Gender & Society. Intersectionality and Feminist Activism

Introduction

Today, much attention is paid to discussing social discrimination to better understand its causes, expressions and the ways to address it. The majority of theories consider racial and gender discrimination as an integral phenomenon, while the experiences of individuals that belong to the victimised groups remain understudied. For example, African-American females often face violence from the police, but society did not recognise this fact likewise in case of George Floyd, whose murder caused large-scale protests across the US (Blue, 2020). At the same time, the names of manhandled, beaten and killed African-American women are not widely known. This example shows that some people can face two and more types of discrimination simultaneously, while having no opportunities to protect themselves. I have chosen to write about intersectionality in relation to feminism as this topic is not sufficiently discussed in academic studies and media.

The theory of intersectionality refers to conceptualising the links between the systems of oppression that affect the most vulnerable populations. Focusing on the concepts of power and privilege, intersectionality in the feminist theory studies how minority women struggle with social, racial, age-related, and domestic prejudices. As stated by Crenshaw (2016), if a problem is not clearly formulated, it is impossible to address. The topic of intersectionality and feminist theory should be explored to better understand its role in informing the necessary policies to help those who need some strategies to improve their lives. Therefore, I hope to study the academic literature to discuss the existing tendencies and difficulties to contribute to the understanding of the identified topic in terms of gender and female studies.

Research Question

What is the importance of intersectionality in informing feminist theory and activism?

While racial and gender discrimination is widely investigated in the literature due to its social relevance, most studies consider the issue of discrimination only from the perspective of males. In addition, intersectionality forms a prism to use to formulate the theory and apply a unifying language to investigate the relations between gender, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and disability to address the disparities. It seems to be especially useful to use intersectionality since it provides the analytical framework to conceptualise social injustice and interpret the particular experiences of women. By taking such an approach, I expect to clarify the intersection of systems and institutions that lead to multiple forms of discrimination. I also hope to contribute to synthesising pertinent examples and concepts so that they can be helpful in facilitating the interventions and policies to eliminate social inequalities in the US.

Presentation of Literature and Key Concepts

In this critical essay, I will largely rely on five academic sources to shed the light on the role of intersectionality in feminist theory and activism. First, the ideas by Crenshaw (2016) will be used to clarify the definition of intersectionality and determine its role in informing feminist studies. The brief review of the mentioned source shows that it will be useful to understand the key tendencies that are discussed by one of the most prominent representatives of the target theory. Second, the article by Crenshaw (1991) seems to be important for shedding light on the identity politics and violence against females. Third, the significance of intersectionality for feminist studies is properly explored by Lykke (2006), who focuses on the ability of intersectionality to bring different discrimination types together to form a new discourse. Also, Gill and Brah (2014) study the case of Shafilea Ahmed’s parents, where parents murdered their daughter as the so-called “honour”-based violence. In addition, Ang (1995) pays attention to women and post national feminism’, the review of which is useful to understand the vision of this Asian author regarding feminism. In combination, these sources would allow considering the chosen theme from a different perspective to discuss the prerequisites and effects of intersectionality in terms of their role in feminism theory and activism.

Definition of Key Concepts

In this paper, intersectionality is the key concept to relate to feminism. It has emerged as a result of the struggle of various minorities to achieve their rights and prevent social injustice. In particular, there are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities, people with disabilities and those of different races, who have challenges with practising their rights (Lykke, 2006). The name of this feminist sociological theory was given by Professor Kimberly Crenshaw in 1989 (Crenshaw 1991). The representatives of intersectional feminism state that there is no single and universal female experience, and the struggle for women’s rights is inseparable from the struggle for the rights of the LGBT community, as well as the fight against racism and ableism.

The struggle for equality of all groups of society without exception has become an integral part of the human history of the modern period. Feminism can be regarded as the most massive movement against traditional discrimination. In the procession of its development, the struggle for women’s rights gave birth to a large number of sociological theories. I will use the definition of intersectional feminism that is given by Crenshaw (1991). This author’s definition is that intersectionality is that a person can have several social identities that form a single whole. The criteria for belonging to some groupings are based on such characteristics as race, ethnicity, gender and financial well-being, the presence of mental and physical disease and so on. According to this theory, the problematics of African-American women in the US remains poorly understood compared to the representatives of other parts of society because the unique identity of African-American women is formed as a result of the intersection of two or more elements.

The concept of patriarchal absences that will be used in this paper to explain the reasons that lead to intersectionality refers to male dominance that is widely accepted in society. It means that while considering the challenges of racial or other minorities, the framework primarily includes males, who are expected to care for their children. In her speech called “On intersectionality”, Crenshaw (2016) states that with the existing framework that views discrimination through the prism of patriarchal absences, it is almost impossible to eradicate intersectionality from the lives of females. It seems to be significant to point out the fact that little attention is given to women and their specific problems regarding safety, domestic relationships and employment opportunities (Crenshaw 2016). In other words, the current framework does not allow for qualitative improvements, and it should be adjusted accordingly.

“Honour”- based violence (HBV) is the violence towards a family member by relatives, who are convinced that this member has inflicted dishonour. In this context, it usually means acts of a sexual nature that are forbidden in this culture: adultery, premarital sex, rape, or homosexual relations (Gill and Brah, 2014). However, among the reasons, there also can be non-sexual, for example, a wife’s complaint about her husband who beats her and / or the children, and even seemingly “inappropriate behaviour”, when she sat down or dressed wrong. Despite these differences, the overwhelming majority of victims of honour-based violence are women, and their perpetrators are most often male relatives. Honour is defined as a virtue or character trait associated with honesty, morality and altruism (Gill and Brah, 2014). It is a symbolic and rhetorical construct, the meaning of which is constantly contested, as it carries different connotations, depending on cultural and linguistic groups.

Analysis

In this part of the paper, I will structure the analysis according to the contribution of the mentioned authors in research. Namely, there will be two parts, one of which would consider the importance of intersectionality to feminist theory, and the other one would be concerned with feminist activism. As the founder of intersectionality, Crenshaw’s ideas will be given more attention, but other scholar’s assumptions will also be properly studied.

Intersectionality focuses on the connection of human identities, and intersectional feminism attempts to look at how women with differing experiences face discrimination. Beginning with tits onset, the Western feminist movement has focused primarily on middle-class white women. However, the women’s movement cannot truly make a difference without addressing the needs and concerns of all women. According to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, 25 to 50 per cent of women experience gender-based violence during their lifetime (Lykke, 2006). Nevertheless, when statistics are cited without explaining how differences in living conditions play a role in the outcome, it obscures or blends different layers of oppression. For example, bisexual and women of colour are more likely to experience violence as opposed to women who are white and heterosexual. In other words, all women are at risk of gender-based violence, but some are much more at risk, depending on their race, sexual orientation and life experience.

Speaking of the essence of Crenshaw’s research, the tendencies towards oppression and discrimination of various groups of society should be mentioned. According to this civic activist, chauvinism can never be selective, meaning that sexism, racism, religious intolerance and homophobia are closely related (Crenshaw, 1991). The author believes that all forms of discrimination are part of a single system of oppression that is accepted in the state. If society allows the restriction of the rights of a specific group, this trend is more likely to be spread to the representatives of other minorities in the future. According to the logic of intersectional feminism, the most disadvantaged part of the US society is African-American homosexual women since they have the maximum number of characteristics that become typical causes of persecution.

Studying the practices of American shelters, Crenshaw (1991) found that their work does not take into account the specifics of the life experience of women of colour: they are more likely than white women to be the victims of domestic violence, facing poverty and unemployed, more dependent on their husbands, less knowledgeable or unable to have a benefit of the available conflict resolution opportunities. These characteristics of social status are not taken into account when organising assistance, and women of colour are especially vulnerable in difficult life situations. Crenshaw’s research demonstrates that while racism and sexism constantly intersect in the daily lives of American citizens, anti-discrimination feminist and anti-racist projects are separate from each other and overlook the complex impact of multiple power mechanisms on the location of negatively positioned groups (Crenshaw, 1991). As a result, despite the efforts of the government to help them, the programs do not work, and their situation remains complicated.

The intersection of discrimination theory is emerging as a new tool for analysing the concept of African-American feminism. The intersectional approach shapes and reinforces the vision that separates black feminism from the rest of the feminist movement. The demarcation of American feminism into black and white leads to a revision of bourgeois feminism as universal. Intersectionality discredits white feminists and denounces their privileged position. At the same time, it brings together initiatives to create a coherent feminist movement based on the fight against racism.

In the background of violence against women, disregarding differences is a fundamental problem since the violence that numerous women encounter is often defined by other categories of their identities, such as race or class (Crenshaw, 1991). The work of feminists to politicise women’s experiences and the work of anti-racists to debate the experiences of non-whites often proceeds as if the problems and experiences they describe are happening in mutually exclusive areas. Although racism and sexism regularly intersect in real life, they seem to exist separately in feminist and anti-racist practices. As an example, the author cites the problems she faced during the research. Crenshaw (2016) describes how anti-racist and feminist practices often do not address the private issues of non-whites. For example, they do not study the phenomenon of violence: feminists of the second wave do not raise this issue, realising the possibility of discrediting themselves, and some fighters against racism believe that talking about violence can be regarded as exclusively national factors.

Political intersectionality is another issue that should be discussed in this paper since it provides a broader look at the causes of the identified problem. According to Crenshaw (1991), there is a lack of defending public institutions, which creates disproportionate consequences for communities. As a result, the courts cannot accept the problem and contribute to addressing similar cases of intersectional challenges that are encountered by minorities. The shift of resources to group management from service delivery is one more negative outcome, which refers to individual punishment. Instead, it seems to be rational to claim that structural and institutional reforms would be more helpful in achieving social justice (Crenshaw, 1991). In other words, political intersectionality is associated with an emphasis on the interdependent nature of institutions and vulnerable populations, where the former have power, and the latter have to handle their individually, receiving no assistance from the courts and agencies.

The focus on masculinity and male power lies in the core of political intersectionality. In the source by Crenshaw (2016), it is evident that the speaker argues against considering social gender and racial discrimination only in the framework of male dominance. It is stated, in particular, that the intersectional failure is to think that African-American men have problems only because they are not properly socialised to be responsible for their families and communities. One should agree that it is not appropriate that the discourse on social injustice is based merely on “patriarchal absences”, as assumed by Crenshaw (2016). For example, Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” alliance aims to help men of colour to overcome opportunity gaps and make sure that they have sufficient resources to provide their families. However, no program is organised for African-American women as there is no paradigm to include them in the discourse. Actually, there are programs that target both men and women in terms of poverty or employment, but a gendered approach to address the specific challenges of females is not accepted and implemented in practice.

The state plays a significant role in the formation and maintenance of gender differences and inequality, as it can be seen when analysing the gender order of societies. The state pursues social, demographic, and family policy, in some cases supporting certain versions of parenting roles and the balance of gender prescriptions. However, one should stress that the state is not a monolith in policy implementation. It is also not the only source of power, and resistance, challenges and conflicts of different agents are recognised as the most important subject of research in feminist sociology. As a system of male domination, patriarchy is reproduced through the state, family, division of labour, religion, education system and other social institutions. The researchers draw attention to the fact that, despite the policy of gender equality and the massive involvement of women in paid employment, their subordinate position exists in a wide variety of contexts (Crenshaw, 1991). Gender inequality is reproduced in spite of the policy of quotas, the creation of women’s parties, programs of equal opportunities in various institutions, etc. The secondary status of women persists, there are cultural contexts in which sexism, control and prescription of sex roles are still acceptable and do not cause criticism.

The solution suggested by Crenshaw (2016) refers to find a prism to create a deeper understanding of the difficulties that are faced by women. Namely, many ways in which African-American females are excluded from social, political, and economic life and employment should be studied in detail to find a relevant decision. The author emphasises the significance of making their voices loud for victimised women since their experience should become evident to society. By clearly stating the difficulties and differences that distinguish a particular woman, it is considered possible to make feminism more effective. Moreover, the production of knowledge is viewed as a situational process generated by the positions of the researcher. Researchers are called upon to capture many voices, explore many positions, realising their privileges and limitations within a complex matrix of patriarchal dominance (Crenshaw, 2016). The position of the oppressed does not necessarily generate political perspectives of liberation, but it certainly produces its own vision of reality.

As it was already discussed, intersectionality is not limited to identity issues. The research question and level of analysis may be different. So, Ang (1995) uses this methodological tool to study structural inequality – the phenomenon of persistent social injustice, which is undergoing profound transformations. Based on statistics and field research, the scholar demonstrates the effects of ethnitisation and feminisation of social discrimination. The paper works with the intersectionality of ethnicity and gender in the social location of economically deprived female residents, which still constitute one of the most stable and dense socially-disadvantaged populations in Australia. Intersectionality made it possible to draw attention to the socio-cultural mechanisms that contribute to their vulnerable position and the interdependent ethnic and gender characteristics.

Crenshaw (1991) develops intersectionality by examining various political projects and civic initiatives that mobilise social belonging. It can be understood as the emotional attachment to the social whole, which is manifested in communicative practices, and may remain unconscious and latent until a certain point. In the course of politicisation, from below or from above, it becomes an actual resource for collective action. Hegemonic forms of belonging are citizenship and ethnicity, and they can be organised everywhere. However, in modern society, such aspects of social belonging as religion or cosmopolitanism are increasingly becoming the factors of consolidation within the framework of political initiatives. In the feminist movement, ideas about the ethics of treating persons, for example, can be noted. It is the politicisation of belongingness that leads to the rise of both fundamentalist and human rights movements (Crenshaw, 1991). The intersectional approach allows the author to understand how various political projects construct the positions of their potential supporters, denoting their position in a complex power structure and appealing to categories of solidarity based on race, class, gender and ability.

According to Lykke (2006), a Swedish researcher, the recognition of intersectionality in gender studies and its influence outside of academic feminism are related to several circumstances. This approach redefines old research problems and contributes to counterintuitive results from empirical research. In addition, it brings together different paradigms of social knowledge that recognise a plurality of mechanisms of power in the context of domination and oppression. More to the point, the concept of intersectionality becomes public, integrates into political discourse, and thus acquires social significance. It used by the media, becoming common and understandable to various audiences and travelling across scientific disciplines. The category of intersectionality is integrated into the modern global human rights discourse, being discussed at international and regional levels when it comes to multiple forms of discrimination. Currently, intersectionality is especially actively used in the research of identity and life strategies formulation (Lykke, 2006). At the same time, identities are understood as being difficult to form in relation to the positions taken by individuals, and are the subject of contextualised transformations. For example, the analysis of the autobiographical narratives demonstrates how the narrators change their self-position and formulate their identities anew.

Regarding feminist activism, intersectionality offers the promise to overcome the contemporary social and racial segregation. Ang (1995) assumes that this success is possible due to the fact that intersectionality was reassembled as a common language that unites a wide variety of feminists, even those who were suspicious or openly critical of it. Therefore, appropriated by mainstream feminists in the US, intersectionality was not used to analyse differences within the feminist movement, as suggested by Crenshaw (1991). Nevertheless, it began to play the role of a theory that unites everyone to understand and attract society’s attention to existing differences. As a result of such a transition, it became possible to re-describe significant conflicts within the feminist movement in this new common language, and to present them as minor differences within a common framework Crenshaw (2016). Conflicts collapse means that the unity of the feminist movement can be reborn; those who remain outside the framework of the consensus can be excluded. The function of a universal language has turned into a dominant discourse, which has the power to reimagine and redefine the relationships of various directions of feminist theory. An example of such an operation of re-articulating and resolving conflict is the relationship between intersectionality and post-structuralism feminism.

It should be stated that there are some methodological complexities of using intersectionality in empirical research. Most of the work in this area is based on qualitative methodology, and, in particular, case study methodology. As a rule, the object of the study becomes a specific negatively privileged group that is experiencing lawlessness, oppression and exploitation. The subject of research is usually the multiple mechanisms of power that generate the studied experience. The observations and interviews are used as narrative data, and the immediate units of the empirical analysis are texts in which various categories are voiced corresponding to a complexly organised experience. Despite these limitations, intersectionality has become an integral part of feminist debate and gender politics. Researchers explore specific contexts of the formation of situational knowledge and to reflect on the personal position in this process. Finally, intersectionality allows focusing on key axes of power, including factors of social division that are denoted by several categories, such as gender, ethnicity / race, age, sexuality, and citizenship. However, depending on the historical and cultural context, as well as the research problem, other parameters of distinction and stratification can be actualised.

“Honour”-based violence study and prevention is another area of feminist activism that is discussed in the literature. It seems important to concentrate on one vivid example when the British court found the parents of 17-year-old Shafilea Ahmed guilty of the murder of their daughter, which was committed on the basis of the so-called “family honour” in 2003. Shafilea went missing in 2003, and her remains were found the following winter. During the investigation, the police suspected that the girl was killed by her parents, who came from Pakistan. Her lifestyle did not fit into the traditional norms of this community as Shafilea refused an arranged marriage, which her parents insisted on. After that, they began to claim that their daughter was “shaming” the family. The parents were charged with murder only in 2010, when their second daughter, who witnessed the murder, opened the truth.

The testimony of the murdered woman’s younger sister became the main evidence in this complicated case. As clarified by the prosecutor, the girl was murdered by her parents because, in their opinion, she disgraced her family in front of everyone, and they were disappointed. The girl wanted to meet young people like all her peers, but her parents did not share her views. In this case, it is evident that HBV is expressed in the coercion into marriage. For many traditional cultures, it is almost taken for granted that marriage is primarily a matter of relations between relatives. In Europe and the US, however, it is generally accepted that forced marriage against one’s will is a much worse violation of human rights than even rape. In some communities, families use forced marriage to try to suppress behaviours they consider dishonourable. If a young immigrant refuses to marry in accordance with the wishes of the family, a cycle of violence may begin.

However, the subtleties of the meaning of HBV are often lost when trying to understand the cases. The translations of terms that encompass honour rarely convey their entire culture-specific interpretation, distorting their meaning. For example, the Urdu word “izzat”, which translates to “honour” in English, refers to a wide range of sociocultural relationships and connections that unite family and community groups (Gill and Brah, 2014). Although the word honour has many positive meanings, it is often used to justify violence, abuse, and even murder. Its role in motivating and legitimising violence against women and girls should be better understood to effectively counter such crimes. It is important to point out that violation of honour does not always entail violence by men against women, and women are not the exclusive victims of it. However, the vast majority of cases involve violence committed by men against women in order to obtain and / or maintain the social construction of “honour” (Gill and Brah, 2014). Accordingly, in case of Shafilea Ahmed, the concern about protecting families from dishonour caused by violations of the current code of honour outweighs concern about the value of women’s lives and their autonomy.

The killing of Shafilea Ahmed reflects not only the issue with the violence inside the family, but also cultural and social difficulties. The fact that the girl was from a Pakistani family is closely associated with the notions of Muslimness, the perceived barbarism, and a lack of human rights in women. At the same time, it is a simplistic approach to explain similar cases, only linking them to the South Asian cultures that are largely determined as the ones that practice HBV and violence against women. However, the violence in families is not studied sufficiently since it depends on individual perpetrators. As rationally noted by Gill and Brah (2014), HBV occurs not only in Asian cultures, but also in Western and immigrant families, which prioritises the idea of the need to promote multiculturalism and pay attention to cultural specifics of families and communities. It is not appropriate to blame minority cultures for being responsible for HBV since the very criticism of illegal and harmful practices differs across communities.

The perspective of Australian feminism is applied in the article by Ang (1995), who states that feminism is a multicultural nation that has cultural differences, and it is of great importance to acknowledge the specific features of certain countries and populations. For example, in Australia, the Aboriginal women face discrimination from the white population, and they are also victimised in social terms. The mentioned author states that the presence of white / Western hegemony is expressed in the nature of the discourse that views females through the historical development of more than 500 years Ang (1995). This hegemony predominantly considers Aboriginal women as the population that cannot acquire power, which makes them feel as foreigners in their own country. The current world system is made by whites, which creates asymmetry in society. For example, Australian women are often categorised as non-English speaking females, but whiteness is perceived as a norm. Consequently, there is a lack of ambivalence and multiplicity in interpreting feminism in Australia.

The representatives of white feminism insist that they are fighting for equal rights with men in education and workplace and against domestic violence, while the issues of race and sexual orientation are outside the scope of their programs. Ang (1995) notes the signs of a deep split between white feminists and the representatives of indigenous peoples, and this is happening not only in Australia, but also in America, Canada and a number of other countries. Although the feminist movement in Australia is powerful, indigenous Australians still suffer from harassment, both within and outside their families. The huge influence of white feminism among Aboriginal women is undeniable, but, according to Ang (1995), Indigenous Australians are still excluded from the mainstream feminist discourse in their country. Social welfare indicators in Australia reflect the situation in which Aboriginal women are at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, making them one of the most socially marginalised and vulnerable groups.

Relating the situation with feminism in Australia to the theory of intersectionality by Crenshaw, it should be stressed that likewise African-American women in the US, Indigenous females of Australia face multiple forms of discrimination simultaneously. Ang (1995) develops the ideas intersectionality even though this term is not used in this author’s work. Namely, the author claims that whiteness is not a biological category but a political one. It is not the same to be white and “black” in the US, the UK, and Australia, for example. The interrelationships between the white female hegemony and local populations should be de-universalised to reveal the unique experiences of women (Ang 1995). In this connection, the statements by the mentioned author and Crenshaw (2016) look similar as both of them promote the change in the paradigm through which feminism should be viewed. The differences should be considered with caution and comprehension to compose the approach of partiality instead of inclusiveness since the generalisation of experiences proved to be ineffective to achieve equality and social justice.

Conclusion

To conclude, it should be clarified that intersectionality claims that racial, ethnic, and social minority women are likely to face different types of discrimination at the same time. The intersection of domestic violence, cultural prejudices, disability and other related issues is not sufficiently studied in the literature, which makes it important to develop the understanding of this theory in the context of feminism. This paper revealed that Crenshaw is one of the key scholars and populariser of intersectionality. Based on several real-life examples of violence against women, it was found that the intersectional approach addresses the pressing challenges of feminism and gender studies. This approach allows maintaining the political orientation of gender studies and contributes to the convergence of the tasks of resistance to inequality and its study, paying attention to specific culturally defined contexts.

The discussion of “honour”-based violence and white feminism hegemony in Australia showed that intersectionality is specific to a culture, historical context, and interrelationships with the dominant powers. In general, the key to overcome multiple discrimination forms is to reinvent the paradigm to de-universalise the experiences of women, so that courts, policies, laws, as well as social and political institutions would protect them. Thus, intersectionality informs both theory and activism of feminism, declaring that the current paradigm cannot reflect the accrual problems that are faced by women. At the same time, intersectionality suggests how to overcome them by paying greater attention to the study of unique experiences and speaking about the introduction of more elaborate policies.

Reference List

Ang, I. (1995) ‘’I’m a feminist but…: “other” women and postnational feminism’, in Caine, B. and Pringle, R. (eds) Transitions: New Australian feminisms. Allen and Unwin: St Leonards, pp. 57-73.

Blue, V. J. (2020). What we know about the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The New York Times. Web.

Crenshaw, K. (1991) ‘Mapping the margins: intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color’, Stanford Law Review, 6, pp. 1241-1299.

Crenshaw, K. (2016) ‘On intersectionality.’ Keynote, WOW – Women of the World Festival, 2016, Southbank Center, London, UK.

Gill, A. K. and Brah, A. (2014) ‘Interrogating cultural narratives about ‘honour’-based violence’, European Journal of Women’s Studies, 2(1), pp. 72-86.

Lykke, N. (2006) ‘Intersectionality – a useful concept for feminist theory?’, in. Pavlidou, T.- S. (ed.) Gender studies. trends/tensions in Greece and other European countries. Thessanoliki: Zitis, pp. 151-160.

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