Intersectionality: tackling privilege, colonisation, oppression, and the elimination of violence against all women

By Yvonne Lay
Mon 10 October 14:03 AEDT
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This article contains references to violence against women.

I was born Black, and a woman. I am trying to become the strongest person I can become to live the life I have been given and to help effect change toward a livable future for this earth and for my children. As a Black, lesbian, feminist, socialist, poet, mother of two including one boy and a member of an interracial couple, I usually find myself part of some group in which the majority defines me as deviant, difficult, inferior or just plain ‘wrong’…I cannot afford the luxury of fighting one form of oppression only. (Audre Lorde, ‘There is no Hierarchy of Oppressions’, )

At this year’s Prevalent and Preventable Conference organised by the Australian Women Against Violence Alliance (AWAVA) and Our Watch , there was a dedicated stream to exploring intersectionality within the Australian context, in relation to responding to, and preventing violence against women, specifically those who have been ‘minoritised’ by the dominant social groups. Intersectional theory is by no means new, however its more centralised inclusion in the violence against women discourse is. Many feminist and critical race theorists have long suggested and warned that ‘culture talk’ in relation to violence against women is a double-edged sword – whilst it may obscure gender-based domination within communities, it also highlights the importance of cultural considerations for contextualising oppressed groups claim for justice, for improving their access to services, and for requiring dominant groups to examine the invisible cultural advantages they enjoy (see Sherene Razack, 1994, 1996; Mari J. Matsuda, 1989; Beth E. Richie, 2000; Peggy McIntosh, 1989; Deborah L. Rhode, 1990).

Natasha Stott Despoja AM delivered her keynote address, stressing that domestic and family violence (DFV) is a prevalent human rights abuse, however it is also preventable but only if we work together, as meaningful social change takes time. To prevent violence against women, we must recognise that not all women experience the impacts of gender inequality in the same way, nor do they experience violence in the same way.

The term ‘intersectionality’ was first coined in the late 1980s by critical race theorist and civil rights activist, Kimberle Williams Crenshaw. It is important however, to acknowledge that intersectionality has a long history in Black feminism, namely in the United States, dating back to the 19th century when Black feminists confronted the ‘simultaneity of a women question and a race problem – until the emergence of black feminism in the United States, not a single social theorist took seriously the concept of simultaneity of [race, gender, class] intersection in people’s lives. This concept is one of the greatest gifts of black women’s studies to social theory as a whole’ (Jean Ait Belkhir, 2009, 'The "Johnny's Story": Founder of the Race, Gender and Class Journal', The Intersectional Approach ).

Antoinette Braybrook, CEO of the Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention and Legal Service Victoria gave conference goers the first real taste of intersectionality during her keynote on day one. Antoinette provided incredibly sad yet very real accounts of Indigenous women's experiences of DFV at the hands of partners, ex-partners, as well as violence perpetrated against the same victim/survivors by social institutions like the police. Utilising the power of story-telling, Antoinette highlighted the devastating and lethal consequences that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) women will continue to face if we continue to ignore the inherent disadvantages, discrimination and oppression that ATSI women face.

In later panel discussions, Maggie Walters and Dorinda Cox reiterated that racial violence against ATSI women, and ATSI people more broadly, is entrenched in current society, and not something that happened in the past. To this, Maggie stated that it is equally important to analyse how power is deployed in some instances, and not deployed in others. For many ATSI women, their access to power is nil, thus intersectionality provides a framework to interrogate power in order to understand how power is used against women, and against all their identities. Dorinda also highlighted that it is almost impossible to understand ATSI women's experience of violence within the limited framework that we currently have in place, which has been defined and designed by the mainstream. Dorinda also stated that for ATSI women, it is a struggle for gender equality as well as for race equality. A reminder that racism is thriving in Australia, and something that current systems protect.

Current systems which were designed and created to provide safety and protection are the same systems that many ATSI women fear.

Similarly, it was noted that ATSI men and effectively all non-white men are treated very differently in comparison to white men who choose to use violence against women and girls;

To understand intersectionality we must recognise and acknowledge that as individuals, and individuals with membership to various groups, there exists multiple sites of oppression and simultaneously, multiple sites of privilege and power. As individuals, we cannot pick and choose who we are, however societal structures, systems and institutions often force us to do so. Subsequently we pick and choose what we feel is safe to display out in the world. There is nothing authentic nor real in this existence, thus in order to allow all women to be free to live true to who they are, we must challenge, critique and dismantle the systems and structures that deny women this freedom; this task will reveal and expose those who have used these systems to protect their power and privilege.

And this is where international keynote, Marai Larasi, Executive Director of UK-based Imkaan warns that things will become 'messy'. Echoing the sentiments of Audre Lorde, Marai emphasised that for women who experience multiple forms of oppression, intersectionality provides space, or at least should provide space for the multiplicity of oppression that women face, rather than reducing oppression to one fundamental type - oppression works together to result in injustice.

To expect women to pick and choose which form of oppression is the most oppressive is not the point, thus Marai challenges us to go beyond merely looking at the layers that make up a woman's identity, and focus at the point of intersection(s) that these layers create - this is the heart of intersectionality. Further to this, Marai urged us all to critique our own use of language so that we avoid the harmful continuation of 'othering'. Similarly, Dorinda pointed out that the decision to categorise ATSI women as part of the CALD cohort is unhelpful, and fundamentally ignores the unique experiences of ATSI women who are victim/survivors of violence.

Marai also plainly argued that those with power and privilege, including those of us in the conference room, who are committed to the prevention of violence against all women, must continually interrupt their own privilege on a moment to moment basis. Maggie followed by explaining by way of example that many white people often ask ATSI people what they can do to address and respond to the discrimination and oppression that the ATSI community faces - the answer needs to come from those who have the privilege and the power.

Dr. Regina Quiazon, Senior Research and Policy Advocate at Multicultural Centre for Women's Health (MCHW) pointed out that in order to do intersectional work, we need to accept the fact that this work will be complex. Power is socially located and thus in order to understand women's experiences of violence and the impacts of violence on their lives, we must examine power, and how and when it is exercised, even within our own professional contexts.

Jen Hargrave, Policy Officer from Women with Disabilities Victoria (WWD) concurred and added that for women with disabilities, to 'apply' intersectional theory into practice requires considering structural barriers and how this affects women, particularly at the institutional level. A sentiment shared by Marai who argued that state-led violence, that is by state institutions, has been largely absent from the discourse and the broader picture.

Jen also highlighted the sites of power and privilege that sit within people with disabilities, drawing our attention to the existence of the 'hierarchy of disability', where by and large, women with particular disabilities are 'minoritised'.

Dr. Jess Cadwallader, Advocacy Project Manager from People with Disabilities Australia (PWDA) and the Hon. Kelly Vincent both presented their views that sexism is not the only problem that women with disabilities are facing. The need to interrogate and challenge our use of language also applies to when we discuss women with disabilities; by referring to women with disabilities as being one of the 'vulnerable populations' implies that there is something specific about these women that makes them vulnerable - rather than naming and isolating the problem which is that it is system failures that render women with disabilities vulnerable. Kelly Vincent also elaborated and stated that because women with disabilities are often infantislised, they are effectively denied any agency in their own lives.


What was highlighted early on, and continually referenced throughout the conference was that it is ill-advised to talk about intersectionality without talking about colonisation. For all the speakers within the stream, there was vehement agreement that unless we accept and face the continuing aftermath and effects of colonisation, we will achieve very little. Dr. Quaizon added that to ignore colonisation, and without consideration and application of critical race theory, we will only continue to reinforce misogyny and racism.

Indeed, to recognise and acknowledge your position of power and privilege is important when thinking, talking and certainly when working to eliminate violence against women and girls. As Dr. Cathy Vaughn explained, part of this involves recognising what you can never know, but still be motivated to seek to understand.

As Marai Larasi emphasised, there is nothing 'comfortable' about working in the intersectionality space, particularly in relation to violence against women. However, if you as an individual can sit with the rage, injustice and upset that many women feel and experience on a daily basis as a result of their deliberate exclusion, then you earn the right to be an ally of those women who have been relegated to the margins.

Professor Rashida Manjoo, former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, its Causes and Consequences (2009 - 2015) elevated our thinking on the issue by highlighting the fact that violence against women and girls is a human rights violation in and of itself, and therefore violence against women and girls should be framed as such; to only engage in VAW discourse as a matter of gender equality will limit any sort of progress and achievement in this area of work. Professor Manjoo also called for greater levels of state accountability, and the reminder that the state has obligations to assist victim/survivors to rebuild their lives, as well as to provide holistic redress and punishment to those who perpetrate violence against women and girls.

Professor Manjoo also warned that at an international level, gender neutrality is becoming more common, thus failing to provide access to substantive equality for victim/survivors, in favour of a consistent application of laws, processes and systems, which ultimately fail to take difference of experience into account. The universality of human rights allows for specificity; we can recognise and consider the different ways women experience violence, discrimination, oppression and disadvantage without compromising the end goal of the elimination of violence against all women and girls.

In recognising difference, and providing space for multiplicity of voices and experiences, Dr. Anastasia Powell discussed how technology provides great potential and opportunity for victim/survivors to share their accounts of violence, however this virtual space is also becoming yet another space where women and girls are victimised and abused.

Although the technology itself is not to blame for the violence that women are subjected to, it is neither neutral; technology is designed and built by individuals, and thus reflects the biases of these individuals, and society more generally. Thus if we are to use social media and technology to support the elimination of violence against women and girls, their involvement and inclusion in the development of technology is essential.

On the same panel, Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli, a founding member of the Australian GLBTIQ Multicultural Council reiterated that:

However, Maria also emphasised that for GLBTIQ people, the multiple forms of oppression that they encounter is fundamentally premised on colonial and Christian understandings of sexuality, as a result:

In order to do this work and become strong allies of LGBTIQ young people, Philomena Horsley highlighted the need to go beyond an essentialist gender binary and be inclusive of LGBTIQ diversities. As Audre Lorde argues, if we are truly committed to eliminating oppression, heterosexism and homophobia must be addressed;

After three days of intently listening to all the speakers and trying to absorb every word, idea and thought, it was clear that the conversation at the conference was just the beginning. And although there were moments of discomfort, we were all reassured that this was okay, in fact a requirement if we are to do this work well.

We walk away from the conference with a better understanding of where we have come from, where we are now, and what challenges await us; we accept that this work will be complex, and messy - as Merrindahl Andrew so beautifully articulated in her closing speech, "doing this kind of social change is like trying to stir a pot of hot custard with a spoon made of chocolate. It can be frustrating and messy, and you might end up holding nothing, but what we're making is pretty good'.

Yvonne Lay is Development Lead - Safety & Resilience, Women's Research, Advocacy and Policy (WRAP) Centre, Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand.