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The concept of intersectionality describes the ways in which systems of inequality based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, class and other forms of discrimination “intersect” to create unique dynamics and effects. For example, when a Muslim woman wearing the Hijab is being discriminated, it would be impossible to dissociate her female* from her Muslim identity and to isolate the dimension(s) causing her discrimination.
All forms of inequality are mutually reinforcing and must therefore be analysed and addressed simultaneously to prevent one form of inequality from reinforcing another. For example, tackling the gender pay gap alone – without including other dimensions such as race, socio-economic status and immigration status – will likely reinforce inequalities among women.
Intersectionality brings our understanding of systemic injustice and social inequality to the next level by attempting to untangle the lines that create the complex web of inequalities. It is also a practical tool that can be used to tackle intersectional discrimination through policies and laws.
* We recognize a limitless range of gender identities and expressions, and embrace those of us who live beyond, against, and outside of the binary. What we mean by “women and men” is neither fixed nor determined.
Intersectional justice is the fair and equal distribution of wealth, opportunities, rights and political power within society. It rests on the concepts of equality, and legal and social rights. Intersectional justice focuses on the mutual workings of structural privilege and disadvantage, i.e. that someone’s disadvantage is someone else’s privilege. For this reason, actions tend to be centered on people and groups of people who face the highest structural barriers in society – premised on the idea that if we reach the people at the greatest structural disadvantage, then we can reach everybody.
Intersectional justice understands discrimination and inequality not as the outcome of individual intentions, but rather as systemic, institutional and structural. Therefore, intersectional justice can be achieved through the institutions that directly and indirectly allocate opportunities and resources, including the school system, the labour market, the health and social insurance system, taxation, the housing market, the media, and the bank and loan system.
i.e. when addressing gender equality, doesn’t it benefit all women, of all ages, socio-economic backgrounds, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation?
In theory yes, in practice no. The processes of exclusion and discrimination occurring within movements may not be intentional, but they produce further systemic and structural inequalities.
While groups such as “women”, “gays”, “lesbians” and “people of color” are heterogeneous and diverse, the narratives and archetypes representing these groups are not. Instead, the interests, stories, and images that prevail are the ones of those who hold the greatest political, economic and social power. As a result, the rights, interests and voices of minorities within these categories tend to be overlooked and marginalised.
Without an explicit intersectional approach, equality and anti-discrimination policies will tend to reproduce the discrimination patterns they seek to address because processes of structural discrimination permeate all areas of society, including the fields of anti-discrimination and social justice.
Intersectionality is not about tackling all forms of discrimination at once. This would, in fact, be impossible. Instead, an intersectional approach to discrimination and inequality seeks to identify and address processes of marginalisation and exclusion within anti-discrimination efforts that focus solely on one dimension. It is about fighting discrimination within discrimination, tackling inequalities within inequalities, and protecting minorities within minorities.
For instance, inequalities within the category “woman” will not become visible unless we move away from the single-axis dichotomy men/women to include further dimensions such as race, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status and gender identity. Similarly, the specific interests and needs of racial, ethnic and religious minorities within LGBTQI_ movements – say, LGBTQI_ refugees – are usually not adequately met because their experience is marginalized within the wider movement. Their exclusion can be attributed to the fact that their culture and religion tend to be considered as incompatible with their sexual orientation or identity. Acknowledging such inequalities and processes of discrimination within movements is the precondition for effective policy- and lawmaking in the field of gender equality and equal opportunity policies.
An intersectional approach ensures that no one is left behind in the fight for justice and equality. It ensures that communities and movements are inclusive of differences and work together towards equality. It prevents combating one form of discrimination at the expense of another.
Intersectionality is a relatively new concept in European public policy and much progress is needed in the way policies and laws – and their implementation – address intersectional discrimination and inequality. An incomplete understanding of what constitutes intersectional discrimination, its workings and effects, coupled with the belief that categories are automatically inclusive of differences (see Q4, e.g. that the category “woman” is automatically inclusive of all women) leads to inadequate responses to intersectional discrimination.
The Center for Intersectional Justice seeks to fill these gaps by providing concrete and effective means to achieve intersectional justice. For example, implementing gender equality policies meant to correct the wage gap between men and women without widening inequalities between women, or ensuring that migration and asylum policies, especially with regards to family reunification, do not strip female migrants of their agency and autonomy. This can be achieved through in-depth policy research, direct advocacy and policy advice.
International conventions such as CEDAW and ICERD are useful tools to combat discrimination based on gender and race, but to date, there are no legally binding international and national instruments explicitly prohibiting intersectional discrimination.
Similarly, the European anti-discrimination legal framework does not adequately combat intersectional discrimination since the available legislation addresses one dimension at a time (either gender, or race, or sexual orientation, or…) and focuses on individual discrimination, as opposed to structural discrimination. It means that individual actions and intent play a decisive role, instead of looking at the aggregation of discrimination cases and their underlying patterns. As a result, there is a disconnect between anti-discrimination policy and legislation on one hand, and equal opportunity policy on the other.
An intersectional perspective to anti-discrimination highlights the structural aspect of discrimination and links policy efforts both meant to prevent discrimination and to correct inequalities.