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I Know What the Caged Bird Sings: Understanding the Intersectional Approach towards Gendered Violence

"If we are not intersectional, some of us, the most vulnerable, are going to fall through the cracks"
By ~ Kimberle Crenshaw

The material collected in this ‘Gender Hub’ illustrates how important it is to bring a gender lens to understanding radicalised violence. However, gender is not the only marker of identity which impacts upon how people will experience the world and their place in it. Amongst the people we identify as ‘men’, ‘women’ or ‘trans’, there are differences and varied experiences of oppression as a result of other facets of identity. Kimberle Crenshaw famously captured this important idea with the concept of ‘intersectionality’, which adds a vital dimension to further illuminate gender analysis.

The word intersectionality was coined by Kimberle Crenshaw, an American lawyer, civil rights advocate and activist in her paper “Mapping Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics and Violence” to explain the multiplicity of power relations through which women of colour suffer “multiple forms of exclusion” (Crenshaw, 1991) . She later on extended this concept to all the vulnerable groups who are the target of different kinds of intersectional exclusions by commenting that “not just black women, but people with disabilities, immigrants, LGBTQ people, indigenous people.” (Crenshaw, 2017)

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By exploring the dynamics of violence and disempowerment she made intersectionality a dynamic lens to see and understand the “othering” of marginalised groups. Intersectionality breaks through the politicization of survivors’ experience by bringing the hidden details to the fore.

Crenshaw divided intersectionality into three parts which are as follows:

  1. Structural intersectionality
    Structural intersectionality refers to the social intersection of power relations that create a “matrix of domination”. Some examples of the structural intersectionality are access to employment, housing and wealth benefits. According to Crenshaw, the factor of class plays a big role in perpetuating structural intersectionalities.

  2. Political intersectionality
    The concept of political intersectionality refers to the political bifurcation of two subordinated groups that frequently pursue conflicting political agendas. The need to split one's political energies to pursue different agendas can disempower one of the two conflicting objectives. The example of political intersectionality could be seen in the intricate interlocking of gender and race for the women of colour who were torn to fight between patriarchy and racism.
  3. Representational intersectionality
    Representational intersectionality takes places through the distortion of representative images of a group in order to undertone their complexity. A potent example of representational intersectionality is the early representations of feminism only representing feminist struggles for an isolated “housewife” and a complete negation for the women of colour and working class women are were not housewives/mothers.
  4. Experiential intersectionality
    This is quite similar to political intersectionality but here the struggle is personal where there is a constant tussle of various intersections of experience. People who are a member of more than one social group often fail to decompose their experience of being a member of each. As an example, the experience of being a ‘third world woman’ is not just the experience of being from a third world and hence “a colonized slave” but also the experience of being a woman who is also shacked in the internal patriarchy of her indigenous tribe. The experience of third world women is a proper compound of two or many more experiential intersectionalities.

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Patricia Hill Collins further extends this concept and calls it a ‘‘matrix of domination” and advances a practical approach towards intersectionality in her book “Black Feminist Thought” (1990). The book argues explicitly that intersectionality is not just a form of inquiry and critical analysis but necessarily also a form of praxis that challenges inequalities and opens a “collective space for both recognizing common threads across complex experiences of injustice and responding to them politically” ( Collins, 2014 in Ferree 2018).

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She further explains that people who are at the intersection of various power struggles often struggle with the complexity of their lives. In this scenario, intersectionality comes as a dynamic form of politics that resists and questions violence both physical and symbolic. Violence according to Collins acts as a “navigation tool” in naturalizing dominance in society. Different organization of power rely on different forms of violence like the interpersonal violence that women experience in terms of domestic abuse (sexism), Islamophobia toward Muslims, extermination towards Jews (religious intolerance), the routinized violence against racial and indigenous communities (racism), and the state-sanctioned violence of warfare (nationalism). Collectively, these expressions of violence create a “malleable conceptual glue that both structures the forms that violence takes within distinctive systems of power and that facilitates their smooth interaction” (Collins year). Therefore, violence breeds a contentious site of intersectionality where power relations become potent and visible. To resist this domination, Collins further shows how intersectionality also acts as a way of engaging with resisting. The example of hashtag #BlackLivesMatter from 2012 to 2016 exemplifies the proliferation of Black feminism which blew the façade of the state-sanctioned racial violence. This intersectional struggle brought problems like deaths of several young African American men and sexual assault on African American women to the fore and they acted as a catalyst for a strong intersectional revolution on the social media. Therefore, intersectionality is both a tool to access vulnerability and also a weapon to fight and resist. In order words, it makes us understand that “different things make different women vulnerable” (Crenshaw, 2017).

  1. Bauman, Zygmunt. 1989. Modernity and the Holocaust. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  2. Hill, Collins Patricia. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge, 2000.
  3. Collins, Patricia Hill. 1998a. “It’s All in the Family: Intersections of Gender, Race, and Nation.” Hypatia 13 (3): 62–82.
  4. Collins, Patricia Hill. 1998b. “The Tie That Binds: Race, Gender and U.S. Violence.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 21 (5): 918–938.
  5. Collins, Patricia Hill. 2001. “Like One of the Family: Race, Ethnicity, and the Paradox of US National Identity.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 24 (1): 3–28.
  6. Crenshaw, Kimberlé Williams. 1991. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43 (6): 1241–1299.
  7. Crenshaw. Kimberle Williams. 2017. Different things make different women vulnerable. The African American Policy Forum. Accessed on 21st January. Article Link

Mobilising the Grounds for Transversal Politics: A Practice of Building Peace Countering the Intersections of Violence

Political solidarity as Chandra Talpade Mohanty defines is "the recognition of common interest" (Mohanty, 2003, p.7) in order to fight against the symbolic violence of the state. The peace movement, Women in Black, which manifests internationally in response to violence is an example of civil activism for peace. Their predominant aim has been to counter against the issues of military chauvinism, imperial colonization, and religious fundamentalism. It can be stated that the disposition of their politics is to shun asymmetrical power relations to bring peace back into the world that has been ravaged by war politics.

TThe genesis of this movement can be traced back to 1991 when a group of feminists calling themselves "Žene u Crnom protiv Rata" (Croatian) which means "Women in Black against War" held their first public demonstration. This group is present in countries e.g. the UK, US, Serbia, India, Israel and Austria, where women host a silent vigil against the involvement of their countries in militarism and war. In some places, women offer emotional and psychological support to men who "refuses to fight" (Cockburn, 2008, p.7). Consequently, men, women, and members of the LGBT community fight with equal zeal in order to resist the hegemonic presence of militarism.

women in black Source: Women In Black For Justice Against War (https://www.swv.am/index.php/en/our-pillars/equality-and-non-discrimination/2-uncategorised/540-women-in-black-for-justice-against-war)

This model of working can be further analysed by viewing it through the lens of "transversal politics". This is a term first used by Nira Yuval-Davis and was later extended by Cynthia Cockburn in her work on pacifist feminism. Davis describes the term as "a mode of coalition politics" that recognizes the differential positionings of the individuals and uses an interventionist approach in realizing mutual goals without falling into the trap of identity politics (Davis, 1997, p.25). This theory exemplifies how a movement can become transnational in its endeavor to initiate peace. To put it more coherently, it is a campaign "for peace with justice, for international strategies of social and political inclusion and economic equity" (Cockburn, 2007, p.1). Women in Black realizes this common goal by not remaining unilaterally situated but inhabiting different positions. For example, in Israel they fight against the issue of settler colonization, in India they are fighting against the draconian laws like "Armed Special Forces Act", whereas in London they hold a regular vigil on every Wednesday to resist the UK’s government involvement in military interventions and tactics of war. There is plurality in their spirit and intention yet they have a common dream for global peace.

This democratic working always upholds the value of acknowledging differences in identity by keeping the intersectional approach at the fore. By incorporating the ideas of "constructive logic" and "shared actions" this movement deals with the differences that are usually killed, tortured and erased – for example, "British housing estates, on Irish streets, in Bosnian villages and Palestinian refugee camps" (Cockburn, 2004, p. 5). It is important to point out that Cynthia Cockburn conceptualizes "transversal politics" as a strategy used to attain the peace that involves shifting, standing and radicalizing archaic views. It envisages a place in the future from where past changes can be seen but it also contains a cautious conditional tense for further development: what 'may have become' (Davis, 1997, p.27). Women in Black is a well stated exemplification of an attempt to challenge archaic models of warmongering and bloodshed with the hope of "becoming" pluralistic, humanitarian and feminist. By using the charter of concepts like "transversal politics" and transnational solidarity, this movement is earnestly formulating collaborations to resist the coercive presence of militarization which can eventually bring an end to wars and can foster sustainable peace and freedom.

From the above examples, it is well exemplified that local and grassroots initiates have played an indispensable role in breaking the links between masculinity and violence and in combating radical violence more specifically. These initiatives have success due to their power of community action and realistic prevention plans. Because of their local approach and a strong relationship with the community they are able to make allies and address security concerns to external organizations. Therefore, an alliance between the grassroots community and governmental organizations is a strong way to optimize prevention of radical violence by a strategic focus on youth engagement, gender programs and education oriented towards de-radicalization.

  1. Cockburn, C. (2010). Gender Relations as Causal in Militarization and War. International Feminist Journal of Politics, 12(2), pp.139–157.
  2. Cockburn, C, Hunter, L. (1999). Transversal politics and translating practices. Introduction to a thematic issue on 'Transversal Politics', Soundings: A Journal of Politics and Culture 12: 88–93.
  3. Cockburn, C. (1998). The Space between Us: Negotiating Gender and National Identities in Conflict. London: Zed.
  4. Cockburn, C. (1990). The material of male power. In: Lovell, T (ed.) British Feminist Thought: A Reader. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 84–102.
  5. Cockburn, C. (2007). From Where We Stand: War, Women's Activism and Feminist Analysis, Zed Books
  6. Enloe, C. (1993). The Morning After: Sexual Politics at the End of the Cold War. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.
  7. Enloe, C. (1991). 'The politics of constructing the American woman soldier' in Elisabetta Addis et al (eds).
  8. Mohanty, C. (2003). Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity, Durham: Duke UP
  9. Yuval-Davis, N. (1999). What is transversal politics? In: Cockburn, C, Hunter, L (eds) 'Transversal Politics', thematic issue of Soundings: Journal of Politics and Culture 12: 94–98.
  10. Yuval-Davis, N. (1997). Gender and Nation. London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi: Sage Publications
  11. Yuval-Davis, N. (1985). 'Front and rear: the sexual division of labour in the Israeli Army', Feminist Studies, No.3.
  12. Nikoghosyan. A. (2011). WOMEN IN BLACK For Justice. Against War. [online] Available at: https://www.swv.am/index.php/en/our-pillars/equality-and-non-discrimination/2-uncategorised/540-women-in-black-for-justice-against-war [Accessed 31 Mar. 2020].