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The Puzzle That is Intersectionality {Part I: A Social Theory}

Written by: Jesie Randhawa

Illustrations by: Benedetta Rosini


Read Part II here

As of late, we keep seeing the word 'intersectional' or ‘intersectionality’ constantly thrown around feminist social movements. It can almost be considered politically incorrect to not include the term. Women Unbounded is no stranger to the phenomenon, consistently citing ourselves to be intersectional feminists.

Most people somewhat get the gist of what it means… but what does it really mean? What does intersectionality actually bring to feminist thinking?

First of all, it is right to assume that intersectionality behaves as a harbinger of change to feminist thought, by contributing new importance, effectivity and especially, controversy in a positive and negative sense. The concept of intersectionality can be engaged through multiple ways since it implies an extremely broad range of interpretations. Therefore, this article shall treat it as having dual definitions and sift through accordingly: intersectionality as simultaneously a social theory and a research paradigm.

Part one of this two-part series will focus entirely on intersectionality functioning as a social theory.

Its value lies in its ability to transfer itself across several meanings: as a theoretical concept, it enables comprehending political mobilisation across civilisations, aids in the debunking of stereotypes, and is centrifugal to efficient policy-making.

And so, intersectionality can be seen as not so much as a tokenistic, inclusive element to be notched under the grand umbrella constituting feminist thought, but rather, as being in a dynamic relationship with feminist thought. One that spurs mutual exchange, adaptation and misinterpretation, and through this viewpoint, the essay can confirm that as a social theory, the relationship is positively framed and compatible, being incorporated readily as a resistant movement to the power dynamics of oppression and privilege.

The Tenets of Intersectionality

First and foremost, intersectionality begins with the realising of differences, and the halting of generalising and superficial advocating under one violent generality. It means recognising the likelihood of being hindered by routinized violence at a convergence of identities.

It should be emphasised that the concept had developed in its own right separate of mainstream feminism, that black women’s studies had felt the effects of being systematically ignored in the culture of a ‘common struggle’. It also needs to be clarified that intersectionality is not the sole focus on marginalised women, despite the importance of acknowledging its history in black feminism.

Crenshaw, whilst coining the term intersectionality, saw an opportunity to discuss how social priorities are arranged aligned with the hierarchical pecking order, and hence she claimed we must be curious to question it, and realise the marginalised can potentially have the same power to push forward movements if empowered not by ‘tokenism’ diversity but proactive inclusion.

After all, our own experiences are something we know for certain. We navigate a space in which we try to relate and explore other experiences.

Previous to the emergence of intersectionality, groups of women fostered an unnecessarily competitive modus operandi, made to streamline their interests in reductionist, one-dimensional configurations all in the hope of earning more policy attention than the other. Highly toxic was this environment seeing as it forced incredibly fluid, complex and ever-changing identities into boxes; and when funding was approved for a certain group that pursued research in the name of feminism, Smooth aptly asks a critical question: for “which women?”.

Although, in turn, feminism is not merely a tale of women oppressed.

If personified, feminism would be a blacksmith – forging innovative tools for those ready to tackle the foundations of oppression of which gender is based upon, and potentially undoing it.

When viewed this way, it could be argued that intersectionality sprung forward as an organic phenomenon of feminism, bringing an inevitable growth in the theme of active opposition to any attempts at “subjectification”.

A Master At Rocking the Boat

An intersectional perspective helps feminist thought unravel the complexities of identity as socially-constructed and fair game for constant negotiation and contestation. To any person on the street, it can be pointed out that personal problems do not necessarily require a change in behaviour, but can be politicized and mobilized into a social issue.

Intersectionality enables the knower to see how these dynamics do not immediately relegate the woman to the side, but rather, displays how class, education and perceptions of development formed new unique subjectivities. It would do us well to comprehend the significance of this contribution to feminism.

Stereotypes, Be Gone

Regarding contemporary trends playing out on the global stage, intersectionality does well to question identities and responsibility; and to combat the ideals of “new Orientalisms”.

These now take the form of postmodern (imperialist) feminisms; reinvigorated and condescending discussions of democracy in the Global South; controversy over the Muslim woman’s veil and Western-crafted illusions of primitive cultural violence that must be rescued; and rhetoric on terrorism, amongst many other things.

For example, within the Sikh community of Britain, the turban is symbolically usurped in relation to the risk of terrorism against the West and ‘modernity’; these masculinities are suddenly at peril, othered inside a traditionalist and patriarchal narrative.

At the micro-level, in context of the local community and faith identity, the turban’s value is insurmountable and a measurement of masculinity in relation to female Sikhs. On the meso-level in postcolonial Britain, the turban constitutes a dilemma of fractured belonging and doubly irrelevant to the femininities outside of Sikh communities.

This goes to show the incongruence of particular masculinities’ supposed oppression over particular femininities, and as compared to a wholly gender-only approach preached by previous waves of feminism, an intersectional perspective dissects this expertly.

Intersectionality debunks the conviction that men are immediately at a hierarchical advantage, when sentiments of disempowerment naturally coalesce with layered identities instead of singularly gender.

In relation to women and feminist thinking, it destabilises the popular belief that masculinity is the bane of women’s oppression; and instead, intersectionality demands entertaining the idea that feminism need not always be articulated in relation to the patriarchy, and that oppression can attribute fault to a multitude of origins – even from within feminist thought!

Singaporean Policy-Making

In the department of policy-making, contextual analysis, as brought to the fore by intersectionality, needs to be applied rigorously for the sake of upholding the rights of all citizens. In order to combat the structural violence inherent out of ignorance from “patriarchal regimes, neoliberal globalisation and social hierarchy”.

Destination countries in East and South-East Asia tend to stratify their labour markets according to gender, and the laws omit economic sectors that women migrate into, such as the entertainment, sex and household industries. It is highly imperative that intersectionality as a modality is taken into account within contexts of particular societies – the layers of culture, social conditions, and policies/laws amongst a few, determine the treatment of migration.

For example, in Singapore, domestic employees’ work permit is jeopardised in the discovery of pregnancy, and reproductive health is severely at risk when a woman’s choice is between livelihood or self-protection. Here it becomes immediately relevant how the incompetence of policy-making triggers the state of irregularity – unsafe and illegal abortions might become a measure of last resort. Feminist thought is significantly upgraded, so to say, with intersectionality’s ability to empathise with women being discriminated upon via several avenues of identity, especially in policy-making for the sake of minimising structural violence.

Social theory-wise, intersectionality as a concept, and even, way of life, has been utilised with great enthusiasm as seen through various examples. Any essentialist threats to the conduct of feminism is not felt through this particular rapport. In fact, it is hailed as significantly relevant to mobilising politics, debunking common perceptions and policy-making. Overall marking intersectionality’s contribution as almost entirely positive in theory, reception, and practise.


‘Part II: A Research Paradigm’ will follow up on the potential problems that arise with intersectionality’s entrance into the field of research and application. Many of us may preach the benefits but halt at the actual implementation of intersectional feminism. By paying attention to different identities, do we, by default, fall into the trap of fixing ourselves into black boxes? Stay tuned to find out more on confronting this puzzle.

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