Intersectionality – the essay (part 2)

Intersectionality in practice: ethnic-Pakistani women of Bradford and the homogenising effects of multiculturalism

Intersectional approaches can help locate Pakistani women’s position as survivors of gender-based violence in which overlapping social categories such as ethnicity, religion, generational differences, and multiculturalism render them invisible. Their’s is a situation compounded further by multiple material deprivation of inner city life in Bradford, North England. Here I shall illustrate how the lives of women in Bradford embody a problem in which cultural homogenisation and political apathy on the grounds on cultural sensitivity fail to address their needs of protection from domestic abuse and other gender-based violence. Cultural relativism, as the mantra of multi-culturalist politics reflects an anti-interventionist stance of political authorities who leave so-called “cultural and domestic affairs” to the hands of community leaders. This symbolic transfer of power only proves to be devastating for women:

In reality this means that community leaders have most control over the family, women and children. Together with the state, community leaders define the needs of the minority communities then limit and separate progressive voices on the grounds of these being inauthentic and westernised. More radical elements of our community are labelled as extremists. This is the result of multi-cultural policies. They have had an enormous and devastating impact on women’s autonomy and rights . . . [26]

Class, race, Islam, and “sensitive issues”

Located in the North of England, Bradford is the fourth largest urban area in the country with a significant ethnic minority population. One in five of the population is described to experience or is affected by multiple forms of deprivation characterised by poverty, poor education, crime, drug abuse, unemployment, and over-crowding in homes [27] – all of which contribute, whether partially or significantly, to violence against women in the home and in public. This is confirmed to a particular extent in Marie Macey’s study on ethnic Pakistani women, which was conducted in informants’ homes, schools, domestic violence units, psychiatric hospitals, and day centres revealing a startling consensus on gender-based violence amongst disparate informants [28].

Domestic violence occurs across class and ethnic lines, however, the plight of ethnic Pakistani women is not sufficiently addressed primarily due to the political reluctance to be involved in what is commonly understood as a racially-sensitive issue and therefore best left as a concern of the British-Pakistani community. In an effort to establish a peaceful image of the community devoid of negative racial stereotypes, community leaders tend to downplay the level of domestic violence in Pakistani households. But by doing so those with the capacity to help and support were perceived to be colluding to the women’s suffering, manifested in “mental breakdowns, depression, suicides, and even murders” [29]. Many survivors were shocked by the attitudes of both religious leaders and racial equality officers who, respectively, advised them to simply put up with the abuse and be dutiful wives, and refrained from interfering with ‘private’ cultural issues. This is compounded by the fact that the former group find research that indicates “diversity, fragmentation, division, and oppression threatening and unacceptable” [30]. Social pressure from the rest of White society on the other hand is a complex mix of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and ignorance, as well as a genuine need to not offend. Women coerced into marriage are caught between the protection of the police and the members of her family who claim a right to preserve the “honour” (izzat) of the family and community. In such situations Islam has been used as a resource to justify threats of violence against people such as the police or social workers who are offending the Islamic “code” for interfering with what is perceived as tradition and religious obligation that needs to be preserved [31].

The inclusion of religion as a social category for intersectional analysis is significant here for the British-Pakistani in Bradford as Islam is perceived as a source of community cohesion as well as hope and strength [32]. Both fundamentalism and moderate stances of Islam have emerged side by side in times of conflict and racial / religious conflicts in Bradford, which could explain both the defensive and aggressive behaviour of some men [33]. Furthermore, religion has been used as an excuse for male chauvinist behaviour and the unfair treatment of women. In more extreme cases, women have been subjected to domestic abuse for not fulfilling the role expected of a “dutiful” Pakistani-Muslim wife. The attachment of religious identity to a cultural one is close and often difficult to separate, thus the frequent conflation of the two is often seen in the attitudes towards women, romanticised as gatekeepers of culture and faith. Many men also place a great concern over the “appropriate” dress of younger women as a matter of family and community honour [34]. The importance of women’s “modesty” may also symbolise a concern about the threat of so-called un-Islamic or “Western” corruption to their tradition and values. Religion and cultural pressure are not the only factors contributing to male dominance and gender-based violence but the existing multiple material deprivation that is also viewed to predispose ethnic Pakistani men towards tension and violence [35].

Women caught in the crossroads

Macey [36] collates race (or ethnicity), gender, religion, the generation gap, socio-economic factors as the constituent elements that intersect with one another in the construction of aggressive Pakistani male identity and resultant attitudes towards their female counterparts. In addition, rational choice and manipulation of cultural and religious elements to attain desired ends also figure into the dialectical formation of these identities [37]. I would like to refine Macey’s analysis by complicating the social location of ethnic-Pakistani women further by suggesting that sexuality as an additional analytical category is worth including seeing that gender identity and reproduction are both significant in the control of women. One of the tendencies of feminist intersectional studies is the theorisation of the macro and micro levels as separate, almost independent entities. According to Brah [38], “analysis of women’s narratives must be framed against wider economic, political, and cultural processes in non-reductive ways”. With this view, immigration policies and the economic condition at large figure prominently in the disadvantage that Pakistani women in Bradford face. The wider issue of private versus public spaces with regard to gender-based violence against women is important here, although it is jealously guarded as a domestic affair of the community it cannot be avoided as an issue of general societal concern. Violence against women after all, as Crenshaw [39] puts it, is “largely recognised as part of a broad-scale system of domination that affects women as a class”.

In her re-conceptualisation of intersectionality, Stanaeus proposes the “compensating, overshadowing, saturating, hiding, and drowning” effect of one social category over one or many others as a reason why some groups can be rendered invisible from one sociological point of view. Adopting Stanaeus’ reworking of the concept of intersectionality, the ethnic marker of these women have completely overshadowed, saturated, hidden, and “drowned” the gendered aspects of the their lives, aspects that deserved to be protected from male violence and dominance regardless of their cultural and ethnic context. Similarly, Macey [40] sees the “prioritization of racial and cultural differences over other features of the person, such as gender, age, class location and religious affiliation”. Asian women, from the viewpoint of social service providers, the police, doctors, and lawyers, are figures undifferentiated by their race and religion despite the multiple intersecting elements that figure into their lives. The situation of Asian women in Bradford echoes Sojourner Truth’s lament, “Ain’t I a woman?”, in which they have been neglected as a group and denied protection from male-dominated violence for reasons, among others, of fundamentally being female. Like Sojourner Truth, it is an identity claim that is constructed in relation to a multiplicity of dimensions and also constituted in and via power relations.


At this point of reflection, I wish to reiterate the way intersectionality can be distinguished from other theoretical approaches in its strive for the complexification of sociological categories and by its recognition that components of power, categories, and experiences do not exist in isolation but rather interact and constitute one another in significant ways. Intersectionality also taps into the interdisciplinary nature feminist politics that aims not only to theorise and understand women’s subordination in society, but also to remedy it in the most effective ways possible. And perhaps what makes intersectionality so enduring for future feminist politics is its ability to evoke differences and diversity that exist within a group as well as between groups. Despite the challenges in undertaking intersectional analysis with regards to the multiplicity of social categories and the diversity within them, new categories, subjects, and experiences are waiting to be discovered. Beyond the litany of ‘gender-class-race’, sexuality, disability, religion, and language are also waiting to be included in the standard repertoire of feminist analyses. Via intersectional analyses, the category ‘gender’ has been problematised to account for the neglected points where gender and other important experiential categories overlap, illuminating certain experiences of whole groups of women previously invisible to feminist analyses. Intersectionality tests the boundaries and transience of social categories, but it is also not immune to its own motivations as intersectionality, according to Crenshaw, is but a “transitional concept” that can be “replaced as our understanding of each category becomes more multidimensional” [41].

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