Notes on Gender and Racial Discrimination:

An urgent need to integrate an intersectional perspective to the examination and development of policies, strategies and remedies for gender and racial equality

Pragna Patel



This presentation will focus on the phenomenon of multiple or intersectional forms of discrimination/subordination faced by many women worldwide based on their gender and race or ethnicity. The combined effects of racism and gender discrimination, in particular on migrant, immigrant, indigenous, minority and marginalised women around the world, has had devastating consequences for their full enjoyment of equality and fundamental human rights in both the public and private spheres.

Intersectional discrimination has only recently been recognised, at least in international forums as a serious obstacle to the achievement of equality for many marginalised women. Historically, at the international and national levels, racism or racial discrimination on the one hand and gender discrimination on the other, have always proceeded in official thinking and policy along mutually exclusive lines. However, the notion of intersectional discrimination has now been acknowledged in a series of UN conferences on women. See for example the Beijing Platform for Action document and the subsequent 'Outcome Document' - the report of the twenty third special session of the general assembly - Beijing+5 in 2000. Both documents draw attention to the need to understand the co-existence of multiple forms of discrimination and their impact on women. But neither document has given deeper attention to the complexities and the ways in which such forms of discrimination structure the disadvantaged position that many marginalised women occupy in relation to other groups of men and women in their societies.

In a separate but parallel development at the fifty-fifth session in March 2000, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination adopted a general recommendation on gender-related dimensions of racial discrimination (CERD/C/56/Misc.21/Rev.3)

Such recognition however, is severely lacking at national levels. In the UK, for instance, there is no official policy statement or document which gives any serious attention to the ways in which black or minority women face gender and racial discrimination simultaneously. An in-depth analysis of the combined effects of racial and gender discrimination and the implications for all legislation, policies and strategies on the elimination of racial and gender inequality has yet to take place. The result is that black and minority women are rendered invisible in official strategies to combat gender inequality and racial discrimination, and they are rendered vulnerable to further discrimination.

But there is a more serious consequence of the failure to recognise the existence of intersectional discrimination. Many so called progressive initiatives, policies and strategies aimed at eliminating racial or gender discrimination actually serve only to reinforce the multiple levels of discrimination experienced by minority women, based on the flawed view that discrimination is one-dimensional and affects all women or all minority communities in the same way.

Although a number of NGOs and researchers have devoted considerable time and resources in understanding and addressing the effect of multiple forms of discrimination, much work remains to be done, especially at the national and local government level. There is an urgent need to ensure full recognition and integration of the intersectional perspective in all national programmes, policies, legislation and initiatives on all forms of discrimination. A more holistic approach to discrimination that recognises the simultaneous nature of women's experiences of various forms of discrimination is necessary, if we are to ensure that human rights are a reality for all women.

This presentation will focus particularly on the ways in which the combined effects of racial and gender discrimination place obstacles to black and minority women's struggle for equality and social justice. More specifically, I will focus on women's experiences of domestic violence, immigration laws, the criminal justice system and the multicultural approach, to show how these sites of intersectional discrimination create and perpetuate the multiple disadvantages that these women face. More importantly I wish to highlight the fact that gender and racial discrimination intersect simultaneously to the detriment of such women.

Whilst this presentation is concerned with the combined effects of racial and gender discrimination on women, it is acknowledged that other factors relating to women's social identities such as ethnicity, class, religion, caste national origin, disability and sexuality can also intersect with and therefore compound gender discrimination.

The presentation also draws on the discussions and findings of the Expert Group Meeting on gender and racial discrimination, organised by the UN Division for the Advancement of Women in collaboration with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and UN Development Fund for Women in November 2000 in Zagreb, Croatia. The paper will therefore end with some broad based suggestions and recommendations made by the Expert Group Meeting in which I was also a participant.

Background and Conceptual Aspects of Intersectional Discrimination

Globalisation has brought with it an unprecedented flow of unfettered capital and mass migration of labour, especially from the developing countries and the transitional economies of Eastern Europe to Western Europe, North America and Australia. Such large-scale movement of labour has increased the scope for worldwide racist activity and discrimination based on race, religion and ethnicity. The operation of restrictive immigration and asylum policies is one manifestation of such racial and related forms of discrimination in the more industrialised nations. At the same time we are witness to the unprecedented movement of women from the South to the North, constituting cheap and unorganised labour force, particularly as domestics and in the sex and entertainment industries of the industrialised countries. But the migration of such women means that they are also vulnerable to multiple forms of discrimination. It is therefore against the backdrop of the global economy that the intersection of racial and gender discrimination must be understood.

Conceptualising intersectional discrimination: 'The idea of intersectionality seeks to capture both the structural and dynamic consequences of the interaction between two or more forms of discrimination or systems of subordination. It specifically addresses the manner in which racism, patriarchy, economic disadvantages and other discriminatory systems contribute to create layers of inequality that structures the relative positions of women and men, races and other groups. Moreover, it addresses the way that specific acts and policies create burdens that flow along these intersecting axes contributing actively to create a dynamic of disempowerment.'(Page 9, Expert Group Report)

The Traffic Intersection Metaphor: The notion of intersectional discrimination is best understood by way of a metaphor relating to a traffic intersection. The metaphor was developed by Professor Kimberle Crenshaw and gives what is considered to be an effective model for the understanding of intersectional or multiple discrimination.

'In this metaphor, race, gender, class and other forms of discrimination or subordination are the roads that structure the social, economic or political terrain. It is through these thoroughfares that dynamics of disempowerment travel. These thoroughfares are sometimes framed as distinctive and mutually exclusive avenues of power.' But these thoroughfares often overlap and cross each other, creating complex intersections at which two, three or four of these avenues meet. Marginalised groups of women are located at these intersections by virtue of their specific identities and must negotiate the 'traffic' that flows through these intersections to avoid injury and to obtain resources for the normal activities of life. This can be dangerous when the traffic flows simultaneously from many directions. Injuries are sometimes created when the impact from one direction throws victims into the path of oncoming traffic, while on other occasions, injuries occur from simultaneous collisions. These are the contexts in which intersectional injuries occur - when multiple disadvantages or collisions interact to create a distinct and compound dimension of disempowerment.' (Page 9, Expert Group Report)

There are different types of intersectional discrimination or subordination. But the failure of national governments and the international community to adequately analyse all experiences of intersectional discrimination lies in the fact that in traditional conceptions of race and gender discrimination, certain specific problems or forms of discrimination faced by marginalised women are rendered invisible. Crenshaw describes this as the twin problems of 'over-inclusion' and 'under-inclusion'.

For example, the notion of over-inclusion refers to situations where the racial dimension of an experience is subsumed within a gender perspective. The consequence is that only the gender aspect of the discrimination is addressed and the subsumed or racialised aspect of discrimination is ignored. The trafficking of women and young girls is perceived to be an example par excellence of gender subordination. It is commonly held to be only a woman's problem. So in the debates or strategies on the trafficking of women and young girls, little if any attention is paid to the fact that some groups of women and children may actually be selected and targeted for trafficking. In the UK for example, current news refers to a number of missing young West African girls aged 14 plus years, who have gone missing from care homes following their arrival in this country as asylum seekers. These girls were brought to the UK en route to Italy where they are coerced by human traffickers to work in the sex industries. It is however notable that the news reports refer to their experiences of forced sexual slavery and prostitution, but little or no attention is paid to the reasons why these women from Africa are particularly selected for trafficking. The combination of their gender, socio-economic position and their race that renders them vulnerable to economic and sexual exploitation is obvious but it is not addressed. Also, little or no attention is paid to the unique forms of gendered racial discrimination they experience in the UK as asylum seekers or in Italy as prostitutes and asylum seekers.

The notion of under-inclusion refers to situations where a gender analysis is underplayed or ignored altogether in what is perceived to be a problem of racial discrimination. So, for example, the forced non-consensual sterilisation of black and other marginalized women has been perceived to be a problem of racial discrimination rather than one of sexual abuse. In the UK, in the 1970s and early 80s, the operation of immigration laws and practice sanctioned the practice of virginity testing of South Asian women. The aim of the practice was to ascertain whether Asian women who came to join their husbands were bona fide fiancées. Underpinning this test was the assumption that Asian women do not have pre-marital sex before marriage: if a woman was not virgin then she could not be a genuine bride and therefore ineligible to enter the country. A public outcry and campaign led to the practice being stopped. Those who were appalled by the practice decried it as racist, but few articulated the way in which it also amounted to a violation of Asian women's bodies.

Apart from the trafficking of women, another well known example of targeted intersectional discrimination is the experiences of rape and sexual abuse of minority women in the context of war and armed conflict in Rwanda and Bosnia. In these cases abuses were specifically targeted at racialised women. Here conflicts which are essentially motivated by ethnic and racial hatred also target women in the selected communities for particular types of rape, sexual violence and aggression as a way of humiliating and dehumanising the entire ethnic group in question.

Another variation is in the form of structural discrimination. This occurs where policies intersect with underlying structures of inequality to create a compounded burden for particularly vulnerable women. So, women may experience specific forms of gender discrimination where they are vulnerable because of their race/class or ethnicity. On the other hand, marginalised women may be subject to specific forms of racial discrimination simply because of their gendered location within their communities. Thus the racism they experience may affect them in ways which are different from that experienced by men in their communities. One example of this is the ways in which vulnerable women within racialised groups may be coerced into non-violent crime in support of the criminal activity by their partners. But their subordinate gender positions within their community which brings about their ready acceptance of the coercion into crime is ignored by the state who may single out the women for harsher sentences. Such women may also be vulnerable to specific forms of gender discrimination in prisons ranging from 'overpolicing' to sexual abuse.

Yet another manifestation of structural discrimination is where the policy in question interacts with background structures thus creating burdens that disproportionately affect margnialised women. Structural adjustment programmes within developing and transitional economies although not specifically targeted at women can lead to increased poverty for marginalised women.

Whatever the type of intersectional discrimination, the consequence is that different forms of discrimination are more often than not experienced simultaneously by marginalised women. But the reality of their lives shaped as it is by disadvantage and social injustice is ignored and lies unaddressed within the traditional framework of understanding gender and racial discrimination because of a lack of a holistic approach to gender and racial discrimination.


The UK Experience

The rest of this presentation will focus on some of the experiences of minority, largely South Asian women, with whom I work with at the London based NGO-Southall Black Sisters. In particular, I will focus on aspects of violence against women - one of the critical areas of concern raised in the Beijing Platform for Action document. My aim is to show how, despite official rhetoric, debates and strategies to combat domestic violence the government has paid little attention to black and minority women's experience of domestic violence, which is essentially a story of multiple discrimination.

Despite decades of struggles by black and minority women for recognition of their daily experiences of racial and gender discrimination, the sad reality is that at best their experiences are seen through the lens of a mutually exclusive checklist of discrimination. One danger of this approach lies in the strategies that are adopted to address discrimination, which can and do have the paradoxical effect of reinforcing certain forms of discrimination that remain hidden. Thus many Asian women are denied the right to protection and redress from abuse experienced at the hands of the state or private actors. Aside from language barriers and cultural constraints that demand their obedience and silence for the sake of upholding family honour, many state policies have the effect of compounding the discrimination they face in their homes and their communities.

Domestic Violence and Immigration Policy Many Asian and other minority women who arrive in the country as new brides and who find themselves subject to domestic violence are then denied effective protection by the operation of the so called 'one year rule' and other welfare rights legislation. The combined legislative framework requires that spouses from abroad remain in a marriage for a probationary period of at least a year without recourse to public funds. Following the completion of the probationary period, if they are still married, they are entitled to seek indefinite leave to remain in the country. If the marriage has ended for whatever reason, then the spouse from abroad is subject to deportation. Many women are thus faced with a stark choice: domestic violence or deportation. Women who are frightened of returning to their countries of origin for fear of destitution, further violence and social persecution as a result of their changed marital status, choose instead to remain within violent relationships.

In recognition of the impact of the immigration rule on domestic violence experienced by minority women, the rule was modified by the introduction of a concession to the latest immigration and asylum legislation. But the modification still does not give effective protection to those minority women who experience domestic violence. The rule states that women who can demonstrate that they were the victims of domestic violence within the probationary period will be entitled to remain in the country on an indefinite basis. The problem, however, lies with the much higher standard of proof that is required of minority women in demonstrating domestic violence. The test which women have to overcome borders on requiring proof beyond all reasonable doubt. Few women are able to meet the level of proof required. The result is that many women are still entrapped within violent relationships.

The operation of such immigration rules means that the autonomy and right of black and minority women to live free from violence is restricted. Moreover, it has the effect of exacerbating the abuse that occurs in the family since the existence of the immigration rules gives the settled spouse added power to perpetrate the violence with impunity knowing that there will be no social censure. Paradoxically the immigration restriction reinforces patriarchal relations and gender discrimination. Yet this aspect of immigration law and policy is not addressed in official rhetoric and national policy and initiatives on domestic violence aimed at increasing social awareness and decreasing social tolerance of domestic violence. Thus major initiatives on domestic violence do not acknowledge the fact that not all women experience violence or protection from such violence in the same way.

The operation of the rule therefore compounds the violence that black and minority women experience and has a racially discriminatory effect in that minority women with no settled immigration status are denied access to protection and other welfare services that are available to battered women in the majority community.

Domestic Violence and the Criminal Justice System Many black and minority women are unable to access the criminal justice systems for a number of valid reasons. Black and minority women's experiences of the criminal justice system have received little official attention since they have largely fallen between two stools. On the one hand, where relations between black and minority communities and the police and other criminal justice agencies have been addressed, including most recently in the wake of the Stephen Lawrence case (The McPherson Report 1999), the concept of these black communities has never included a gender analysis. Thus black women's specific experiences of racism have not received appropriate attention. In parallel official studies on women and the criminal justice system over the years, black women's unique experiences of racial discrimination intersecting with gender discrimination have only been given a cursory glance.

Black women may be subject to oppressive policing practices and so share similar experiences of racism to that of men within their communities. For example when reporting domestic or racial violence, black women may instead be criminalised instead. My experience shows how women who report incidents of domestic violence are themselves subject to incarceration or questioning and investigation as to their immigration status. In other situations, black women are deterred from reporting instances of violence and abuse in their communities because they carry the burden of not exposing the community to 'overpolicing' or extreme state measures'. We have known cases where black men arrested for domestic violence and subsequently deported where they do not have a settled immigration status or dying in police custody. The burden that black women bear is therefore multiple. They are under immense pressures not to expose the wider community to institutional racism, but also, they are unable to seek redress for abuses that take place against them as women within their communities.

At the same time as black and minority women are 'overpoliced,' their experiences of domestic violence are often 'underpoliced'. Historically domestic violence has always been 'underpoliced'. But in much of the official literature on domestic violence, black women's experiences of domestic violence is seen to be one of gender discrimination and sexist attitudes prevalent throughout the police and prosecutorial system. However, the experience of South Asian women in particular show that police failure to criminalise domestic violence is more marked. This is largely due to multicultural assumptions about their different cultural backgrounds. (See below) Differences of culture and religion are often cited as excuses by the police for their non-interference. The result is that patriarchal power within minority communities, manifest for example in abuses such as domestic violence or forced marriages, is reinforced and goes unchecked. The message is that Asian women have no right to rely on the state for protection or to uphold their human rights. On the other hand, the notion of 'difference' is ignored in official strategies on violence to the extent that language difficulties, racism and other obstacles which prevent Asian women from reporting instances of violence, are not addressed. On the other hand, differences in culture and religion are invoked in exaggerated and stereotypical forms to justify non-interference in minority families for fear of being perceived to be 'culturally insensitive'. This latter approach amounts to an inverse form of racism since it denies the right to protection available to other women in society and in fact perpetuates patriarchal abuse of power within minority communities.

Domestic Violence and Multiculturalism. In the UK as in other western democracies, the multicultural approach has come to be the dominant approach to relations between the state and minority communities. With its emphasis on the need to respect and tolerate diversity and difference, it is widely accepted as a more enlightened or progressive approach to the integration of minorities. The multicultural model is all pervasive in social welfare policy and practice. Whilst the underlying notions of respect and tolerance for minorities are important, the tendency within multicultural discourses is to construct minority communities as homogeneous, with static or fixed cultures and without internal divisions along gender, caste or class lines. The consequent power relations and internal contestations of power that flow from such division are not recognised. Also, the model is undemocratic since relations between the state and minority communities are mediated through unelected self appointed community leaders, who are men, usually from socially conservative backgrounds with little or no interest in women's rights or social justice. Most are from religious backgrounds and their interests lie in preserving the family and religious and cultural values. The expectation that women will conform to religious and cultural dictates in order to transmit cultural values from one generation to the next is therefore considered crucial by such leaders.

In reality in Britain community leaders are given control over the family -women and children in return for maintenance of the political status quo. At a formal and informal level, state and community leaders enter in a contract where individual autonomy is traded for some degree of communal autonomy. The state and community leaders thus determine between themselves the level of interference within the community. For example in respect of policing issues, the police regularly consult with community leaders on how and on what issues the community is to be policed.

Multiculturalism is a site where the intersectionality of race and gender discrimination is perhaps at its most complex but also most insidious. This is partly due to the fact that gender discrimination within minority communities is obscured by the model's liberal underpinnings of tolerance and respect for diversity.

The multicultural model in our view, poses one of the main obstacles to the enjoyment of equality and human rights by South Asian and other minority women in the UK and elsewhere. The consequences of the application of multi-cultural policies is that a relativist approach to human rights is adopted and legitimised by the state in respect of minority women. One example of this is the way in which the the Government has recently, in its first ever report on forced marriages, conceded that the process of mediation (which in practice involves reconciling victims with their oppressors without further state scrutiny) is, in the name of recognising cultural difference, a legitimate option to pursue. Yet at the same time, it is acknowledged in state policies on domestic violence and abuse of women in the majority community, that mediation should not be pursued, since it does not guarantee protection from such violence and abuse. The multi-cultural approach therefore not only accommodates but also reinforces certain abuses against women and girl children within minority communities, denying them the protection that they need in view of their enhanced vulnerability as women and members of a minority community.

Recommendations for Action

Urgent action needs to take place at both the national (governmental) and international (United Nations) levels, to raise awareness of the multiple nature of discrimination experienced by marginalised women, and to mainstream an intersectional or more holistic approach to the question of racial and gender discrimination. It is both the intersectional and the simultaneous nature of multiple discrimination that needs to be understood at a theoretical level and addressed at a practical level.

Many of the recommendations for addressing intersectional discrimination are outlined in the Expert Group Report. Since much of my presentation is particularly concerned with failure at the national level to acknowledge intersectional discrimination, the recommendations highlighted below are aimed at forcing governments to take positive action to identify and address how multiple discrimination affects marginalised women who experience violence in the family.

To the UN system and governments

Develop methodologies to identify intersectional discrimination and its effects on women and girls who experience domestic violence and other forms of familial abuse including forced marriages, honour crimes, crimes related to the giving and taking of dowries and sexual abuse in the private and public life. Investigations into intersectional discrimination should begin with analysing the lived experiences of marginalised women in all their complexities. A series of questions need to be asked as to what dimensions of discrimination converge to affect and shape their lives.

To Governments

To the UN system

With respect to recommendations for action to the UN system, intergovernmental bodies, and UN human rights treaties and bodies and special mechanisms, please refer to the comprehensive list of recommendations made in the Expert Group Report. There is an urgent need is to mainstream an intersectional analysis into the investigation of all forms of discrimination, by all the various UN constituent bodies. This includes mainstreaming an intersectional analysis of gender and race discrimination into the work of all mechanisms of the human rights system, including treaty bodies, commissions and the activities of the thematic and country specific rapporteurs and working groups.