Lifting As We Climb
Upon the formation of the National Association of Colored Women’s Club, the chosen motto read: Lifting As We Climb. This principle was guided by the aspiration that the movement of Afro-American women must also guarantee the upliftment of all sisters and indeed all dispossessed. To them, inclusiveness and diversity was of central significance in feminist politics.
In comparison, the women’s movement in India surrounding the reform of rape laws has been fractured by its apparent display of universality. Within the demand of gender justice for all women and in particular for the 23 year old Physiotherapy student who lost her life fighting the brutal gang-rape and violence, is a small but strong sub-current for recognizing intersectionality in women’s identities for redressing these violations. These feminists urge that sexual violence is not just a matter of gender subordination but is also shaped by experiences of the intersections of gender with caste, creed, religion, class, age, disability or sexual orientation. In this sense, the experiences of rape or sexual assault are vastly dissimilar but equally shocking. The expression and the timing of this learning in intersectionality, has been dubbed as anti-feminist or at least unnecessary considering it is believed that any reform in general rape laws will generally benefit all women.
Although absent from the Criminal Law Amendment Ordinance 2013 and the Criminal Law Amendment Bill 2012, the Justice Verma Committee Report (“the Report”) is not oblivious to intersectionality, despite the absence of any concrete provision in this respect. At relevant points, it recognizes that discrimination and violence are not only gendered but are also equally borne out by the claimant’s caste, creed, religion or class. For example, in speaking of dismantling of stereotypes, the Report emphasizes on correction of aberrations like ‘the claim of upper caste to be able to overpower women belonging to dalit and oppressed sections of society’. The Report also considers how gender-based violence is compounded by the inequities of social status, caste prejudices, and economic deprivation. However, at other points the understanding remains additive and not synergistic, in that the discrimination suffered by a Dalit woman, on account of her Dalit identity is only “in addition” to being a woman. Thus, the intersection creates ‘double disadvantage’ rather than a unique experience through the interaction of the several intersecting grounds. This additive or compounded understanding conflates the uniformity and deflates the differences in women’s experience.
The possibility of having this ‘other’ narrative recognized in the language of law seems no brighter than it was several decades ago. Bhanwari Devi, the rape survivor from the case of Vishaka v State of Rajasthan was gang-raped because she was a Dalit woman working as an Anganwadi saathin, trying to convince her village against child marriage and hence challenging the authority of the upper castes. The outrage over her gang-rape gave all women the Supreme Court guidelines on the prevention and protection of women against sexual harassment. What went unnoticed was her own personal fight for justice or the collective fight of Dalit women for emphasizing that their intersectional identity is itself a reason of sexual violence against them. We lost an opportunity then (and much before in the case of Mathura, the tribal minor girl who was gang-raped in police custody) and we will lose one now if we continue without redefining the terms of the rape debate. Our response must both be intersectionalist and feminist – we must come together as women and we must then reflect the realities of all women. Thus, if the Parliament decides to insert a provision on aggravated sexual assault or rape perpetrated on the grounds of the complainant’s religion, race, caste, place of birth, age, disability, sexual orientation or any of them, we would have reflected our realities as women through intersectionality. And there can be nothing more feminist than that: that we lift those below us as we advance the ladder of gender equality.
Shreya Atrey is a DPhil in Law Candidate at Magdalen College, University of Oxford.