Updated: Dec 30, 2020
Intersectional feminism as a concept was originally coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. It explained the disparity between the injustices called out by the feminist movement and the additional discriminatory experience that African American women felt as being both a woman and black in the United States at the time.
The life experiences, battles and triumphs of all people, not just women, are so vastly different and complicated that not one movement can provide a universal answer for their problems. Feminism as a general concept is a very broad fight, and as second and third wave feminism have progressed, the urgency for feminism as a whole to be inclusive of struggles of all women is becoming an increasingly important conversation. However, it is also very apparent that whilst great strides are being made to account for as many facets of the complicated experiences that women of colour have, the fact remains that the individual diverse and cultural backgrounds of these women, for the most part, are being ignored.
It is more important than ever for us to ensure that diversity is included when we talk about being ‘intersectional feminists’, as different cultural backgrounds may influence the role that these women may take in their lives and surrounding relationships. Furthermore, such roles may even be that they abide by traditions and practices that are deemed “backward” or contradictory to what is perceived to be the “correct” and the “right” form of feminism.
However, it is also very apparent that whilst great strides are being made to account for as many facets of the complicated experiences that women of colour have, the fact remains that the individual diverse and cultural backgrounds of these women, for the most part, are being ignored.
The opposing ideals of western feminism’s liberal individualism versus the collectivist societies that South Asian countries form, makes it difficult for the movement of intersectional feminism to gain traction and the respect it deserves. Culturally, the concept of feminism is seen as something as a product of the west and is perceived as not aligning with the cultural and/or religious values of the land. Where western women are applauded and praised for being able to “do it all” as an individual, South Asian cultures place a lot more importance on family values, with defined roles and the needs of your family and community outweighing your own. Whilst that in itself comes with its own whole host of problems as well, inherently we are a community that looks out for one another and feminism as a movement will always and will continue to face its hurdles if it does not work to include cultural differences that may not align with women bearing complete responsibility for everything. However, this is not to discount the extreme injustices that many women face in the region and the complete social, political and economic equality of the genders is absolutely crucial. The Thomas Reuters Foundation, through 6 key indicators (Healthcare, Discrimination, Cultural Traditions, Sexual Violence, Non-Sexual violence and, Human Trafficking) have concluded that India and Pakistan, respectively, are the first and sixth most dangerous countries in the world for women.
There is no sugar-coating it, we need feminism, but we also need it to adapt and be inclusive.
Despite the cultural conflicts, the beginnings of the women’s rights movement in the subcontinent was always intertwined with the successes and failures of women in the west, as well as, the main priority at the time – independence from the colonial rulers. As a result, women’s issues have always taken a backseat to the greater problems plaguing the country and still continue to this day as many countries in the region face economic hardship. However, it is glaringly evident that the simple concept of women’s rights and independence is not entirely foreign to us. All countries in South Asia have had at least one female leader/head of state who was democratically elected by the people, with Sri Lanka being the first country in the world to elect a female leader in 1960, Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Of course, the individual reputation and respective negative legacy of all these women must be acknowledged, but the point is that for a subcontinent that has some of the highest gender-based discrimination and some countries classified as being the most dangerous countries in the world for women, how have we reached these milestones before our so-called ‘developed’ counterparts?
Once again, I must reiterate – it’s complicated. Yes, we have elected female leaders, but many of them have benefitted from being from privileged and political legacies. Yes, family values are one the many beautiful parts of our cultures, but life is unexpected, and many women don’t have a choice, and have to bear responsibility for everything.
And yes, discussing feminism and women’s rights is a conversation seeped in privilege. For those of us raised in the western world, many of us have benefitted from never having to face some of the pressures that maybe our own mothers may have felt growing up. There is no be-all, end-all answer that will magically fix everything, but by including these cultural idiosyncrasies it’s a step forward in the right direction.
Intersectional feminism needs to find its balance in allowing women of colour to be included into the conversation and account for their unique and diverse individual cultural backgrounds and history. As part of the diaspora, despite being raised alongside other cultures, we cannot be vilified for the choices that we make that may be compatible with our cultural values but “wrong” in the eyes of the west.