Intersectional Feminism

By- Saman Waheed

In case you are wondering, intersectionality is not a new word associated with feminism. Coined by an American lawyer and civil rights advocate, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1989, intersectional feminism has begun to be used with an increased fervor since the fourth wave of feminism started gaining momentum in 2012. This wave centers around the Internet with its focus on social media activism for feminism as well as intersectionality. 

We must familiarize ourselves with Crenshaw and her research. It would equip us better to contextualize the theory of intersectional feminism. Crenshaw is currently a professor of law at UCLA and Columbia Law School. Her past research work mainly focused on the critical race theory that came up in the 1980s and 90s. It was a response to the fact that bias, discrimination, and racism in law were illogical. The removal of all these vices would help restore the socioeconomic order to a system that provided equal opportunity for all. In the opinion of Crenshaw, such an argument was utterly uninformed and wrong on so many levels. The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 and aimed to prohibit discrimination of all kinds. However, the act did not prove very successful in uprooting racism. The lives of the people did not change that much. They still suffered from the effects of racism. It was and still is a reality that affects people in almost all the spheres of life, be it their admission to organizations or the starkly present wealth gap. Racism was and is so entrenched in the thought processes of those in power that it becomes difficult to see things separately without considering this aspect of someone’s life.

Intersectionality as a term was born from the various arguments around the critical race theory. The first mention of the word was in a paper authored by Crenshaw for the 1989 issue of the University of Chicago Legal Forum. It was titled Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex. In this paper, she talked about how black women were doubly marginalized and illustrated this through three cases: DeGraffenreid v. General Motors, Moore v. Hughes Helicopter, Inc., and Payne v. Travenol. She wrote in the introduction, “…Not only will this juxtaposition reveal how Black women are [theoretically] erased, but it will also illustrate how this framework imports its own theoretical limitations that undermine efforts to broaden feminist and antiracist analyses… it seems that if Black women [were] explicitly included, the preferred term would be either “Blacks and white women” or “Black men and all women.”” She further argued that it was reductive to see the two aspects of the identity of black women in isolation to each other, thereby conveniently disregarding their collective struggles. Crenshaw authored another paper in 1991. It was titled Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color. It talks about the drawbacks of “feminist and antiracist analyses of battering and rape when it comes to the experiences of women of color.”

Therefore, the term intersectionality was employed by Crenshaw to articulate how race and sex acted in combination with each other to affect how women of color experienced oppression. She had built on the ideas of Anna J. Cooper, a black liberation activist from the 1800s, and Angela Davis, a famous American political activist. Today it has acquired in itself the understanding of many assorted facets of identity whose interplay influences the intensity and frequency of the marginalization faced by women.  These facets include ability, caste, class, culture, ethnicity, gender, immigration status, race, religion, etc. It also depends upon the geopolitical contexts in addition to the government’s view of its citizens. 

Since the term has undergone several modifications to date, it is integral to grasp what is consistent with Crenshaw’s meaning and what is not. In a recent interview with Time, she said that the term was often misused, so it was necessary to understand what it was fundamentally not supposed to be. She explained that the purpose of intersectionality was never “to turn white men into the new pariahs.” She reiterated what she has been propagating for so long, “it’s basically a lens, a prism, for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other.” She pointed out another rigid problem in the system, “the image of the citizen is still a male…” and women were still not entirely included in the mainstream policy decisions and by extension in the government.

To further our understanding of this subject, we must also analyze how privilege and oppression work. Simply put, privilege is the advantage you have over other people owing to some aspect of your identity. It often happens that people from the dominant communities internalize the idea of privilege to such an extent that it becomes a part of their natural thought processes that they do not seem to realize what is wrong with systemic oppression. The dominant structures make people from subjugated communities, particularly the women, that they experience marginalization due to the limitations that exist in their personality and not because of these structures. The propagation of such a false narrative violates the beliefs of people in themselves. It is important to note that not everyone experiences the same kind of discrimination and domination. It is different for everyone, which also goes on to say that one must refrain from comparing one struggle or oppression with the other. One must look at them in isolation from each other, but in cognizance with the identity features that contribute to the said oppression. 

Let us now look at some examples that further illustrate how intersectionality works. Research supported by the International Women’s Development Agency in Cambodia highlights that women with disabilities are more prone to violent disposition from their immediate families and more prone to experience controlling behaviors from their partners. DIVA (Diverse Voices for Action) for Equality, a radical feminist collective in Fiji, reports that women from the LGBTQ+ community faced a lot of problems to find access to relief measures when the cyclone Winston disrupted the country in 2016.  In Timor Leste, a very newly independent country, class, gender, and socioeconomic aspects overlap, thereby making it difficult for women from weak economic backgrounds to contest in elections as they cannot afford to campaign. An article by UN Women talks about the experience of Sonia Maribel Sontay Herrera, an indigenous woman and human rights defender from Guatemala. When she was job-hunting, she was seen as fit for only domestic work, since that was a negative stereotype associated with her identity. In the same article, Majandra Rodriguez Acha, a youth leader and climate justice advocate from Peru, says, “Those who are most impacted by gender-based violence, and by gender inequalities, are also the most impoverished and marginalized.” It goes on to show how important it is to understand intersectional feminism because there exists a problem at the very base level that needs to be solved. That can only happen when people are responsive to these things. 

People have a problem with intersectional feminism as a movement because it helps people discern their privilege and help those who do not exercise the same. Therefore this becomes an issue when more people become conscious of the pervading injustices in the system and work towards putting an end to them. Those in positions of are conservative and narrow-minded in their approach. They see it as a threat to their authority and supremacy. They are scared that equality might one day become a happy reality of the world. 

Intersectional feminism is relevant today, as it helps make the entire movement of feminism more inclusive. That is what we are consistently aiming for- to listen to and amplify diverse voices. It considers the opinions of all women, those who have been systematically oppressed for a long time now.  We must all aim to become better allies of the intersectional feminism movement and start viewing everyone with a lens of equality. We must also be receptive to critiques and criticisms to strengthen our voices in our fight towards equality in its purest sense. We must also make efforts to understand and recognize our privilege and see this problem of oppression as a problem alone and not as somebody else’s problem. The othering must stop so that all of us can grow and grow together. Nobody should be left behind, as one can only progress when they help those around them to do the same. We need to view everything with the prism glass of an intersectional feminist so that we can create spaces and movements that are mindful and aid the development of everyone. We have to lift each other. We have to do it consistently. Hope is what has kept us going. Hope is what will continue to keep us united in our fight towards a more inclusive and respectful society.