women who are targeted, Reuters reported. According to official data, almost 41,000 crimes against those belonging to lower castes were documented in 2016, with most being rapes and assaults of women. Gidla said that the focus is on crimes against women in urban areas, but, “Dalit women in small towns and villages are routinely assaulted and raped. Where is the #metoo campaign for them?”
Invisiblisation of Women’s work
The focus on upper class, educated women extends beyond considering their concerns; even their work is spotlit more in the mainstream discourse. Meanwhile the work of lower-income and lower class women, in the agricultural sector, in manufacturing and industry, in construction, and in the domestic sector–among many others–is consistently overlooked, as is the work of millions of homemakers across the country, who also often perform double duty as primary caregivers for children and ailing relatives without much assistance. The discrimination is not only evident in the lack of access to healthcare, it is also conspicuous in the minimal opportunities for education and advancement.
Many low income women working as daily wage labourers, in factories, in agriculture and other sectors frequently suffer violence and sexual harassment in the workplace, along with domestic violence. Moreover, many of these women belong to lower castes, and are thus subjected to systemic and systematic discrimination.
Mainstream Indian feminism seems to straddle two extremes, focusing on the concerns of educated, upper class, urban women, and issues such as sex selection and child marriage. It does not always consider the swathes of women whose concerns fall between these two extremes, or those whose concerns overlap with them. It has often failed to address the concerns of economically backward, rural, lower-caste and Adivasi women. This is exactly why intersectionality is vital.
Strengthening the Sisterhood
As blogger A. Lynn described in Nerdy Feminist, “When you enter a feminist space and you are only concerned about sexism, you are missing the full story. It’s like listening to music but only hearing the melody… without the harmony, percussion, and bass line, you aren’t actually hearing the song.”
Intersectionality adds dimensions to a flat perspective of privilege and oppression. As Black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde wrote in ‘There Is No Hierarchy of Oppressions’, “Within the lesbian community I am Black, and within the Black community I am a lesbian. Any attack against Black people is a lesbian and gay issue, because I and thousands of other Black women are part of the lesbian community. Any attack against lesbians and gays is a Black issue, because thousands of lesbians and gay men are Black. There is no hierarchy of oppression.” She emphasised that she “cannot afford the luxury of fighting one form of oppression only.”
Intersectionality, and intersectional feminism, acknowledge that different identities that women have, can afford them different levels of privilege or lack thereof. However, intersectional feminist discourse is not about who is more oppressed. As Lorde once said, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”
If you would like to learn more about intersectional feminism, here are a few resources to help you get started:
- Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color by Kimberlé Crenshaw.
- On Intersectionality: The Essential Writings of Kimberlé Crenshaw
- Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics by bell hooks
((*** Feature Image by Harini Rajagopalan and Feminism in India))
Caste Discrimination and Related Laws