Postscript: Addressing Intersectional Anxiety

By Dr Shreya Atrey, Lecturer in Law (University of Bristol Law School)

Photo: Keith Rowley (Flickr)

I recently published an article in the Human Rights Quarterly titled ‘Women’s Human Rights: From Progress to Transformation, An Intersectional Response to Martha Nussbaum.’ As the title suggests the article is an extended rumination over Martha Nussbaum’s earlier article in the same journal titled ‘Women’s Progress and Women’s Human Rights.’ My article examines the account of women’s progress that Nussbaum presented. In particular, it asks the ‘intersectional question’ about women’s progress made under the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The account of progress appears wanting when this question is asked; and I try to spell out the reasons for why post-colonial, Dalit and so-called ‘third world’ feminisms fall by the wayside of women’s progress when progress is examined closely. I argue that progress is transformative only when it is inclusive, i.e. intersectional in that it sees women not only as disadvantaged by their sex or gender alone but also on the basis of their race, colour, religion, caste, sexual orientation, age, disability, etc. Readers may see the article for more on this, especially pages 877-884 for a Dalit feminist critique.

Here, I want to pre-empt two kinds of readings which are given to intersectional scholarship like this one. I am not saying that either Nussbaum’s or my own article opens up intersectional scholarship to these readings. But that often, this kind of work is read in a particular light which casts a shadow of anxiety over intersectionality. I want to air and address two ways in which it manifests itself and show that there are ways of overcoming it and finding such scholarship worthwhile.

First, intersectionality especially as done in this article is seen as doing too little and in fact nothing. In pointing out that Dalit women may have been ill-served by Brahmanical feminism in India, one is pointing to nothing much really. Intersectionality shows us that structures of oppression associated with race, sex, class etc are co-constituted but doesn’t then tell us what to do about them. What then does one gain by reading works which show intersectional oppression at all? My sense would be that, first, we need to query the liberal assumption that suddenly we all just ‘get’ intersectionality and then, second, reaffirm the epistemic contribution of intersectional works in reclaiming their own space of knowledge (re)creation. This becomes amply clear with the example of Vishaka v State of Rajasthan 1997 AIR 3011 given in the article. The received wisdom around Vishaka, one of the most significant cases of domestic implementation of CEDAW, has been that in recognising sexual harassment at workplace judicially via CEDAW, the Supreme Court of India enforced women’s human rights in the absence of a domestic legislation on the subject (Nussbaum 612-616). That is indeed true. But it is also true that Vishaka was occasioned by the brutal, public, gang-rape of Bhanwari Devi, a Dalit woman, because she had crossed caste lines in campaigning against the upper-caste and illegal practice of child marriage. Bhanwari Devi’s case was left to the criminal justice system while feminists expedited the cause of recognising sexual harassment at the Supreme Court. Twenty-six years later, Bhanwari Devi’s case remains pending at the Rajasthan High Court, her sexual assault reduced to a caste-less category of ‘unwelcome sexual behaviour’. In continuing to say that Vishaka was an assured sign of success of the women’s movement and CEDAW, we are missing the plain fact of causality that the reason why Bhanwari Devi was targeted at all was that she was Dalit and had transgressed caste barriers in her fearless campaigning. The feminist praise for Vishaka misses the continued side lining of Dalit women from the feminist cause and is simply an inaccurate and unfair rendering of women’s struggles which are not just a matter of sex or gender but fundamentally determined by other identities. Praise for Vishaka is inconsistent with liberal ease with intersectionality that we can appreciate intersectionality without necessarily critiquing the (feminist) structures which lead to it. That simply cannot be. One cannot possibly both appreciate and ask ‘so what’ about what intersectionality does.  If we truly ‘get’ intersectionality then we would be humble about the status quo achieved through the gains made by the feminist movement; and also, genuine in our critical reading of those very gains to see if they’ve been all inclusive in letter and spirit. Until that is the case, we’d need to continue to seek out and hear stories of intersectional losses as telling us a starkly different story about the same reality and how the world and the knowledge of the world around that reality are constructed. It is to that alternative storytelling and epistemic genealogy that this kind of work belongs.

Second, this contribution of intersectionality is read not as transformative but destructive of the women’s movement. It is seen as fracturing the women’s movement, alienating our sisters, and paying too high a cost in terms of diminished solidarity. Intersectionality, even if a useful field of study, is strategically irrational in trying to assert its place. Differences, apparently, are too much for the women’s movement to handle. If the Indian women’s movement has anything to offer to this paranoia it is that this is based on an assumption which itself is flawed—that there is something like a single women’s movement at all, actually or aspirationally. There are, in fact, many women’s movements in India (and elsewhere) at different points in time and their collaborations and clashes have ultimately enriched feminist theory and praxis. Women’s location in terms of class, caste, region, language, sexual orientation, disability, age etc have created movements that conceived of women’s struggles in terms of their relationships, of both similarities and differences. Differences, like similarities then, are not something located outside of this discourse but at the very heart of it. #MeTooIndia reflects much of this understanding in today’s context. Intersectionality merely offers a friendly hand to feminism in not denying these differences and in turn seeing them as inevitable and relational. In doing so, it engenders solidarity which is based on an honest appreciation of the diversity of women’s struggle without the fear that this honesty makes women or the movement appear as divided. Intersectionality decries such a reading of the women’s movement and of itself and one can only hope that it is read and interpreted as a sign of unity.

This postscript is then a preface on how to read works of intersectionality. Go on, peruse some now.

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