Intersectionality: tackling privilege, colonisation, oppression, and the elimination of violence against all women

By: Yvonne Lay, Development Lead - Safety & Resilience, Women's Research, Advocacy and Policy (WRAP) Centre, Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand

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  1. I was born Black, and a woman. I am trying to become the strongest person I can become to live the life I have been given and to help effect change toward a livable future for this earth and for my children. As a Black, lesbian, feminist, socialist, poet, mother of two including one boy and a member of an interracial couple, I usually find myself part of some group in which the majority defines me as deviant, difficult, inferior or just plain ‘wrong’…I cannot afford the luxury of fighting one form of oppression only.
    (
    Audre Lorde, ‘There is no Hierarchy of Oppressions’,  http://www.pages.drexel.edu/~jc3962/COR/Hierarchy.pdf ).
  2. At this year’s Prevalent and Preventable Conference organised by the Australian Women Against Violence Alliance (AWAVA) and Our Watch, there was a dedicated stream to exploring intersectionality within the Australian context, in relation to responding to, and preventing violence against women, specifically those who have been ‘minoritised’ by the dominant social groups. Intersectional theory is by no means new, however its more centralised inclusion in the violence against women discourse is. Many feminist and critical race theorists have long suggested and warned that ‘culture talk’ in relation to violence against women is a double-edged sword – whilst it may obscure gender-based domination within communities, it also highlights the importance of cultural considerations for contextualising oppressed groups claim for justice, for improving their access to services, and for requiring dominant groups to examine the invisible cultural advantages they enjoy (see Sherene Razack, 1994, 1996; Mari J. Matsuda, 1989; Beth E. Richie, 2000; Peggy McIntosh, 1989; Deborah L. Rhode, 1990).
  3. Natasha Stott Despoja AM delivered her keynote address, stressing that domestic and family violence (DFV) is a prevalent human rights abuse, however it is also preventable but only if we work together, as meaningful social change takes time. To prevent violence against women, we must recognise that not all women experience the impacts of gender inequality in the same way, nor do they experience violence in the same way.
  4. The term ‘intersectionality’ was first coined in the late 1980s by critical race theorist and civil rights activist, Kimberle Williams Crenshaw. It is important however, to acknowledge that intersectionality has a long history in Black feminism, namely in the United States, dating back to the 19th century when Black feminists confronted the ‘simultaneity of a women question and a race problem – until the emergence of black feminism in the United States, not a single social theorist took seriously the concept of simultaneity of [race, gender, class] intersection in people’s lives. This concept is one of the greatest gifts of black women’s studies to social theory as a whole’ (Jean Ait Belkhir, 2009, 'The "Johnny's Story": Founder of the Race, Gender and Class Journal', The Intersectional Approach).
  5. Antoinette Braybrook, CEO of the Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention and Legal Service Victoria gave conference goers the first real taste of intersectionality during her keynote on day one. Antoinette provided incredibly sad yet very real accounts of Indigenous women's experiences of DFV at the hands of partners, ex-partners, as well as violence perpetrated against the same victim/survivors by social institutions like the police. Utilising the power of story-telling, Antoinette highlighted the devastating and lethal consequences that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) women will continue to face if we continue to ignore the inherent disadvantages, discrimination and oppression that ATSI women face.
  6. In later panel discussions, Maggie Walters and Dorinda Cox reiterated that racial violence against ATSI women, and ATSI people more broadly, is entrenched in current society, and not something that happened in the past. To this, Maggie stated that it is equally important to analyse how power is deployed in some instances, and not deployed in others. For many ATSI women, their access to power is nil, thus intersectionality provides a framework to interrogate power in order to understand how power is used against women, and against all their identities. Dorinda also highlighted that it is almost impossible to understand ATSI women's experience of violence within the limited framework that we currently have in place, which has been defined and designed by the mainstream. Dorinda also stated that for ATSI women, it is a struggle for gender equality as well as for race equality. A reminder that racism is thriving in Australia, and something that current systems protect.
  7. Current systems which were designed and created to provide safety and protection are the same systems that many ATSI women fear.
  8. Similarly, it was noted that ATSI men and effectively all non-white men are treated very differently in comparison to white men who choose to use violence against women and girls;
  9. To understand intersectionality we must recognise and acknowledge that as individuals, and individuals with membership to various groups, there exists multiple sites of oppression and simultaneously, multiple sites of privilege and power. As individuals, we cannot pick and choose who we are, however societal structures, systems and institutions often force us to do so. Subsequently we pick and choose what we feel is safe to display out in the world. There is nothing authentic nor real in this existence, thus in order to allow all women to be free to live true to who they are, we must challenge, critique and dismantle the systems and structures that deny women this freedom; this task will reveal and expose those who have used these systems to protect their power and privilege.
  10. And this is where international keynote, Marai Larasi, Executive Director of UK-based Imkaan warns that things will become 'messy'. Echoing the sentiments of Audre Lorde, Marai emphasised that for women who experience multiple forms of oppression, intersectionality provides space, or at least should provide space for the multiplicity of oppression that women face, rather than reducing oppression to one fundamental type - oppression works together to result in injustice.
  11. To expect women to pick and choose which form of oppression is the most oppressive is not the point, thus Marai challenges us to go beyond merely looking at the layers that make up a woman's identity, and focus at the point of intersection(s) that these layers create - this is the heart of intersectionality. Further to this, Marai urged us all to critique our own use of language so that we avoid the harmful continuation of 'othering'. Similarly, Dorinda pointed out that the decision to categorise ATSI women as part of the CALD cohort is unhelpful, and fundamentally ignores the unique experiences of ATSI women who are victim/survivors of violence.
  12. Marai also plainly argued that those with power and privilege, including those of us in the conference room, who are committed to the prevention of violence against all women, must continually interrupt their own privilege on a moment to moment basis. Maggie followed by explaining by way of example that many white people often ask ATSI people what they can do to address and respond to the discrimination and oppression that the ATSI community faces - the answer needs to come from those who have the privilege and the power.
  13. Dr. Regina Quiazon, Senior Research and Policy Advocate at Multicultural Centre for Women's Health (MCHW) pointed out that in order to do intersectional work, we need to accept the fact that this work will be complex. Power is socially located and thus in order to understand women's experiences of violence and the impacts of violence on their lives, we must examine power, and how and when it is exercised, even within our own professional contexts.
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