Two women walk into a grocery store. One of them is black, the other is biracial and ‘passes’ as white. At the cash counter, a young employee chats animatedly with the woman she thinks is white, bills her purchases and takes her check. When it’s the black woman’s turn, the cashier asks for two pieces of ID, and has the gall to call it ‘standard policy’.
This is an actual incident, later recounted by the same black woman in a film on racial inequality, and it’s the reason why our approach to oppression needs to be intersectional. Intersectionality was a political idea created by black women in the USA, when they realised that mainstream or white feminism, was simply a blanketing of women’s issues, and therefore did nothing for women of colour.
Recognising difference – that’s the game. Not looking at women as a monolith, or a homogenous group with the same set of concerns. One of the counter-arguments to intersectionality has been to say: “Who needs labels, we’re all human!” But it doesn’t matter that all humans share DNA, or that we all crawled out of a pre-historic swamp or that we were all created in the image of God, because there are many things that divide us, and we can’t act like they don’t. In fact, differences of race, sexuality, gender, religion, caste, class and more can create new and unique problems that a unidimensional ‘humanist’ approach is incapable of handling. And problems have a way of converging when you, as is usually the case, are a composite of many identities.
Apparently the presence of what is medically called the ‘female’ reproductive system makes women subordinate to men. It’s been that way since a ‘biological’ hierarchy was created between the two binary sexes – men are strong, aggressive protectors of possessions and women the meek, generous caregivers to all. Obviously, these definitions do not sit well with us today, and for good reason.’The second sex’, as Simone de Beauvoir calls ‘em, are denied jobs, married off, physically violated, forced to depend on men, simply because that’s the place the patriarchy (a man’s world) put them in.
#YesAllWomen must bear the brunt of this patriarchy. But some women more than others. Women who belong to a racial community that has historically been marginalised face two layers of oppression. If you’re a black woman in any of the white majority areas of the United States, you are twice as more likely to not have a job. “A white woman makes 77 cents and a black woman makes 69 cents of that dollar,” says Janai Nelson, of the NAACP. You are more likely to be punished for laughing. And you are more likely to be shot dead. It’s nearly the same for Latinx women in the USA. Here in India, Dravidian women from southern states are constantly made fun of (like in this popular North Indian poet’s monologue), while women from the North East are stereotyped as ‘loose’, and must face racial discrimination from mainland Indians.
More often than not, tensions sprout between religious communities, as between Hindus and Muslims in India, Jewish Israelis and Muslim Palestinians, or between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhist extremists in Myanmar. But it’s women’s bodies that become the site of communal violence. In times of extreme religious strife, women from the ‘other community’ have been kidnapped, beaten, and raped, and the partition of India in 1947 has been the biggest example of this.
For Indians, caste identity too creates the condition for violence against ‘Dalit women‘. Savarna or upper-caste Hindu women do not have their bodies literally sold into ‘temple prostitution’ the way Devadasi women are. Savarna woman don’t get pushed into sex work for lack of other options. Dalit women are more likely to be raped and murdered, denied medical care or work by upper-caste doctors and employers.
When it comes to representation, lesbian and bisexual women have to make do with an image of themselves that is often fetishised and packaged for the male gaze. And the few halfway decent portrayals are killed off. A GLAAD count showed only 10% of films featured lesbian characters. And in Indian media too, queer women’s representation is miniscule. But that’s the least of your concerns as a queer woman. Medical practices are ill-equipped to address health issues unique to queer women. And sexual assault – the looming demon in every woman’s life – is significantly higher for queer women. In fact, queer women in India are subject to ‘corrective rape’ by their own families.
It starts when people in your immediate surroundings prohibit you from identifying with anything but the gender assigned to you at birth. Discrimination against trans people can be perpetuated in small and petty ways like continuing to use male pronouns, but can escalate to violent punishment as well. Transmisogyny – that’s the term to remember when trans women made up 72% of hate crime murders in the US alone. In India, trans women are denied work and basic human dignity, and are left with few work opportunities besides begging or sex work. And even after Indian universities began accepting transgender students, the low enrolment rate indicates how limited trans women’s access to education is.
When you’re a person with disability, you also have to worry about how the majority of your city’s infrastructure has not been built with you in mind. Missing ramps and elevators, crumbling sidewalks, low availability of wheelchairs or crutches, no learning material in braille, no peers who communicate in sign language, or peers who, instead of understanding your mental health needs, think you’re possessed, or a burden. Man, it’s gotta take some courage to even want to get out of your home and face all of these shortcomings every day of your life. Of course, all of this is not independent of the usual concerns women have – general safety, unsolicited advances and more. In fact, women with disabilities are even more vulnerable to sexual assault than non-disabled women.
363 million people in India live below the poverty line. In the USA, 14.8% of the total population is classified as poor. In China, it’s 11.2%, and in the UK, it’s 1 in 5 people. Any kid in school will be able to tell you what this means: little or no access to education, housing or food; which means no knowledge of your basic human rights and no access to good health; which means little or no means of income, and very little space to voice your concerns. Imagine being a disabled queer woman of colour, and not having the economic means to help yourself.
Different women experience oppression differently. And privilege also plays a huge part in the equation. For example, men have more privileges than women, but it’s also true that in India, upper-class savarna Hindu women have more privileges than Dalit or Muslim men. To illustrate further here’s one of those choice YouTube comments:
Yes. Only a certain class of people have access to the internet, and devices that use the internet. But again, it’s those layers that determine that privilege. I would imagine the average heterosexual male has more internet privileges than somebody who’s closeted. And here’s another one for ya: an urban elite non-binary kid has more privileges than a trans woman from a lower-income group. There’s stats for all this, but also take a gander at what is essentially a live-action video of how privilege separates us all. The participants in this video stand in a row, hands linked, as a perfect emblem of human first, everything else later. But their privilege or their lack of it literally rends them apart. And honestly that’s how it works in the real world.
The eight types of oppression mentioned here are still fairly broad – nested in each are other problems that often go unnoticed. Which is why the world desperately needs intersectionality – to help us explore all these complicated and overlapping differences and find solutions for all of them, not just the most prominent ones.
“Humans are are born free, but everywhere in chains.” That’s Rousseau, but I’m paraphrasing to be more gender-neutral here. He wrote that in the 18th century, when slavery, prostitution, and the hard demands laid on the working classes were among the most visible forms of inequality in the Industrial West. Today, the same sentiment has taken on simultaneously local and global dimensions, to include the various ways that oppression works, and we need to be ready and willing to deal with it.