Feb 15, 2022

Intersectional Discrimination: Understanding the Indian Perspective

Shonottra Kumar


What is Intersectionality?

Kimberle Crenshaw, a lawyer and civil rights activist, uses the case of Emma Degraffenreid v. General Motors Assembly Division (1976) to explain how discrimination against women does not exist in silos. It is often seen to be overlapping with other forms of discrimination and in order to address this problem, the same needs to be looked at holistically. In this case, five African American women sued General Motors for discrimination on the basis of gender and race. The Court held that women as secretaries in that company were not discriminated against on account of their gender and even disproved the charges of racial discrimination as the company employed African American men as workers too. The Court looked at the two charges of gender and racial discriminations separately and did not consider the possibility of women of colour being discriminated on more than one ground together. The experience of being discriminated against owing to your association with more than one identity was coined by Crenshaw, as ‘intersectionality’. A term which has in the recent past become viral explores the complex and cumulative ways in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination combine, overlap or intersect.


Intersectionality in India

This phenomenon of intersectional discrimination is found in India as well and largely on the receiving end of it are Dalit women. Being trapped in a highly caste-based patriarchal society, marginalisation of these women not only happen on the basis of gender but also on account of social discrimination against Dalits. These multiple layers of discrimination combine and increase the vulnerability of Dalit women. Their experiences create a chain of never-ending violence on different levels. These levels start from the first instance of violence that occurs on them be it either verbal, physical or sexual violence. It then proceeds to difficulties with the police in filing complaints against upper-caste perpetrators and eventually lack of judicial action against the said perpetrators. A study conducted by International Dalit Solidarity Network on 500 Dalit women from across India who experience violence shows that 62.4% of them have faced one or more incidents of verbal abuse, 54.8% have faced physical assault, 46.8 % had faced sexual harassment and assault, 43% of them faced domestic violence and 23.2% were victims of rape. Fearing further discrimination at the hands of police or lack of judicial action, many of these cases go unreported and hence it is difficult to ascertain the true magnitude of this problem. Other reports show that only 1% of the cases filed by Dalit women have actually ended in convictions and the conviction rate for rapes against Dalit women is below 2%, whereas the conviction rate of rape cases filed by all other women in the country is about 27%. Even the kinds of violence that Dalit women are subject to are horrific and atrocious. They face extreme filthy verbal abuse, naked parading, dismemberment, being forced to drink urine and eat faeces, branding, proclaiming witchcraft and murdering them for it, etc. Being forced into the devadasi system, rape threats and sexual assaults by the members of upper castes and even from members of their own communities make up a fair percentage of the violence as well.


Laws for protection from intersectional discrimination?

It is true that India has a varied set of laws when it comes to providing safeguards to women and prosecuting crimes committed against them. But the drawbacks in understanding the multiple layers of discrimination has often resulted in continued persecution of Dalit women. The present legal framework includes the Scheduled Caste Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 that provides certain safeguards to women belonging to these categories. It makes it a crime to intentionally touch a woman belonging to a scheduled caste or a scheduled tribe, with sexual intent and without her consent. Using words, acts or gestures of sexual nature towards these women is also a punishable offence. Further, knowing the history of ‘slut-shaming’ a woman to justify her sexual assault, this law explicitly spells out that the woman’s sexual history, even with the offender, is not to be used to imply consent or to mitigate the crime in any way. Despite these protections being in place, there is still an overwhelming amount of stigma associated with just being women of lower castes that hampers their access to justice. For there to be any visible change from this, due importance must be given to the intersectional perspective. It is only when you attempt to understand how caste and gender discrimination interact, only then will you be able to suggest effective solutions to this problem.

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