Intersectionality is important to understand woman’s oppression

Intersectionality is a theoretical and analytical framework in sociology that highlights interconnectedness, complexity, and multiple types of overlapping discrimination that an individual may face depending on their race, gender, sexuality, age, ethnicity, physical ability, class, or any other characteristics that might locate them in the minority class (2017). In context of women’s oppression, this approach is crucial to understand the unique experiences and challenges that women face and how gender intersects with different forms of identity that ultimately shapes the experiences of women. In the Indian context, caste system has been a significant source of oppression for women. This essay discusses why intersectionality is important to understand women’s oppression and how the intersection of caste system and gender further adds up to the oppression suffered by women.

intersectionality images indian

The term Intersectionality originally was coined by Kimberle Crenshaw in her work published in 1989 titled as, ‘Mapping the Margins: intersectionality, identity politics and violence against women of colour’. In her article Crenshaw says that women have always organized against the routine violence that shapes their lives. The prominent realisation is that these shared experiences of women have helped the women’s movement in moving forward in the political as well as public arena.

But why does intersectionality as a frame matter? Crenshaw says that the African American women face the unique challenge being part of two groups as women and people of colour. This issue is important to address because as whole women of colour were not supported by the feminist as well as not given importance in the anti-racist movement and only fraction of their problems were solved. She says that many of our social justice problems like racism and sexism are often overlapping that creates multiple levels of social injustice. She says African American women, like other socially marginalized groups all over the world were facing all the challenges because of intersectionality that is intersection of race and gender that can be called as double discrimination. Crenshaw says that even laws did not acknowledges the struggles faced by African American women simply because their experiences were not exactly same as African American men or white women. Therefore, Crenshaw says that the frame that were used earlier to address the gender or racial discrimination were partial and she advocates an alternative narrative that allows us to see how all these social dynamics come together and create challenges that are sometimes unique. In her work, Crenshaw talks about three types of intersectionality i.e., structural intersectionality, political intersectionality and representational intersectionality also portrays several examples to showcase the intersectional experience of African American women.

Patricia Hill Collins also highlights the importance of intersectionality as an important intellectual and ethical tool of empowerment in her work, ‘Intersectionality as a critical Social Theory.’ Collins says that intersectionality as a tool helps in critically analysing the biases that are present in existing methodologies and epistemologies that underlie them. Therefore, Collins says that while developing intersectionality as a critical tool of social theory, two sets of questions are important to attend. First is, how we know what we know (the truth of epistemology), what social action are possible within the complex social inequalities organizing the daily lives. Along with this the agencies and action in response to the social justice is also important to confront (Collins 2019).

How is intersectionality useful in understanding the women’s oppression in India particularly Dalit women? In India the idea of intersectionality is particularly derived from the Black Feminist critiques and it has become an important analytical framework. India’s history is full of diverse feminist movements and discourses. Post 1990s, the ‘Dalit Women’ have become a critical part of the feminist discourse and intersectionality helped in understanding the intersections of caste and gender. It also explains how the experiences of Dalit- Bahujan women were different from that of the upper caste women. Since the women who is both a Dalit (belonging to the lowest category in hierarchy) and a woman in general will face different set of challenges than a woman who belong to the upper caste. The intersection of caste and gender identity further aggravates their situation makes it difficult for them to access justice and support. And, it was the upper caste women whose experiences form the basis of the Indian Feminist movements. Therefore, intersectionality as a framework allows to the feminism to be more inclusive of the categories that often complex and multi-layered and how they further shape the women experiences.

Gopal Guru in his work, ‘Dalit Women Talk Differently’(1995) says that women’s issues have become a part of the global agenda over last decades. According to him it is important to focus on both internal and the external factors that have the bearing on the phenomena of the ‘Dalit women need to talk differently’. This is because the issue of representing Dalit women, regarding the level of theory and politics has been highlighted several times. He says that the Dalit women justify the case of talking differently because along with the internal factors there are external factors (non-Dalit forces) that homogenise the issues of that the Dalit women face. Thus, he says that the ‘social location’ is very major factor because it makes the representation of the issues of the Dalit women by the non-Dalit or upper caste women as less valid and unauthentic (Guru 1995).

Gopal Guru refers to Gail Omvedt and Rajni Kothari. Gail Omvedt talks about the ‘ betrayal of the promises given to the Dalits’ and Kothari says that the with the erosion of the institutions, there are several unsettled controversies of the public policies and also the growing uncertainties over the ideological issues and the decline of the democratic functioning of the political process and in the faith that modern nation state is not capable of providing framework that promises both order and equity. Therefore, reliance on the mainstream governmental and party-political process has severely reduced (Guru 1995).

Due to this there has been rise of several new movements distinct from the earlier movements that mainly focused on the economy for example trade unions or cooperative movements. But only focusing on the external factors is not useful in understanding the complex reality of Dalit women (Guru 1995). For example, Gopal Guru says that the question of rape cannot be grasped merely in terms of class, criminality or as a psychological factor but it portrays the illustration of male violence also. To understand this complexity, Guru says that it is necessary to take caste factor in account that makes the sexual violence against Dalit or tribal women much more severe in terms of intensity and magnitude (Guru 1995).

There are several cases in India where Dalit women is brutally raped and assaulted by upper caste men. One of them being ‘Hathras case’ in Uttar Pradesh where a 19-year-old Dalit woman was gang raped and assaulted by a group pf upper caste men. Dalit women comprise of 16 percent of the India’s female population belonging to the most oppressed group in not only India but the world. Along with this, they face added burden of gender bias, caste discrimination and economic deprivation also (Biswas 2020). This can be related to the case of African American women as explained by Crenshaw that they face double discrimination due too intersection of race and gender. As Gopal Guru talks about the presence of external and internal factors, in case of Dalit women, they are added victims of cultures, structures and institutions of oppression that further perpetuates violence against the Dalit women (Biswas 2020).

In her study Crenshaw has mentioned how the law , media and politics are negligible toward the issues of African American women because they don’t fall in the pre-determined category and also the class as well as social positions plays crucial role. Similarity can be seen in Dalit Rape cases in India, where when a Dalit woman is attacked, police responses are very slow in registering complaint, investigations are not fully taken care of. On the top of that, the officials and authorities usually do not accept the fact that the rape case has anything to do with the caste. One the reason of this can be that most of the media, newsrooms are dominated by men of upper caste journalists and most of the times government itself is the reason of the injustice to Dalit women. This can be seen in case of Hathras rape case where the government allegedly tried to cover up the suspicion that rape has anything to do with caste (Biswas 2020).

Several similar examples can be inferred from the study of Karin Kapadia in her work ‘Siva and her sisters’ where she refers to the James Scott’s negation of the argument that the elites dominate not only the physical means but the symbolic means of production also because this statement does not consider the unwritten history of resistance (Kapadia 1996). On the similar ground, Kapadia focused on the experiences of Pallar women village in the rural Tamil Nadu. These women belonged to the subordinate groups mainly the untouchables who belonged to the bottom of the India’s caste hierarchy. These women resisted and rejected their representation through the lens of upper caste and also the earlier scholars have focused mainly on the study of upper caste Hindus. Another factor is that the ‘’untouchable’’ experience has largely been considered from the lens of man (Kapadia 1996).

Therefore, according to Kapadia the experiences of Pallar women stand apart because their reality is a combination of three axes of identity i.e., gender, caste and class and this requires a unique analytical focus. Kapadia describes the Pallar women as women of great resourcefulness, independence, courage, and warmth. But in their mundane lives, they are discriminated on three levels, first as women, as untouchables and as landless agricultural workers. Kapadia in her book has also mentioned about the concept of ‘sondam’ present in the community of Aruloor (Kapadia 1996). Sondam is related to connectedness and matrilineal affinal kin. It is the showcase of honor, power and wealth along with honor associated with had a strong economic content the women received a stream of prestation that flowed from their brothers to their children. However, according to Kapadia, this was only particularly true in case of semi secluded, upper caste women who were not independent financially and were under the support of their husbands. Hence, they were dependable on the continued affection, moral support and financial support in form of prestation from their brother to maintain their status in their family (Kapadia 1996). But in contrast these vulnerabilities were not part of the lives of the low caste women who were wage earners since their brothers were equally poor and they can seek economic security from them. Brothers were important for them too in the performance of the lower caste rite cycle but it was nothing as similar as the case of upper caste women.

According to a social audit conducted by ASHA, a non-governmental organisation in Uttar Pradesh, caste plays a very significant role in segregating the economic functions in case of the Dalit women and the upper caste women as their economic activity is demarcated and segregated on the basis of their caste identity. There are many incidences that proves the difference of range of experiences of both upper caste and lower caste women in India. For example in Hardoi and Sandila blocks in UP, traditionally men handle the public affairs in day to day or even political matters. Therefore, even when women are elected as sarpanches, it is men who participate in the political and decision-making processes and women merely acts as the puppet and their husbands are called as ‘Sarpanch-pati (Kumar 2008)’. The upper caste ‘sarpanch-pati’ dominate the public space and right to speech.

When the social audit was conducted, it was revealed that women complained it was the men who prevented them from joining the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) because they claimed that this is dishonouring their status. Therefore, in case of upper caste family honor was more important than feeding the family. However, on the other hand the women belonging to poor caste had fewer taboo to tackle with respect to family premises and they had to indulge themselves in the manual jobs (Kumar 2008). Since because of their economic conditions they have no options rather than contributing a fair amount of their share to the maintenance of the family (Kumar 2008). They are also kept out of the NREGS so that they are devoid of a source of employment and continue doing their traditional caste defined occupations such as manual scavenging. A study done by Human Rights Watch (1999) in Gujarat’s Ahmedabad district revealed about the Bhangis (manual scavenger) and the physical and psychological trauma that Dalit women regularly suffer from. The Dalit women are employed as the manual scavengers who carries the dead bodies of the cats and dogs and were given 5 rupees for that. They performed many dehumanising works that they most of them suffered from chronic diseases (Kumar 2008).

It is very clear that the social control of the oppressed is mainly carried out in two ways. First, the society is structured in such a way that it ultimately benefits the upper caste or dominant caste. As evident by several examples, several institutions in the society be it law, army, political party, social welfares, economic system , media are in control of the dominant group/caste. And even if the lower caste groups are getting opportunities the larger percentage is of men only that moves out of their traditional occupation system. And in cases of Dalit, around 71 percent of Dalit women are agricultural labourers and they mainly head the family. Hence inequalities is built in the social structures that makes them harder for these sections of the society to adopt the changes in the society and are entangled in the reality of inequality and caste discrimination (Kumar 2008).

Therefore, for Dalit women the discrimination that they face is systemic in nature that led them to continue to suffer and engage in the manual jobs. The jobs are that better paid are mostly out of their reach. Thus, the Dalit women are vulnerable since they are in the bottom of the society and not any part of the socioeconomic and political factors.

Therefore, there are intersectional elements of discrimination and the different form of oppression for different sections of women in the society and they cannot be put and analysed using one common umbrella. Intersectionality as a an analytical tool help to uncover situations and brings unheard voices across India be it rural, urban, cities, metropolises, etc that leads to the better understanding of the structural organisation of the society and how it is being entrenched.

The importance of recognising and addressing the unique problems that women of different caste face. The first step should be to locate all this structure, social norms and cultures that ultimately serves to strengthen the discriminatory practices.

A clear idea of structural discrimination that is understanding of social, economic, or cultural background conditions of women will help us to understand why some groups of women in societies are in position of discrimination and disadvantage more in comparison to their relative counterparts in the same society (Kumar 2008). This is because, these conditions are the result of the long historical practices of any society and hence it become entrenched in the institutions of the society. And once these discriminatory practices are entrenched in the structures, they become the part of the institutions and mask themselves as very much obvious in case of caste and gender discrimination in India. This is not easy to remove as it governs the social, political, economics and cultural stand of the society (Kumar 2008).

Therefore, in understanding of these discriminatory structures that is different for different groups of women in the Indian society, the concept of intersectionality plays an important role as it uncovers several intersectional discriminations that shapes the lives of women. As Crenshaw says, intersectionality as an approach helps in identifying and analysing multiple barriers of discrimination that is not same for every section of women (Kumar 2008). Therefore, intersectionality as an approach helps in locating the interaction between two or more forms of discrimination that highlights two or more forms of discrimination that further results in building unequal conditions for women and they end up being more marginalised. Therefore, it helps to uncover not so visible forms of discrimination.

One of the solution of these issues can be the promotion of structural social workers that works towards developing and building the force of collective mobilisation and collective consciousness of their oppression among Dalit women at local level in both rural and urban arena. Another way to build this collective consciousness is by encouraging writing, reading, and enacting their personal life stories that depicts their day-to-day life experiences (Kumar 2008). As Rajni Kothari said that there is growing uncertainty over the democratic and political processes and he advocated the phenomenon of talking differently as a discourse of deviant. Therefore , developing consciousness and acting towards it will further begin the process of structural change and will pave the way for the creation of new policies that will reclaim their power on the space and resources. Another way can be to promote leadership programmes and activism which build connections among women across caste and class that will encourage a sense of empathy towards each other also ultimately boost the confidence of women who suffers in the society either due to their caste, class, or social position (Kumar 2008).

To conclude,

Intersectionality as an approach highlights the interconnectedness and complexity of multiple forms of oppression often hidden that are present in any society. In India, caste system is a pervasive social hierarchy that dictates the life of mainly those who belong to the lower strata. Women in India faces discrimination at several levels such as denying equal opportunities in education, politics, employment, etc. along with the challenges are also in accessing better health care as well as domestic battering and violence. As Crenshaw says, the change can be notices where all women from different sections of the society coming together and building solidarity and consciousness to speak about their issues and concerns. However, the person’s experiences of discrimination and oppression is multi-layered and in case of India, the oppression faced by upper caste women is different from that of a Dalit women, and they need to be analysed separately. They experience discrimination not only from the dominant men and women but also men from their own caste. Therefore, Intersectionality aa an analytical framework uncovers how different form of oppression intersects and it also helps to build more inclusive feminism that addresses the needs of the women belonging to different sections of the society.


2017. What is intersectionality and why does it matter? february 24. Accessed march 2023.

Biswas, Soutik. 2020. “Hathras case: Dalit women are among the most oppressed in the world.” BBC. octuber 6.

Collins, Patricia Hill. 2019. “Intersectionalty as Critical Social Theory.” 1–18. Duke University Press.

Guru, Gopal. 1995. “Dalit Women Talk Differently.” Economic and Political Weekly 2548–2550.

Kapadia, Karin. 1996. Siva and her Sisters. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Kumar, Shweli. 2008. “Dalit Women at the Intersevctions Voices from the Margins.” The Indian Journal Of Social Work 159–177.

Share on:

I am a dedicated sociologist with a passion for unraveling the intricate threads that bind our society together. Holding a Masters degree in Sociology from the Delhi School of Economics, my academic journey has honed my empirical research, writing and analytical acumen as well as enabled me to cultivate a deep understanding of social nuances. I have passionately engaged in an array of research projects spanning a diverse spectrum of subjects.