Guest Blog: Intersectionality

Women's symbol

In this week's guest blog post Richa Okhandiar writes about her experience of intersectionality in Scotland.

When I first came across the concept of intersectionality – it blew my mind.

I became actively interested in feminism around the age of 15 through being influenced by my older sister, discovering riot grrl and kickass role models in music and art who challenged gender norms a la Kathleen Hanna, Brody Dalle, and Carrie Brownstein. It was a complete age of discovery – I loved that there was this movement that accepted women as people who could be talented, thoughtful, screw-ups and genuine bad asses. Feminism and I just clicked, we were meant to be, it was fated.

There was always one drawback for me – all of the feminist icons I would read about, see in music and be heralded as role models were pretty much always white. It was always a bummer that I never saw anyone that looked like me or that my experience as a women had to be drawn from the Western, middle class part of my identity rather than the second-generation Indian born person born and raised in the UK. Even when I went to university and continued my education into feminism it became evident that the vast majority of accessible mainstream writing was all from one perspective. So I'll say it again, when I first came across intersectionality – it blew my mind!

The concept of intersectionality is a fairly simple one: it's the view that that oppression exists and affects people for their multiple layers of identity such as race, class, culture, sexuality and sex-identity. Intersectionality is crucial to understanding the complexities involved when it comes to oppression – especially in feminism and understanding the difference in women's struggles depending on their intersecting identities. It challenges the absence of black (and other ethnic and cultural minority) women from feminist studies and brings to light their own struggles in relation to their race, gender and ethnicity. Women are often lumped together as a way of ignoring their different struggles and if women are treated as one group then their needs cannot be fully addressed.

Intersectionality really made it clear to me why people who claimed that 'they don't see race' or espoused the notion that 'we live in a post­racial world’ are incredibly damaging to society, they may as well be saying 'Haven't you heard?! Everyone is white now! Your history doesn't matter now, just use ours'. That attitude erases people from history and history from people; it removes the identity and struggles of people with disabilities, people of colour, and LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered) folks among many more.

In my own experience the importance of intersectionality really came to light when I worked with Shakti Women’s Aid last year for my master’s dissertation, which was on the topic of gender based violence in Scotland. Shakti provides support to Black Minority Ethnic (BME) women, children and young people experiencing and fleeing domestic abuse from their partners, ex-partners and other members of the extended family or community. Founded in 1986, they are based in Edinburgh and offer support, advocacy and information. BME women will often go to more than 17 organisations before receiving the proper safety and support they need – a startling figure that highlights the gap that some women face in dire circumstances.

As an agency, Shakti never turns anyone away who is in need, including invisible minorities. They are, however, the only organisation in Scotland that has the understanding to actively and safely support women in a variety of conditions. Stereotyping minority women adds to their oppression, so an effort must be made to understand the complexities of their lives and abuse; only then can service providers hope to create appropriate multifaceted strategies and responses. BME women experience inequality and barriers to support not only on the basis of their gender but also because of their ‘race’, ethnicity, class, caste and culture. Although gender can be a major motivator, the care and support you receive can vastly differ depending on your background.

Mainstream feminism is guilty of ignoring these voices; subsequently, the image of feminism that emerges is overwhelmingly white, middle class, straight, cis-gendered (opposite of transgendered, people whose gender is assigned to them at birth) and able-bodied. People experience inequality in different ways and to different degrees; there is no one way to experience sexism, and intersectionality teaches us that all stories and experiences matter and are valid.

Oppression, discrimination and judgement are experienced in various ways because of women’s intersecting identities. Feminism is not just for white, middle class, cis-gendered women; intersectionality means that we recognise that people’s lives are shaped by intersecting identities such as class, race, ethnicity, disability, sexuality and gender identity and if we wish to pursue gender equality we must tackle the realities of the complex nature of women's lives.


Image used under a Creative Commons licence Patricia Feaster

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