Is intersectionality enough if the only intersections we see are those that affect women in the west?

Written by Ruby Hamad, Illustrations by Sonia Kretschmar

If there is one word that describes, not so much where feminism is at, but where it imagines it’s at, it is “intersectionality.” This theory, coined by black American academic Kimberle Crenshaw way back in the late 80s to demonstrate how the oppression experienced by black women (but then widened to apply to others), is specific to their gender and race, has sadly become little more than a buzz word.

When I began writing about the need for intersectional feminism some years ago, using the lack of representation of women of diverse backgrounds in various forms of popular culture, my intention was not to suggest that representation was an end in itself, but to highlight one symptom of a vastly unequal society.

It’s been disappointing to see that, as the voices of women from diverse backgrounds — whether race, cultural, ability, gender identity, sexual orientation — have gotten louder, the overall response to our demands has been largely superficial.

To be clear, I am not discounting intersectionality as a theory. Rather, I am questioning its application. At the same time as this word has entered our consciousness, we have also been hit with such juggernauts as “Leaning in,” “I’m not bossy, I’m the boss,” and “I’m with Her,” all of which demonstrate some form of neoliberalism; that oppression can be overcome through the actions of individuals.

And so, what began as a challenge to western capitalist exploitation has been appropriated by that which is seeks to dismantle. While it may seem that intersectional feminism appears to elevate all women no matter their background, closer inspection reveals it still relies on the continued hidden oppression of women (and men) elsewhere.

Take, for instance, high street fashion chain H&M, which last year became the darling of intersectionality-minded feminists thanks to a hugely popular advert set to the tune of She’s A Lady, but which upended traditional notions of what being a “lady” actually entailed. A black woman picks food out of her teeth with a restaurant fork, a brown plus-size woman struts seductively in her underwear, a white woman manspreads on the New York subway, a –well, you get the idea.

Yes, the irony and diversity is certainly appealing. Until you remember that, like so many other western corporations, H&M has been embroiled in a sweatshop scandal regarding conditions in the Indian and Cambodian factories that supply the retail giant. This includes the predominantly female workers being employed only on three month contracts, allegations of pregnant workers getting fired, and wages so low, the chances of ever escaping the industry are virtually zero.

H&M vowed to improve supply chain methods, but the truth is, the exploitation of vulnerable workers in the Global South is built into the system. If not, then manufacturing would never have left western shores to begin with.

From local brand Gorman to Beyonce’s Ivy Park label, these scandals erupt time and again because the zeal for an ever greater profit margin combines with our own entitled consumer habits to foster an industry in which workers are necessarily abused and underpaid. Any attempt to regulate the industry is met, not only with complaints from the businesses involved, but incredibly, resistance from western consumers who, despite their own working conditions benefiting from such regulation and trade unions, insist that paying brown people “anything” is “better than nothing.”

This betrays a glaring obliviousness to how our lives and comforts are built on the exploitation of others. As such, any celebration of intersectional feminism that ignores this reality ends up looking like a performance of liberation rather than actual resistance. Intersectionality, as we practice it today, may be for all women — but only as long as they live in the west.

To see this in action, look no further than Marine Le Pen, the French ultra-right presidential hopeful, who like Trump and Hanson, has built her brand largely on the back of vehement anti-Islam sentiment.

In her recent trip to Lebanon, to meet with “persecuted Christians,” Le Pen discovered, as Robert Fisk so drily put it, that, “the Christians she thought were on her allies, aren’t on her side at all.”

This is what happens when the west assumes its own concepts of feminism and freedom apply across the world. The doomsday Islam v (Westernised) Christianity rhetoric that has dominated our discourse so much lately left Le Pen clearly blindsided to discover that not only are Lebanese Christians not persecuted as a group, but their constitution dictates that, in the interests of sectarian representation, the Prime Minister of Lebanon must always be a Maronite Christian.

But that didn’t stop Le Pen from pulling her little stunt of refusing to don a headscarf to meet with the Sunni Mufti of Lebanon. Despite having been advised that a headscarf would be asked of her, Le Pen waited until she arrived at the Mufti’s office and a camera was rolling, before she bravely declared, “I am not putting the veil on.”

This is performance feminism in the aid of racism.

Of course, Le Pen is hardly a feminist warrior. But she is not the first to play out this theatre. When Michelle Obama appeared sans headscarf at the funeral of Saudi King Abdullah, she was praised for “defying,” the kingdom’s religious rulers, even though the scarf is not required of western visitors, or that First Ladies Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush before her had done the same. What was actually standard practice was spun as feminist defiance.

This kind of empty posturing, as if the west is standing strong in the face of an Islam attempting to assert its dominance over them, is as laughable as it is tragic. From deliberate plots to topple popular secular leaders, to the funding of authoritarian dictators and fundamentalist insurgents alike, the west has helped set the Middle East on this course of conflict, poverty, and religious fundamentalism.

Yet, not only does the west regard the Middle East, and the Global South in general, as, if not irrelevant but certainly peripheral, to our existence and our feminism, it also positions itself as a victim of Middle Eastern culture and religion. And don’t think the message to Arab women is lost: they hear us loud and clear; we will dictatorships and theocracies to oppress you, but not us, never us.

But because this is placed on the margins, it is almost impossible to bring to the centre. Anyone who tried to engage with Hillary Clinton supporters from this perspective, for example, quickly found themselves relegated to the figurative box where sexists and internalised misogynists are kept.

As an Arab person, I was concerned about Clinton foreign policy record, but as a woman living in the west, I also unimpressed with Trump’s blatant sexism and racism. Intersectional feminism should have been able to see the true dilemma inherent in this, but our obsession with representation and identity clouds our ability to see that identity politics should itself be intersectional — diversity is empty if it doesn’t address the foundation of inequality.

This certainly does not mean feminists should not have supported Hillary. It should, however, have prevented feminists from erasing legitimate critiques of Clinton from the feel-good narrative of a female president.

Indeed, all it does is amplify the obvious; that the systems of oppression we see play out in the west is a reflection of the oppression that the west still inflicts on people elsewhere.

And so, when millions of people marched around the western world to support American women at Trump’s inauguration, and feminists lauded it as the greatest protest movement of our times, it was difficult to see this as anything other than yet another show of the west uniting to support itself and affirm its own importance over everyone else.

This sort of feminism merely reveals itself to be content with cosmetic rather than systemic change. This can’t cut it anymore. Not when climate change and instability is only going to increase movement across borders. Not when women in “developing countries” continue to be exploited even as we throw away more clothing and goods than ever. Not when Arab women continue to be oppressed both by their own governments and by western powers.

It doesn’t matter how many diverse women are in our advertisements, how inclusive feminism is of marginalised identities in the west, or when and if the US ever gets a woman president; if this is all coming at the expense of women elsewhere it is not justice, it is not liberation, and it is not feminism.

Ruby Hamad is a Sydney-based writer and filmmaker. The 5th All About Women Festival will take place at Sydney Opera House on Sunday 5 March 2017