In a 1976 court case named "Emma DeGraffenreid De vs General Motors", Emma DeGraffenreid and a group of black women sued General Motors before the US District Court of Missouri accusing that the company segregated its workforce on the basis of race and gender.
The plaintiffs argued that the company hired black men for a specific set of jobs and white women for another set of jobs. Neither the black jobs nor the women's jobs were appropriate for black women, since they were neither male nor white. Wasn't this clear discrimination, even if some blacks and some women were hired?
The case showcased both racial and sex-based discrimination. The court, however, dismissed their claims on the ground that the plaintiffs were unable to combine their claims on race and gender into a coherent one.
It is sad for woman to witness any court of law passing a judgment based on predetermined assumption of what a woman can or cannot do, and subsequently barring future generations from pursuing numerous possibilities.
The term 'intersectionality', which was coined by American civil rights advocate Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989, came into force as a response to this. Crenshaw outlined the profound invisibility concerning law and highlighted the multifaceted avenues through which racial and gender discrimination was experienced by women.
However, intersectionality is not exclusive to black women. It can be associated with the discrimination combatted by ethnic women, women of colour, people of colour within LGBTQ community, transgender women, women within immigrant societies, people with disabilities, women of the religious minority etc. All of the above encapsulates the intersections of racism, sexism, class oppression, transphobia, ableism, belief discrimination and more.
A woman holds multiple identities and positions based on her gender, ethnicity, race, class etc. When she is discriminated against, she suffers more than usual for her multiple identities and positions. In the context of Bangladesh, we can easily see numerous instances where women of every community have encountered multiple layers of discrimination, or at least once, in the workforce, health sector, government sector etc.
If we look at the discrimination encountered by ethnic women of this country through the intersectional lens, we can easily discern the multiple layers of discrimination entwined in the web. In a patriarchal and male-dominated society, ethnic women are a gender minority. In a Muslim majority country, they are a religious minority. In a nationalist Bengali-dominated society, they are an ethnic minority. On top of that, they face marginalization, exploitation and an increasing amount of gender-based violence within their patriarchal community, which is a common form of discrimination faced by the majority of women of this country as well as the globe.
Moreover, many ethnic women often migrate to urban areas to seek employment for the betterment of their living conditions. Even if they manage to secure employment, many of them confront racial prejudice from members of the dominant, non-ethnic groups, including co-workers and employers. They are constantly ridiculed for wearing their native dress. Sometimes, this leads them to verbal and even physical harassment in public and the workplace. Many expressed that they even faced mockery regarding their food habit (for example, for their supposed eating habit of snakes and earthworms).
Within their community, ethnic women are considered as the primary caregivers where their roles in food production, particularly agriculture, including shifting cultivation, fruit orchard, horticulture and wet rice cultivation are of crucial significance. However, these types of contributions are not perceived as work. Furthermore, they receive unequal payment in comparison to their male counterparts. Additionally, the dropout rates of the school-goer ethnic girls are much higher than boys which result in underage marriages.
It is indubitable that the amalgamation of intersecting forms of social marginalization and oppression and inequities experienced by the transgender people globally are increasing with the time being. Transgender people encounter significant obstacles in terms of accessing health care due to discrimination, harassment and refusal of care from health care providers.
According to the 2015 United States Transgender Survey, 24% of transgender people faced housing-related discrimination and 30% of them reported job-related discrimination whereas transgender people of colour reported even higher rates of discrimination.
Sex work is often the prime instrument of income for transgender people, which makes them vulnerable to HIV contraction. Transgender women sex workers are especially vulnerable in this respect. Furthermore, they experience inequities in terms of systematic violence and mental health concerns.
In a recent landmark decision, the High Court of Bangladesh ruled that Hindu widows are entitled to inherit shares in all properties of their husbands and not just homesteads, which enabled them to regain their property rights after 83 years. This outlines one of the instances of discrimination confronted by women of the religious minority of this country. It is much more surprising to notice that such discriminatory issues are mostly pushed under the rug by asserting that they belong to a minority group of this country. The discrimination faced by Hindu women within their community is more of a Hindu inclusiveness issue.
Even if religious bias and gender bias are considered two separate issues, it is apparent from the outset how both can be at play, creating more oppressive circumstances. Thus, acknowledging and understanding such intersections of multiple oppressive sources can generate a phenomenon through which many advocates of this country can frame their circumstances and fight for their visibility and inclusion.
It is uncommon to see a Bangladeshi woman living in a patriarchal society stating that the world is not divided between men and women. Because women of all ages from every corner of this globe are facing discrimination, oppression and inequities in multiple avenues and such intersecting avenues have the potential to amplify their sufferings. Therefore, it is high time to be acquainted with intersectionality because in a patriarchal society woman of every community do not only face gender discrimination, but much more. And feminism should not only be limited to gender or equal pay issues, but rather with every intersectional concern.
Nusrat Zahan is a lawyer and a certified human rights trainee.