The Intersectional Breakdown – KSInsights Mar 2024

Published on 02 Apr 2024

Intersectionality is not a new phenomenon, although it can be coined as a new perspective in this part of the world. The theory and definition have existed for a number of years, we just have not put a name to when systems influence and are present in our own individual ideologies and lives, intersecting to create adverse effects and dynamics. In plain, intersectionality is defined as “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.” This means that a person may experience several forms of discrimination that connect with each other.

The ramifications of undoing years of history that have involved sexism against women is difficult. With the added nuance of skin color, ethnicity, religion, educational background, class and status – they are now all factors to understanding intersectionality and realizing that it is not as straightforward as what once was thought.

As the caste system in India demonstrates, change is not easy. Even though the caste system has been outlawed for 68 years, it was in existence for 3,000. That has a profound effect as then certain women from different groups still face discrimination based on the caste they have had before. It is not that men from those “unwanted” bottom hierarchies do not face discrimination, they do, but the discrimination faced by the women are more severe because they are also discriminated against by gender.

Those ideals are still very well versed in the society where being born in the lowest hierarchy has physical and often violent ramifications. Much of the women still within those hierarchies are discriminated against from a young age – not being allowed in homes of people with an upper crust, being singled out in classrooms and having unfair treatment in court. A deep rooted part of the culture cannot just be outlawed and things will have a semblance of peace and comprehension. There will be destruction and brutality as people are ripped away from something they have always known; those scars run deep into the roots that many still practice today, even if they do not mention it. That is the struggle that is being faced today; the ghosts of the past still having a say because things were done once was, and not how things are. With the world modernizing and more people speaking up, there is a disconnect present, and we can see how the caste system demonstrates that certain thinking still perseveres because it has been normalized for so long, without context, without nuance and without and understanding needed, that involves intersectionality of all types, having a say.

Malaysian women face the same problem; they are women. That means that certain things are not afforded to them because of their gender, and with the added layer of race, ethnicity, class and other social and cultural variables – that have an effect on the diverse nature of women’s human rights – the conversation does become more complicated, but is beneficial to understanding how to further approach nuanced situations. Some may find it hard to agree, but those same dynamics – maybe not in extremity but definitely in principle, exist here. A woman that is of darker skin and within one religion is not in reverence as the same woman with lighter skin and part of another. A woman that experiences a different socio-economic battle fought in Ipoh, does not compare to one who does not have to think when they swipe their card in Bangsar.

A good example of intersectionality being displayed in Malaysia is through the organization Sisters in Islam (SIS). SIS is a women’s non governmental organization that intersects the use of islam with the trials faced by muslim women. According to SIS, this group came together in the beginning to address the injustices that women face under the shariah (islamic law) system. This is already a use of intersectionality; examining religion overlapping with gender, rather than a separate category – this enables the use of an acute outlook to make decisions and contrasting perspectives that would go towards more rounded strategies. This organization uses a variable, religion in this case, to explain complexities that are a reality for muslim women and how those two things are critical to identity and cannot be separated.

Another example would be socio-economic class. Poverty that girls face because of their class means going to school becomes a point of contention. With stereotyping and gender, they are less likely then to go to schools that are already hard to access, and stay at home to help or become homemakers. Girls do have full enrolment in preschool and primary school, but fail to have full attendance in secondary or further education levels, where attendance is not compulsory. Societal factors then become clear here that intersect with gender; the socio-economic status of the girls. It is not just because they are women and sexist myths exist, but that they are also not taken into account in comparison to their male counterparts. Understanding this point of intersectionality is important because it gives an insight that gender is not the only underlying problem, it is also concluded that their class plays into the structure.

There are also strides that employ training about women’s rights and gender equality at organizations such as Women’s Aids Organisation that outlines topics on Women’s realities, the law and legal system, the tools for change and addressing violence against women as a human rights violation and SIS that consistently talks about intertwining religion and feminism. Organizations like these are pertinent to understanding the challenges faced, when much emphasis is put towards social categories that end up also defining us. Whether that be an NGO that focuses on intersecting religion and gender, social class and gender, ethnicity and gender – it is vital to understand these systems that are weaved with our society and how those factors influence decisions that have effects on our lives.

Targeted action where organizations employ and utilize NGO programmes to train and uphold standards of equality, is a step in a positive direction. Having these programmes in place then to uphold certain licensing for these companies to make sure they are hitting diversity quotas is a must. Encouraging women to apply, not just from richer backgrounds but poorer ones and giving them equal opportunity to succeed is one of the ways forward.

A key fact to understanding issues like this, is knowing that even though something is a normalized part of society, it does not mean it is right or contributes to a better situation. Whilst that can justify moments of past misunderstandings because of simple interaction that we donot have with other groups, it does not prevent us from taking the time to look up, speak, connect and listen with others that go through different experiences.There is encouragement is education, community in participation and merit in questioning the systems around you. To wonder what is fair and really equal, and to wonder what is normalized to have harmful consequences in the end, are two things that are often parallel to each other, but are worth intersecting. 


02 Apr 2024