Intersectional Feminism as a term, was first coined by American professor Kimberle Crenshaw in the year 1989. It is the study of overlapping or intersecting social identities and related systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination. It means that women experience oppression in varying configurations and in varying degrees of intensity. Patterns of oppression are not just interrelated but are influenced by those interrelations.
For example, race, class, and gender influence each other and intersect both. Caste and gender are interrelated and influence each other. There are different axes of oppression like caste, class, race, gender, ethnicity, ability, among others that are important in this context.
Crenshaw has spoken about Intersectionality theory by stating that it is the study of how different power structures interact in the lives of minorities, specifically black women. This theory holds great value and has witnessed a crucial space in academia. The theory has basically come out of black feminism. It began with the quest of understanding how and why people are getting disappeared from various articulations, from theories, from books, from pages of history, from the movement, and from various other intersections and junctures in feminist scholarship.
Intersectionality draws attention to the different invisibilities that exist in feminism, in anti-racism, anti-caste, class politics, etc. Basically, it compels us to attend to many different aspects of power that not everyone experiences. This is one way we can draw our attention to what has been erased from our histories, what we need to unlearn, what we need to challenge, and who needs to be given space to share power and have a voice of their own. More importantly, it helps us draw attention to the various ways in which power is sustained and limited to only a certain caste/class/race/gender in society and how oppression thus operates and works.
Understanding Oppression and Privilege
Oppression cannot be seen or understood as something that exists in the same manner for everybody. There are layers to it which overlap and intersect, and this is precisely what intersectional feminism tries to explain. By the implication of this, we can also say that feminism is something that reflects on the experiences and the various multilayered aspects of people from different class/caste/race/ethnicity and cultural backgrounds. The experiences also differ based on their sexuality, gender, age, etc. Intersectional feminism takes cognizance of all these differences and talks about feminism from the different axes of oppression. In other words, intersectional feminism challenges the dominant idea of feminism which is overtly white/upper-class/upper-caste/ableist/cis heterosexual and which fails to take into account the marginalized standpoints.
An important aspect that one needs to remember while talking of intersectionality is ‘privilege’. Privilege is important because it is much easier to point out how and why people are oppressed than to point out who is the oppressor and how their dominance is continuing in various ways because of their privileged position in the society. Privilege should not obscure itself from those classes who have it and benefit from it.
So without an understanding of privilege and intersectionality, the feminist movement cannot call itself anti-oppression. Feminist praxis cannot be fully understood unless we understand how issues like caste, class, gender, ability, sexuality among others intersect and influence each other.
To give you an example, an upper caste woman feeling oppressed because she does not have the freedom to work in the public domain cannot define feminism solely based on her own experiences, because it does not represent the issues faced by the marginalized women who are exposed to unregulated and unorganized work structures for their survival. The marginalized women’s suffering is intersectional because of their identity as marginalized. This does not mean that the issues faced by the privileged are not issues per se, but that those issues alone do not define feminism, and not realizing this would basically mean glossing over the many layers of oppression and erasing many other experiences.
Understanding Internalized Dominance
When members of the dominant group believe that their privilege is natural, and accept that their group is socially superior to others, they have internalized their dominant status in the society. In line with this, some members of the marginalized communities are thus coerced into believing that the problems they face are due to their personal shortcomings, which is to say that there is an acceptance of negative portrayals produced by the dominant as true about the marginalized. Intersectionality enables a better understanding of this and allows for the critique of the dominant. It exposes the internalized privilege that the dominant hold in believing that ‘others’ remain oppressed because of their deficiencies and not because of the concentration of power with the dominant.
It’s Not About Who Suffers ‘More’
Further, while we try and understand intersectional feminism, the mere inclusion of women from the marginalized communities is not going to address issues of ‘all women’. What we need to challenge are the structures in which these inclusions are being framed and taking place. There are multiple grounds on which women and marginalized communities identify themselves, and their identities are not just multiple, but very different. This ‘difference’ has to become a part of our feminist analyses. There has to be a clear rejection of a homogeneous platform to tackle discrimination. Intersectional feminism must be applied in a way that all different aspects of identity are taken into consideration, and all oppressions are seen as influencing and controlling other oppressions, none of them working singularly or separately.
One thing that we must be cautious about is that those who suffer from different kinds of oppression do not simply suffer ‘more’ as compared to others who don’t suffer as much, as rightly pointed out by Prof. Mary John. Meaning, if upper-caste women suffer to a certain degree, women from marginalized communities do not simply suffer a little more than the upper-caste women. The oppression cannot be measured in terms of how grave it has been for someone and how it is not as grave for someone else. Rather we need to understand how these oppressions are different from each other and unique in their own contexts. When we understand this difference, we understand why there is an urgent need to have a different of inquiry to address the oppression of the marginalized. Intersectionality, after all, is not a mere addition of oppressions.
Take for example the case of Shah Bano, who was a Muslim woman caught between her identity as a Muslim on one hand and as a woman on another. We cannot simply say that she is more oppressed because she is a Muslim and she is a woman, we need to acknowledge that her oppression is arising out of its context, which is not the same for any other case. Her case calls for intervention into how the women’s movement was addressing issues for women at the margins, for women who were invisible at the intersection of gender and religion as well.
When the Privileged Brand Oppression
Talking of intersectionality should also oblige us to think about the kind of labels we attach to the minorities and marginalized people. Understanding and acknowledging the different ways in which, say for example people with disability, tackle their oppressions does not mean that they are open to any sort of rundown or classification by the privileged for their own benefit. This is being explained well in Stella Young’s talk on ‘Inspirational Porn’. The assumption that disability is something exceptional, places them in a position where they are patronized and objectified as superior than the rest and thus eventually get excluded.
Binary Thinking and ‘Othering’
On Sept 11, 2015, in the United States of America, news broke out about a Sikh man being brutally attacked and beaten because he looked like Bin Laden. Inderjit Singh Mukker, a 53-year-old cab driver and father of two was driving his car to a grocery store when a driver repeatedly cut him off and shouted, “Terrorist, go back to your country, bin Laden!” He was living in America for 27 years. Sikh Americans have been targets of slurs and hate violence following the attacks on 9/11. In a time span of 6 years after 9/11, some 800 bias incidents against Sikhs, Muslims, and other South Asian groups were reported. These kinds of examples indicate that some minorities are subject to intersectional ‘othering’.
The Ultimate Question of Power
What one cannot forget is that eventually, it’s about interrogating further deeply into the question of power. It’s about asking – Who is powerful? Who has the power to not care? Who has the power to say No and walk away? Who has the power to not talk about something because it doesn’t affect them? Critiques arising out of privileged spaces need to be seen from this context. If the privileged feel threatened or alarmed because of the critiques made on their privileges, then the powerful are framing themselves as oppressed. This is where we need to understand the importance of intersectionality. This is where we need to understand how structural discrimination works and supports unequal opportunities and access which go a long way in deciding who continues to live with power under their fists and who suffers from it.