The uses and abuses of intersectionality: key considerations for policymakers

Published on 25 November 2020

Mariz Tadros

Director (CREID)

Intersectionality is the flavour of the month in social sciences and international development, quickly gaining ground in international policy making circles. Noting its popularity in social justice movements aiming to pluralise representation of both voices and issues, I will draw on our study, Violence and Discrimination against Women of Religious Minority Backgrounds in Pakistan, to highlight how intersectionality was critical as a lens for this research, but it also needs to be approached with caution when translating analysis into recommendations for policy making.

The merits of intersectionality as an “exposure” lens are many:

Visibilizing hidden marginality

All women (and men) who live in poverty experience intersecting inequalities, whether in Pakistan or anywhere else. However, for this collection of papers, an intersectional analysis allowed us to explore how poor women from Hindu, Ahmadiyya, Christian and Shia Hazara backgrounds experience marginality differently. Even though many of their experiences are similar to women belonging to the Sunni majority, many other experiences are very specific and distinct. For example, amongst all of them, the way they dressed made them targets of sexual harassment, which was expressed in ways that touched on their identity (i.e. the type of veil worn among the Ahmadiyya, saris worn by the Hindus, etc.).

A policy framework that speaks of gendered poverty or countering sexual harassment in Pakistan, without due attention to religious marginality, will be complicit in continuing to marginalise these women.

Revealing complexity

Intersectionality is not just about research variables (class, ethnicity, etc.). it is also about the complex ways in which different identity markers work together to shape realities. For example, for women who belong to Ahmadiyya community in Pakistan, their position is affected not only by being a minority from a numerical and power point of view, but also on account of the specificity of the type of minority they are.

However, the policy demand, in this particular incidence, is not that the Ahmadiyya be recognised as a minority, but rather that they be considered as part and parcel of the religion of the majority!  (see M.K.’s paper (from p.215) in the collection).

Understanding perceptions as well as realities

Intersectionality is more than how different identifiers work together to influence status and role. It helps us to understand how the interplay of different identities shapes the perceptions (about themselves and of others) of people on the margins.

For example, women’s experiences of being targets of forced abduction and forced conversion have also affected men’s perceptions of the safety of the women in their community. Men’s perceptions have led to the introduction of measures, drawn under the rubric of “protection”, which have directly influenced women’s freedom of movement and association.

A policy focus that simply looks at forced conversion/abduction without looking at how perceptions thereof within the community are having an impact on women’s lives more broadly may miss out on the opportunity to make long lasting changes in women’s status.

However, intersectionality can also be misappropriated and misused by policymakers…

Policymakers misusing and misappropriating intersectionalities

1. Cover up

On account of personal bias, or lack of knowledge or data, or political calculations, or a combination thereof,  policymakers may wish to subsume religious marginality under ethnicity, class, gender, or some other factor which makes the framing of the drivers of inequality more palatable.

For example, caste is deeply influential in Pakistan (as in other countries). The experiences of Hindu women (see Seema’s paper (from p.85) in this collection) and Christian women living in economically deprived areas of particular forms of discrimination and stigma are significantly informed by conceptions of not touching utensils used by “untouchables”, as well as expecting members of these communities to fill occupations that the rest of the Pakistani community see as undesirable.

However, when advertisements specifically mention positions being only open to non-Muslims, this is a political signal of demarcation, not on account of caste, but due to religious affiliation (see Naumana’s paper (from p.160) in the collection).

To simply discuss the experiences of the Hindu and Christian minorities as issues to do with caste rather than religious affiliation is a cover up. Policymaking that seeks to redress caste issues is of course needed, independently of the religious affiliation of the person, but the deep-seated religious prejudice towards minorities will also need to be addressed.

2. Carve up

Having identified the nexus of gender-class-religious marginality, etc. that allows policymakers to clearly identify those most marginalised that they need to reach, there is a temptation to use intersectionality as a basis for focusing on only those who are suffering from the most acute forms of intersecting inequalities.

However, this can lead to a severe backlash against the very people on the margins policymakers want to help. Intersectionality is great for analysis, but strategies for supporting people on the margins need a lot more thought to consider the intended and unintended ripple effects of any interventions.

3. Freeze up

An intersectionality lens can shed light on the interplay of identifiers and perceptions experienced by different people, however, such analysis should not be considered to present an eternal snapshot of the situation on the ground, frozen in history and forming the basis of all policymaking in relation to that context.

People’s positions and perceptions change and so do their contexts, so assumptions about the situation of say, Hazara Shia women in Pakistan, will need to be continuously revisited not only in terms of what is happening in Pakistani foreign relations, but also what is happening in terms of changes in the rhetoric and practices towards Shias more broadly (see Sadiqa, Maryam and Jaffer’s paper (from p.20) in this collection).

Hence, policy engagement’s use of intersectionality should be wary of inadvertently engaging with people experiencing multiple sources of marginalities as if they are to be categorised under different reified forms of identification.

Intersectionality, like all lenses of analysis, is best done in co-construction with people on the margins. It is through these processes of accompaniment that its use in policymaking may avoid the abuses highlighted above – as the authors of this new volume have so incisively and powerfully shown.

Access the full collection from CREID here.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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