March 17, 2008

Points of Intersection: Gender and Other Identities

IT WAS DURING the anti-Mandal protests that many young, urban women from universities held up placards saying that an increase in reservation for the Dalit and OBC population would harm their chances of getting qualified men as husbands. During the riots in Mumbai after the Babri Masjid demolition and in the Gujarat pogrom, many Hindu women from right wing organisations actively aided the men in their attacks against Muslim women. These and other examples such as the burning of churches or the Kambalpalli incident speak volumes on how religious and caste identities are ‘markers of discrimination’ in our society. It makes me think about how gender intersects with these other identities, and how such interplay manifests in reality.

Identity politics has emerged as a core issue in many ongoing debates. For hitherto silenced communities like Dalits, Adivasis, minorities and LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual) groups, the question of identity has become a crucial axis for political questions and social justice.

In the 70s and 80s, the women’s movement in India focused on mobilising women across caste, class and ethnic background against violence and discrimination. Women were seen as a single political category. So there was a universalising approach which held that all women were in powerless positions regardless of their background. But in fact, women are placed in different locations in our social hierarchy. Social context and institutional structures around them play a large role in determining their rights. Their location determines their control and power over public and private resources, political participation, concepts of womanhood and notions about body, sexuality, work and family. So we need to understand gender in conjunction with other identities that are important in the daily lives of women.

For instance, people are seeking discussions on categories within the 33% reserved seats for women in parliament. This has brought issues of caste and gender to the forefront. Those arguing for categorisation feel that if there is no reservation for Dalit and OBC women, the upper castes will dominate the political scene. Then, when BJP proposed a uniform civil code, many women’s groups protested because they feared that this would only exacerbate the marginalisation of women from minority communities. State-sponsored development projects often come under fire from Adivasi and environmental groups because they cause multiple displacements and loss of livelihood for women from the most powerless sections of society.

In a society like ours where there is such plurality of caste, community, languages, and economic backgrounds, gender does not function in isolation. It is always intersecting with the other identities that define power and powerlessness. The question of who speaks assumes crucial importance. It is necessary to recognize and address the differences between various groups of women and to understand the specificity of experience. Exploring the categories of women, gender and feminism through this lens will perhaps extend the potential of what we can achieve in the future.

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3 comments to Points of Intersection: Gender and Other Identities

  • […] Ultra Violet, Usha BN eplains why ‘gender does not function in isolation’: In the 70s and 80s, the women’s […]

  • Crazyfinger

    This is a tough one.

    It seems to me that standing outside the various intersection points that you describe here is the absolute, self-evident thing of equality of men and women that speaks for itself, wouldn’t you agree?

    This self-evident equality I don’t believe should be determined by any category or group or economic background to which a woman belongs. A woman is a woman, just as a man is a man and a woman is equal to a man because they are both species of human being (I know I am preaching to the choir here).

    If we want to discuss the context in which the gender – man or a woman or any other LGBT group etc. – plays, and is played around for, a role, then such a discussion should first require/fight for the gender equality first as an unconditional given, and then predicate this power play on the power and powerlessness, not of the gender, but of the specific group/community.

    Having said what I said, I believe what you wrote reflects reality as we experience today. But I wonder if this reality has anything useful to offer (such as gender equality, for example). Ideal provides the pull for forward movement. I get the impression that when you say, “So we need to understand gender in conjunction with other identities that are important in the daily lives of women,” you are setting yourself for a failure. These intersection points, conjunctions etc., are too many and it is easy to lose oneself, if the basic equality is not there to begin with.


  • In fact i come back to this article after having a fierce debate, where i was defending a quote in another post in Ultra Violet. That, “caste can only survive only if women’s sexuality is controlled”.

    Our debate began with the word “only” in the above quote. My friend’s argument was that even in countries where women are said to have more sexual freedom than in India, there are distinctions like race and colour. Even in those countries, women, in general(as a normal practice) do not break away from the race/creed to which they belong. And therefore, sexual freedom alone will not lead to blurring of caste lines.

    The point is, because of the certain identities to which they belong, sometimes women also will have certain premium as compared to those people belonging to other identities. Therefore even women in higher castes may not choose to blur those lines for fear of losing out on the premium that the ‘higher identity’ offers.

    We have to understand the intersections between the different identiies and gender.Unless we understand that, we may not be able explore completely what are the gender related issues in conjuction with that identity.
    Loved the post!

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