Like any political movement, feminism has given birth to different concepts and terms. One term, in particular, is so beautifully coined that it amazed me. This term is intersectionality.
So what is intersectionality?
The term intersectional feminism was coined by civil rights advocate Kimberle Williams Crenshaw to describe overlapping or intersecting social identities and related systems of oppression, domination or discrimination. Yes, it’s a confusing sentence, but a simple concept. Any person belonging to society doesn’t adopt just a single social identity. A person is sectioned off into multiple categories, giving them a complex social identity. We don’t just look at a person as a person. We think about their gender, their ethnicity, their class, their caste, sexual orientation, etc. Their social identity is an overlapping of all of these different facets.
Here’s a video of Kimberle Crenshaw explaining intersectionality herself:
For the sake of this article, let’s create a character in the Indian context. Leela is a woman. She’s heterosexual. Her family belongs to a lower caste. She doesn’t earn very well, and neither does her family. She belongs to the lower class. She’s cis-gendered (denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex).
In our society, certain social identities are more oppressed than others. It’s well known that women are discriminated against, certain races are discriminated against, and so are certain sexual orientations. So, in this case, Leela is discriminated against for being a woman, lower class and lower caste. She doesn’t enjoy any privileges in society other than being cis-gendered and heterosexual.
These overlapping identities mean that a person is oppressed in more than one way. So while fighting against oppression, it isn’t enough to fight against just one form of discrimination. Each form of discrimination doesn’t exist separately from the other, just the way each facet of our identities doesn’t exist separately from the other. Leela isn’t a woman first, and lower caste second. She’s a lower caste, lower class, woman. All these aspects of her identity go together.
While it can be argued that these labels are what society puts on you, and if we didn’t see them, we wouldn’t know or discriminate against them, it isn’t entirely true. Every category that you belong in affects you in some way or the other. Leela, being from a lower class would have access to fewer schools with fewer facilities than a woman from a higher class. This eventually affects the way she learns and understands things and so doesn’t give her the same opportunity as someone privileged enough to attend better schools. Pair this with the fact that Leela is a woman. Her education would be prioritized less than her brother’s because traditionally, it is the boy who works, and the girl who stays at home. Once again, she’s discriminated against.
So now that we’ve understood it, why is it important?
It’s important to understand intersectionality because it isn’t wholly possible to fight discrimination without understanding multi-layered oppression. A movement like feminism cannot fight for equality for all genders without fighting discrimination against women, homosexuality, caste, class, race and transgenders. A problem, like a person, doesn’t fit neatly into one category. So fighting for homosexuality rights is as much a problem for feminism as work space equality is. A woman’s movement cannot look at just one facet of oppression. It has to take into account all of it.
The problems that Leela faces, as compared to a privileged woman (by privileged, here we mean upper class, upper caste, heterosexual, cis-gendered woman) is not just more or worse, but different. It isn’t okay for feminism to address the problems that can solely be classified as “women’s problems” and ignore Leela’s intersectional problems. It isn’t really fighting for equality for all then.
Intersectional feminism has been a big part of second wave and third wave feminism, mingling with other social movements such as anti-racism and anti-casteism. These are important movements to create equity in a society that has for too long been blind to the inherent discrimination that exists within it. Let’s embrace intersectionalism and be a part of a changing society.