Intersectionality is key for a strong feminist movement

Rashmi Nair
Rashmi Nair

Women from marginalised communities have often criticised the mainstream feminist movement in India. For example, women from Dalit, Shudra, Adivasi, and other marginalised groups have contended that mainstream feminism has neglected their issues; its leadership is confined to Brahmin and other Dvija (upper-caste) women; and that it erases their contributions to the movement. These issues have fueled deep divisions in the feminist movement in India. 

Given the diversity in the experiences of women in this context, how can we build a strong feminist movement? Scholarship on intersectionality offers us important insights in this regard. 

The intersectionality framework was proposed by Black feminists in the United States.1, 2 Intersectionality scholars and activists argue that women’s experiences are also shaped by privileges and disadvantages stemming from other social groups that they are part of.3,4 They reject the notion that all women’s experiences are the same. Instead, they emphasise the role of systematic power differences stemming from multiple identities, such as gender, race and class, which intersect and jointly impact women’s experiences. That is, they highlight that intersecting identities create unique experiences for women at different intersectional social locations, increases the burden on those at the intersections of multiple subordinate identities, and invisibilises their struggles.5,6,7

In India, feminists from marginalised groups have echoed the need for such an approach to understand and address their situation. For example, Ruth Manorama says that Dalit women carry the burden of caste, class, and gender, and advocates for an intersectional approach to account for the role of multiple subordinate identities in shaping their experiences.8 In line with this, Gomati Bodra Hembrom reveals the role of gender- and caste/ethnicity-based hierarchies in constructing media portrayals of Adivasi women that support their subordination.9 Likewise, Sandhya Nare Pawar draws attention to invisibility of OBC (Other Backward Classes) women’s concerns, and asserts that the mainstream feminism fails to acknowledge caste-based divisions among women.10 

Yet, the mainstream feminist movement in India remains focused on gender and patriarchy, while overlooking differences stemming from intersecting social identities such as caste, ethnicity, religion, and class within the community of women. Addressing this gap, and building on scholarship on intersectionality, I now share five recommendations for Brahmin and upper-caste feminists to bridge the growing divide with feminists from marginalised groups and strengthen the feminist movement. 

1. Do not assume that all women suffer the same. Brahmin-Dvija feminists must not assume or claim that all women suffer the same. Assuming sameness in the experiences of all women and denying systemic violence stemming from intersecting identities can backfire.3,7,11 Instead, it is important to recognise that women’s experiences vary based on their other social identities such as caste and ethnicity. Many women from marginalised groups have expressed that their gender and caste/ethnic identities are equally important in shaping their experiences. This speaks to the need for India’s mainstream feminist movement to go beyond their focus on gender and patriarchy, and to include issues such as caste and ethnicity on the feminist agenda. Such an approach acknowledges diversity in the experiences of women and can help build a diverse, inclusive feminist movement. 

2. Acknowledge Brahmin-Dvija privilege. Privilege in this context refers to unearned advantages based on group membership, whereby dominant group members have more access to resources than members of socially-excluded groups. In the United States, research has found that an awareness of racial privilege among White women improved their commitment to diverse feminist organisations.7 Applying these findings to the Indian setting, an awareness of privilege among upper-caste feminists can help build a diverse feminist movement. For example, awareness of intersectional privileges among upper-caste women may increase their support for women leaders from marginalised intersections and reallocation of resources to address their concerns. 

3. Claims of unique experiences should not erase power differences. A surface-level reading of intersectionality may lead some upper-caste women to focus on the unique experience of women from different groups while overlooking power differences between them. This is reflected in claims such as “everyone is unique”.12 It is true that multiple intersecting identities combine to create unique and specific experiences for members at different intersectional social locations. However, focusing on the unique intersectional experiences of women from different groups without accounting for structural inequalities that people with different identities face, and a lack of reflection on the role of upper-caste women as oppressors, can backfire.12,13

4. Upper-caste women should avoid claiming that they suffer more than women with multiple disadvantaged identities. Generally speaking, competition over who has suffered more can further the divide between communities.14 This is particularly risky when those with privileged identities claim that they have suffered more than those with multiple subordinate identities. Such assertions erase and invert systemic power differences linked with social identities and result in another instance of oppression of those who are structurally worse off. Therefore, such claims can deepen the divide in the feminist movement and further threaten the prospects of solidarity between upper-caste women and women from marginalised groups.15

5. Examine both similarity and differences in the experiences of women from diverse communities. The importance of accounting for the differences in the experiences of women does not exclude recognising their shared experiences of gender-based oppression and common goal of women’s liberation, which is the basis for the feminist movement. However, as mentioned above, assumptions of sameness in the experiences of women and denial of power differences based on intersecting identities must be avoided. Instead, examining both similarities and the differences in the experiences of women from different groups can provide a fuller understanding of women’s experiences.2,4,15 This can inform and support the growth of a diverse yet strong feminist movement. 

In sum, intersectionality offers a framework to appreciate the diversity within the community of women, to bring women at the margins to the center, and to dismantle intersecting power structures that impact the lives of women. The absence of such an approach in the mainstream feminist movement can push women from various marginalised groups to split from it and thereby weaken its power in numbers. Therefore, to avoid further rifts in the feminist movement, taking an intersectional approach remains key for Brahmin-Dvija feminists in India.

Notes:

  1. Combahee River Collective (2017). Combahee River Collective statement. In K.-Y. Taylor (Ed.), How we get free: black feminism and the Combahee River Collective (pp. 15–27). Haymarket Books. (Original work published in 1977) 
  2. Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A Black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 140, 139– 167. 
  3. Chun, J. J., Lipsitz, G., & Shin, Y. (2013). Intersectionality as a Social Movement Strategy: Asian immigrant women advocates. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 38, 917-940. http://dx.doi.org/10.1086/669575
  4. Cole, E. R. (2009). Intersectionality and research in psychology. American Psychologist, 64, 170-180. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0014564
  5. Cho, S., Crenshaw, K., & McCall, L. (2013). Toward a field of intersectionality studies: Theory, applications, and praxis. Signs, 38, 785-810. http://dx.doi.org/10.1086/669608
  6. Purdie-Vaughns, V., & Eibach, R. P. (2008). Intersectional invisibility: The distinctive advantages and disadvantages of multiple subordinate-group identities. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, 59, 377–391. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-008-9424-4
  7. Greenwood, R. M. (2008). Intersectional political consciousness: Appreciation for intragroup differences and solidarity in diverse groups. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 32, 36–47. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1471-6402.2007.00405.x
  8. M. V., Amudha. (2018, August 28). Watch: Dr. Ruth Manorama on international Dalit women solidarity. https://feminisminindia.com/2018/07/18/ruth-manorama-international-dalit-women-solidarity/
  9. Hembrom, G. B., (2014). Image and reality: Portrayal of Tribal women in media. In R. Misra (Ed.), Rethinking gender. Rawat Publications.
  10. Tata Institute of Social Sciences. An interview with Sandhya Nare Pawar. School of Media and Cultural Studies. https://youtu.be/et2jDkdIGdQ
  11. Levine-Rasky, C. (2011). Intersectionality theory applied to whiteness and middle-classness. Social Identities, 17(2), 239-253. doi:10.1080/13504630.2011.558377
  12. Case, K. (Ed.). (2017). Intersectional pedagogy: Complicating identity and social justice. Routledge.
  13. Berger, M. T., & Guidroz, K. (2009). The intersectional approach: Transforming the academy through race, class, and gender. University of North Carolina Press.
  14. Hancock, A.-M. (2011). Solidarity politics for millennials. Palgrave Macmillan. http://doi.org/10.1057/9780230120136 
  15. Nair, R. & Vollhardt, J.R. (under review). Intersectionality and Relations between Oppressed Groups: Intergroup Implications of Beliefs About Intersectional Differences and Commonalities. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Rashmi Nair examines the social psychology of victimisation due to social identities such as caste, gender and religion. She is currently an assistant professor at Ashoka University, Sonipat.

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