Feminism at a Crossroads
Feminism in India by Ruhi Jha
The term ‘feminism’ is not something new. It has always been omnipresent, it is just that people are encountering it more these days because of further awareness has been spread by great feminist leaders like Bibi Dalair Kaur, B.R. Ambedkar, Jyotirao Phule, Leila Seth, Indira Jaising, and many more. We should be thankful to these people as they are the pillars that have helped shaping Indian feminism.
However, the concerning factor that today’s mainstream feminism has been negligent about is that it doesn’t cater to the needs and aspirations of women of all classes and sections. Feminism, to a large extent, seems to stay divided between the urban women and the rural women. This division nullifies the basic aim that feminism is supposed to achieve. As Gerda Lerner in her book ‘The Creation of Patriarchy’ rightly mentions, “class is not a separate construct from gender, rather class is expressed in genderic terms.”
Over the course of time, feminism has mainly focused on the issues experienced by upper class and middle-class women which invariably meant that the focus was more on educated women stuck in traditionalist roles while having a ‘modern mind- set’. This overshadows the struggles faced by rural Dalit women, tribal women, queer women, women from lower economic backgrounds, women with disabilities, etc. Their oppressions and vulnerabilities are very different from that of urban straight cis women. However, their sufferings stay limited to near facts and data.
In this way, the very essence of feminism gets lost due to the social and economic differences. To rectify this problem, Kimberly Crenshaw, as an advocate and a professor of law at Columbia Law School and the University of California, introduced the concept of ‘intersectionality’ 30 year ago to feminist theory. Crenshaw noted some of the ways in which intersectional feminism helps activists advocate for women of all backgrounds and identities.
Intersectional feminism examines the overlapping systems of oppression and discrimination that women face, based not just on gender but on ethnicity, sexuality, economic background, and a number of other axes.
I think Crenshaw’s approach gives a perspective to examine and implement feminism on different parameters keeping in mind different subjects but at the same time keeping them under the same umbrella.
But this aspect is not altogether new for Indian feminism.
Tracing back to 1947-1950s, during The formation of Indian Constitution, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar had a similar approach. He stood to eradicate the gender inequality and bring women on equal surface as that of men by giving all women equal opportunities and rights. Being a Dalit, Ambedkar had closely witnessed the violence against marginalised women at higher rates, including types of violence that are specifically done to ‘Dalit women’. He also knew that Dalit women face different challenges than women in higher castes since they are more likely to be poor, uneducated and socially marginalised.
Intersectionality draws attention to the different invisibilities that exist in feminism, in anti-racism, anti-caste, class politics, etc. Basically, it compels us to attend to many different aspects of power that not everyone experiences. This is one way we can draw our attention to what has been erased from our histories, what we need to unlearn, what we need to challenge, and who needs to be given space to share power and have a voice of their own. More importantly, it helps us draw attention to the various ways in which power is sustained and limited to only a certain caste/class/race/gender in society and how oppression thus operates and works.
Oppression cannot be seen or understood as something that exists in the same manner for everybody. There are layers to it which overlap and intersect, and this is precisely what intersectional feminism tries to explain. By the implication of this, we can also say that feminism is something that reflects on the experiences and the various multi- layered aspects of people from different class/caste/race/ethnicity and cultural backgrounds. The experiences also differ based on their sexuality, gender, age, etc.
Intersectional feminism takes cognizance of all these differences and talks about feminism from the different axes of oppression. In other words, intersectional feminism challenges the dominant idea of feminism which is overtly white/upper-class/upper-caste/ableist/cis heterosexual and which fails to take into account the marginalized standpoints.
An important aspect that one needs to remember while talking about intersectionality is ‘privilege’. Privilege is important because it is much easier to point out how and why people are oppressed than to point out who is the oppressor and how their dominance is continuing in various ways because of their privileged position in the society.
Privilege should not obscure itself from those classes who have it and benefit from it. So, without an understanding of privilege and intersectionality, the feminist movement cannot call itself anti- oppression. Feminist praxis cannot be fully understood unless we understand how issues like caste, class, gender, ability, sexuality among others intersect and influence each other.
To give you an example, an upper caste woman feeling oppressed because she does not have the freedom to work in the public domain cannot define feminism solely based on her own experiences, because it does not represent the issues faced by the marginalized women who are exposed to unregulated and unorganized work structures for their survival. The marginalized women’s suffering is intersectional because of their identity as marginalized.
This does not mean that the issues faced by the privileged are not issues per se, but that those issues alone do not define feminism, and not realizing this would basically mean glossing over the many layers of oppression and erasing many other experiences. It’s not about who suffers more. Further, while we try and understand intersectional feminism, the mere inclusion of women from the marginalized communities is not going to address issues of ‘all women’.
What we need to challenge are the structures in which these inclusions are being framed and taking place. There are multiple grounds on which women and marginalized communities identify themselves, and their identities are not just multiple, but very different. This ‘difference’ has to become a part of our feminist analyses. There has to be a clear rejection of a homogeneous platform to tackle discrimination. Intersectional feminism must be applied in a way that all different aspects of identity are taken into consideration, all oppressions are seen as influencing and controlling other oppressions, none of them working singularly or separately.
What one cannot forget is that eventually, it’s about interrogating further deeply into the question of power. It’s about asking – Who is powerful? Who has the power to not care? Who has the power to say No and walk away? Who has the power to not talk about something because it doesn’t affect them? Critiques arising out of privileged spaces need to be seen from this context. If the privileged feel threatened or alarmed because of the critiques made on their privileges, then the powerful are framing themselves as oppressed. This is where we need to understand the importance of intersectionality. This is where we need to understand how structural discrimination works and supports unequal opportunities and access which go a long way in deciding who continues to live with power under their fists and who suffers from it.