Intersectional Feminism is the future for feminism in India
What is Intersectionality?
Kimberle Crenshaw has been largely credited with theorizing and putting a name to the concept of Intersectionality. But, intersectionality has been present in our communities long before the term was coined to describe it. The word intersectionality means an ‘overlap’ or ‘a meeting’, in this context, it refers to overlap or a meeting of identities.
Crenshaw in an Article for the Stanford Law Review states that intersectionality showcases the different ways in which race and gender interact to shape the experiences of black women. In the Double Jeopardy of being both Black and Female, a black woman is a victim of racism and sexism simultaneously due to the overlapping of her identities as a member of two historically marginalized groups. The discrimination faced by a black woman does not fit into the traditionally accepted and understood margins of gender or race discrimination. Her experiences cannot be compounded by looking at the issue of gender and race separately.
Instead, it must be seen as a product of the intersection of the two identities. This concept of looking at all the oppressive structural factors as a whole instead of individually is Intersectionality. It is defined as the critical insight that race, class, caste, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nation, ability, geography, and age do not operate as individual, exclusive entities, these aspects reinforce each other to create complex social, political and economic inequalities.
Intersectionality grew out of the Black feminist movement over the 20th century. The Black civil rights movements reeked of sexism and focused on the interests of Black men, whereas, the feminist movement was rooted in racism, prioritizing the white woman’s struggle, as both movements fought to attain equal status to the white man. The issues of Black, Indigenous, Latina, immigrant, and queer women were either, pushed to the periphery or completely left out of the two social justice movements.
This led to women of color developing their method of “conceptualizing social identity structure, not as independent axes of demographic classification but as interlocking matrices of privilege and oppression.”
Need for Intersectionality
Feminism is a social justice movement that has occurred in the form of “waves” throughout history. The main aim of the movement is to attain equality and to end gender-based discrimination and oppression. The first wave of feminism was concerned with the women’s right to suffrage, the second wave consisted of the women’s liberation movement for equal legal and social rights, it was during this wave that the slogan of “The Personal is Political” was popularized.
The third wave was comparatively much more inclusive than the previous one, and it saw increased consciousness amongst women concerning enforced gender roles, gender identity, and sexuality. It critiqued the role played by mainstream media to reinforce sexist stereotypes. It also saw the rise of powerful women dominating traditional media spaces previously solely held by men. This, ultimately, led to the development of a new facet of sexual liberation, an important objective of the second wave of feminism, which factored in sexuality and gender identity. It was during this wave that the concept of intersectionality was propounded.
Intersectionality emerged as a way to confront those aspects of feminism that were severely ignored in the past. There was an emphasis on the problems of white middle-class women, and the movement as a whole was dismissive and at times, even offensive, towards women of color, and women who identified as part of the LGBTQIA+ community. But therein lies the fallacy, because these rights movements were and always will be intertwined.
Thus, by restricting it only to the issue of gender, the movement as a whole becomes exclusionary and forces these women to be marginalized further. Liberation of all women is impossible if most women are still a victim of oppression due to their race, class, caste or sexuality. True liberation can only be achieved if all structures of oppression are dismantled.
Reverting to the era of feminism we find ourselves in, the fourth wave of the feminist movement is characterized by an intersectional approach to combat the problems being faced by women everywhere. A defining feature of this wave is the utilization of the internet as an effective tool for mobilization. If the third wave is credited with conceptualizing intersectionality, the fourth wave seeks to put it into actual practice.
Social media plays a significant role in facilitating the movement by utilising the resources it offers to organize, mobilize, and empower women. The internet has been a powerful medium in contributing to the popularity of feminism in the 21st century. The #METOO movement, a term coined by Tarana Burke, gained a large amount of traction on several social media sites as women (and men) used the hashtag to share their stories of abuse and call out their abusers publicly on several platforms as a means to hold them accountable for their actions.
But the battle for equality is far from won. The only way society can even begin to achieve equity, for true equality is borne out of equity, is through an intersectional approach. And this approach rings true universally, especially in a country like India that is fragmented along the lines of caste, class, gender, and religion. When we consider the problem of gendered violence or gender discrimination, it is important to address these issues through the lens of intersectionality. This allows us to understand the undercurrents and the complexities which lie at the root of these issues.
How is it relevant in India?
To highlight this difference in the levels of oppression we need not look farther than our very own borders. Compare the way the media and the police handled the tragic 2019 Hyderabad gang rape case and the 2020 Hathras gang rape case. The Hyderabad victim and the Hathras victim were 26 and 19-year-old women, respectively.
When seen at a surface level, the cases as unfortunate as they were, seem awfully similar. It is your regular, old sexual violence case where abuse is perpetrated by men against women as a way of asserting their dominance and perverse sense of “masculinity”. One could see it as a direct consequence of the toxic patriarchal standards entrenched in Indian society. But on closer examination, there are a multitude of differences between the two cases. The Hyderabad rape victim belonged to an upper caste, middle-class family living in an urban city, and her alleged assailants belonged to a lower caste and class. On the other hand, the Hathras rape victim was a woman who belonged to the Dalit community, a historically oppressed caste in India, residing in a small district in Uttar Pradesh. Her assailants were upper-caste Thakur men.
The methods in which these two cases were handled by the police, the government, the media, and the public were vastly different. When news broke about the Hyderabad Gang Rape, the entire country was enraged, the police were quick to arrest the accused and the media covered the case extensively. The public outrage was satiated and appeased by a convenient “encounter” killing of the men accused. Whereas, in the Hathras rape case, the accused being Thakurs, a caste that held a position of dominance in the village, were not arrested immediately. The police went so far as to cremate the body of the victim without her family’s consent at 3 am without even allowing the family to pay their respects or perform the last rites and ritual for their deceased daughter. The media coverage was meager at best, the wrath of the public was greatly subdued. The government of Uttar Pradesh denied the fact that the rape ever took place as it did not meet their misconstrued definition of rape and went so far as to brand it a conspiracy.
The case only gained traction and mainstream media attention when it was reported by several independent journalists on social media. Siddique Kappan, a journalist from Kerala, was arrested in October last year by the Uttar Pradesh police on his way to Hathras to write a report on the case. He has been charged under the UAPA anti-terror law and has been in jail ever since. His crime? Daring to perform his constitutionally protected journalistic duty.
There’s no denying that both cases were brutal and horrifying but the treatment of the two cases were entirely different because the caste made the difference. The Hyderabad victim’s class and caste privilege played a massive role in how the authorities and the country reacted, but the Hathras case showcases the rampant caste discrimination still prevalent in our country. It throws light on the subject that a Brahmin woman and a Dalit woman are not oppressed in the same way, their experiences are widely different. A Dalit woman’s oppression is a product of the intersection of her caste and gender. The Hathras rape occurred not just because she was a woman, but also because she was a Dalit woman.
It is extremely important to understand that these power structures are not isolated from each other but they rather intersect and influence other oppressions. Women belonging to lower castes are disproportionately targeted and affected by sexual violence. The problem of gendered violence in India cannot be tackled effectively without also working towards the annihilation of the caste. To paraphrase Crenshaw’s words in the Indian context; the failure of the mainstream Indian feminist movement to address caste means the resistance strategies of feminism will often replicate and reinforce the subordination of people belonging to the lower castes, and the failure of anti-caste movements to interrogate the patriarchy means that anti casteism will frequently reproduce the subordination of women.
Intersectionality allows the feminist movement to be truly inclusive, to represent the issues of all women, and not just cis-gendered, privileged, upper-caste/class, heterosexual women. Intersectionality does not negate the experiences of these women; it instead amplifies the voices of marginalized women, allowing them to reclaim their rightful space in the feminist movement. Intersectionality demands that we engage in constant self-reflection, recognize our privilege, and understand that women are dynamic individuals.
They do not have one singular identity which defines them and their experiences. These identities constantly intersect and reinforce each other leading to their marginalization. They face varying degrees of oppression and the oppression at its very core is unique to every individual and thereby, cannot be addressed by a movement that is centered around the issues that are faced by women of any particular section of our society. Feminism cannot be exclusionary; it can no longer ignore and erase the experiences of marginalized women as it has in the past. The movement must strive to dismantle every system which perpetuates oppression and go about demarginalizing the intersection. This is why intersectionality can not wait, for injustice persists.
Zoya Zahed is a second-year law student, pursuing her BA LLB degree in GNLU. She has a profound interest in human rights law and public policy. (The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author/s. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The Policy Observer or our members.)
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