Intersectionality (n): is the study of intersecting social identities and the related systems of oppression. First, coined within the context of feminism, it examines social hierarchies that privilege and oppress people based on overlapping aspects of their identity such as: race, gender, class, caste, sexual orientation, (dis)ability and so on. For example, two well-known hierarchal systems in India include the patriarchy, based on gender, and the historical caste system. And though the latter no longer formally exists, its norms and repercussions are still very real within Indian communities. When we examine those who are the most vulnerable to each of these systems, women and Dalits, we see the resulting disadvantage is compounded. A severe iteration of oppression specific to these overlapping identities is in the form of sexual violence. Studies show that Dalit women are disproportionately exposed to violence. Beyond this, the conviction rate for rape cases against all women in India is a mere 25%, but when specifically looking at Dalit women the conviction rate drops to an abysmal 2%. Intersectionality goes to understand that when identities intersect the related discrimination can result in an “experience that is more than the sum of its parts.”
Intentional or not, complicity in the face of oppressive systems is choosing the side of the oppressor. That is wholly un-feminist.
As I grow in my understanding of the power dynamics in our society, I realize my fight as a feminist isn’t just against the patriarchy; it’s against all systems of oppression and even my own privilege. It’s about dismantling the Kyriarchy (n), the social system that keeps all intersecting oppressions in place. Because if we are not advocating for the women whose realities do not look or feel like our own, then we are unequivocally a part of the problem. Intentional or not, complicity in the face of oppressive systems is choosing the side of the oppressor. That is wholly un-feminist.
Herein lies my call to action. Let us think critically about the systems we rely on as a society, and realize the full spectrum of womanhood in its various hues. Let us understand “that different kinds of oppression are interlinked, and that one can’t liberate only one group without the others. It means acknowledging kyriarchy and intersectionality – the fact that along different axes, we’re all both oppressed and oppressors, privileged and disprivileged.”
Understanding the kyriarchy is one thing, but practicing intersectionality in our every day feminism is wholly another. How can we be purposeful in our endeavors to create a more inclusive society? How do we end our complicity in oppressive systems? For me, it begins with the below:
A. Listen, Learn, Share
Listen: First hand narratives are powerful depictions of real women and their struggles. They are ground zero for checking our own preconceptions and privileges. As allies, we should listen to women when they share their stories without interruption, doubt or judgment.
Learn: As we actively seek sources to understand and empathize with marginalized women whose realities are different than our own, we should try to learn not just of their individual challenges and triumphs, but our part in the relating systems as well. They are more than statistics, and we are more than bystanders in their oppression.
Share: First hand narratives are not always easy to come by, especially in India. Language barriers, education barriers, social stigma, limited access to technology and distribution greatly inhibit women from sharing their truth. So whenever possible we should take it upon ourselves to provide platforms and support those who have shared their own stories.
As a side note, we should be mindful in our consumption of stories. We should not extort or re-write histories for entertainment purposes, or support those who do. (We cannot appropriate the stories of others for shock or entertainment value.)
B. Understand Diversity
Diversity in one of the biggest buzzwords in corporate India today, but it’s not as simple as throwing more women into leadership positions. It’s about getting a range of women from all backgrounds and beliefs in these roles. As champions for diversity, we can’t only seek to add people like us.
C. Avoid Quick and Easy Solutions
“Many think education will make everything okay, but we know that it is not what happens.” – Safeena Hussain, Educate Girls
Too often I hear ‘education’ hailed as the solution for all of society’s problems, especially from the well-intentioned but ill-informed. While education is critically important to empowering all people, it alone is not enough. Understanding the kyriarchy, means understanding the systemic and cultural barriers that are built into society.
Safeena Husain is the Executive Director of the non-profit organization Educate Girls. Husain explains, “Many think education will make everything okay, but we know that it is not what happens. For instance, if you look at Middle Eastern countries, like Bahrain, a lot of women are doing their Masters and PhDs and a lot of boys are dropping out after 10th grade. But, that doesn’t necessarily lead to women being able to fulfill their potential, because a mindset change has not happened. Women still get left behind or subjugated, even though they’re highly educated… Education is critical, but without a change in mindset, it’s incomplete. [India] won’t be able to go down the road to equity without both of these growing in parallel.”
Education is too simple an answer for complicated problems; touting it as the ultimate solution is disingenuous and condescending to those who are struggling to better their situation. We live in a complex world, and that isn’t a bad thing. We should not try to solve other people’s problems with quick or easy answers.
D. Check Yourself and Others
We can’t always be right or the most informed. If someone checks your behavior, it’s best to listen with open ears. As Activist Audre Lorde puts it, “If I participate, knowingly or otherwise, in my sister’s oppression and she calls me on it, to answer her anger with my own only blankets the substance of our exchange with reaction. It wastes energy. And yes, it is very difficult to stand still and to listen to another woman’s voice delineate an agony I do not share, or one to which I myself have contributed.” At some point, someone may tell us we are a part of the problem. As long as we are willing to listen and take a step back for reflection, we can grow.
Additionally, good intentions don’t count for much. Don’t be afraid to check your friends and loved ones. It’s one thing to believe in equality; it’s another to stand up for it. In the pursuit of equality, allies are paramount. Our sisters need our voices.
Love all those you encounter, and love hard. Hold each other up. This life is too difficult a thing to not have your sisters’ back. We’re all we’ve got.
The key to our liberation is ensuring everyone has an equal chance at success and happiness. It’s consciously choosing to be open-minded and inclusive. It’s about starting conversations that make us uncomfortable. It’s about minimizing our role as oppressors, about recusing apathy, as that inevitably hurts us too. It’s about viscerally understanding this simple truth, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even if her shackles are very different than my own.”
Below are select activists, resources, and organizations to help those interested in learning more about intersectional feminist issues in India today.
General Resources and story telling platforms:
LGBTQ Community Activists/ Organizations/ Resources:
MINGLE, Mission for Indian Gay & Lesbian Empowerment
Bangalore Pride March
LBTQ Women’s Organizations
Maya for Women
Laxmi Narayan Tripathi
Dalit Women Activists/ Organizations/ Resources:
All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch (AIDMAM, or the All India Dalit Women’s Rights Forum)
Dalit Women’s Self-Respect March
Indian Muslim Women’s Movement
National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled
Women on Wings
About the Author
Misha Rahman recently uprooted her life in Boston to move to Bangalore, India and work with Shenomics. She is completing a professional certification in social enterprise through IDEX Accelerator’s Global Fellowship Program. She spends her days on facebook, twitter, and linkedin- also known as marketing and strategy. In addition to empowering women she is interested in conflict resolution and human rights work. Misha enjoys traveling, reading, and binge watching Netflix.