Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 33, December 2013

From the Academy to the UN and Back Again:
The Travelling Politics of Intersectionality

Kathryn Henne

  1. The concept of intersectionality has travelled far afield since articulated by Kimberlé Crenshaw over twenty years ago. In early analyses, Crenshaw demonstrates how the oppression endured by women of colour is more nuanced than law recognises.[1] Figuratively speaking, she explains, these women stand at the intersection of not simply the categories of race and gender, but of multiple social orders. Intersectionality has since informed analyses across the humanities and social sciences. In fact, Patricia Hill Collins acknowledges intersectionality as an established 'knowledge project' in its own right, centred around the three interrelated concerns: how race, class, gender and sexuality are interlocking systems of power; how social identities and problems take shape within these systems and come to reflect them; and how remedies to these issues are also often imbued with problematic power relations.[2]
  2. As a broad and interdisciplinary knowledge project, intersectionality has gained traction in the space that Crenshaw originally critiqued: law. More specifically, it serves as a framework in international human rights law. In recent thematic reports to the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council, Rashida Manjoo, Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Its Causes and Consequences, argues that intersectional forms of discrimination inform and exacerbate violence against women. Further, responses to violence against women obscure 'the intersectionality of political, economic, social, cultural, and gender factors faced by all women around the world.'[3] This application of intersectionality has two productive functions. First, it highlights how a 'one-size-fits-all' approach is inadequate when addressing women's human rights. Second, it suggests a guide for the development of models that recognise how distinct social and institutional factors contribute to various forms of violence—from interpersonal to structural—endured by women in different parts of the globe.[4]
  3. Manjoo's statement expands upon earlier applications of intersectionality in this area. In 2001, then-Special Rapporteur, Radhika Coomaraswamy, used intersectionality to discuss the UN's failure to distinguish human rights abuses as related to both gender and racial discrimination in a report prepared for the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. Although Manjoo's statement may recognise the importance of addressing how intersectional concerns inform violence, it is worth considering many feminist warnings regarding the limits of intersectionality, especially as it has travelled across disciplines.
  4. Many feminist scholars caution that intersectional analyses can negate complexities underpinning discrimination and violence as well as other intersectional factors contributing to them, such as sexuality, disability and age. By simplistically attributing oppression to the nexus of race-class-gender, such analyses reproduce forms of essentialism that Crenshaw disavowed.[5] Others suggest intersectional scholarship focuses too narrowly on subjects who endure multiple forms of marginalisation, often failing to consider how privilege operates among populations or how privileged positions are also intersectional.[6] A number of feminist critics, in turn, argue that intersectionality needs to be re-examined or abandoned in favour of an alternative framework or a 'postintersectionality' better attuned to subjectivity and context.[7] In part because of these divergent positions, Kathy Davis argues that intersectionality exemplifies what Judith Butler and Joan Wallach Scott describe as 'good' feminist theory. That is, it continues to generate 'analyses, critiques, and political interventions' that open 'a political imaginary for feminism that points the way beyond some of the impasses by which it has been constrained.'[8] Like other 'good' feminist theory, intersectionality does not provide definitive answers to social problems; instead, it creates spaces for reflexive consideration and critical engagement.
  5. This chapter considers the promises and challenges of employing intersectionality within institutions of governance, heeding insights obtained through intersectionality's interdisciplinary travels alongside a reminder imparted by Sally Engle Merry's work: 'While we focus on the circulation of ideas designed to improve the human condition, it is important to remember that they include the modes of establishing and maintaining control of populations.'[9] In particular, this chapter focuses on an important dimension of international governance that may undermine intersectionality's promise in this field: that is, 'indicator culture.' Indicator culture, Merry explains, is the privileging of quantitative measures in evaluating legal interventions and their performance.[10] The growth of indicators reflects a desire for 'evidence-based' reasons to justify funding interventions, which has prompted various bodies, including governments, nongovernmental organisations, corporations and civil society actors, to produce quantifiable and measurable results. These assessment tools, Merry argues, communicate values that shape governance practices in both explicit and hegemonic ways.[11] They inform what concerns receive priority as well as how policymakers and the organisations relate to and understand social issues. As a technology, indicators retain an embedded deductive logic, one that is resistant to change. These 'statistical techniques, with their aura of certainty,' according to Merry, produce new ways of perceiving the world, contributing 'to the calcification of categories—such as caste, race, or gender—that are subjected to categorical definition and measurement.'[12]
  6. Indicator culture is a symptom of 'a particular strain of neoliberal governance,' which Anna Agathangelou and L.H.M. Ling characterise as 'unquestionably white, male, and bourgeois.'[13] Although the UN provides services to conflict-ridden and impoverished communities and champions human rights as a way to counteract violence against individuals, it also upholds 'a neo-liberal world order' that 'reflects older traditions of colonialism and patriarchy that valorize unequal treatments of race, gender, class, and culture.'[14] UN-backed actions and the ideologies they imbue draw up and sustain a colonial narrative of enlightened, masculine envoys from the Global North intervening to help peoples in the Global South. As techniques used to measure outcomes or 'progress' in international governance, indicators direct attention away from the ongoing formations of structural violence that shape those interventions and narratives. The depoliticised appearance of indicators articulates postcolonial inequalities as technocratic concerns. These maneuvers de-historicise contemporary problems in ways that preserve globalised inequalities informed by earlier imperial legacies.
  7. Here, I reflect on how intersectionality might enable a counterhegemonic response that aids in unveiling the broader power dynamics of indicator culture. Intersectionality enables critical engagement with 'the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and class within the context of global colonial capitalism' in part because it is the outgrowth of black feminist intellectual thought.[15] According to Grace Kyungwon Hong, black feminism (among other women of colour feminisms) recognises that 'the racial project of Western civilization was always a gendered and sexualized project' and thereby has a rich tradition of analysing the 'intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and class within the context of global colonial capitalism.'[16]
  8. As part of a longer genealogy of critical feminist thought, intersectionality has the capacity to query the structural forms of violence that inform international governance practices; however, it can be refigured as it becomes translated into the terms of international governance. Academic reflections on intersectionality are useful to consider because they document the challenges of translating the concept through empirical measures. Like indicators, positivist social science measures can narrowly represent the various and variant complexities underpinning intersectionality's fundamental concerns.[17] The concern, then, is how to retain intersectionality as a robust analytic tool as it becomes deployed in a field where indicator culture does more than inform policy; it shapes the ways problems are understood and the adjoining responses to them. This kind of challenge, writes Mieke Bal, is inherent to travelling concepts; roadblocks emerge as concepts cross into different disciplines and fields.[18] Travelling concepts have 'solved major problems but at the same times [have] challenged the limitations' of the spaces they enter.[19] These tests are the promise of travel: 'Hazardous, exciting, and tiring, travel is needed if you are to achieve the gain of a new experience.'[20]
  9. This chapter examines how intersectionality has travelled over the last twenty years, reflecting on its recent use by the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Its Causes and Consequences. Although law and its institutions are often the targets of feminist criticism, they offer spaces—in part by demonstrating a need—for 'good' feminist theory. In particular, I contend that intersectionality, as a travelling concept, can illuminate problems facing violence against women while also testing the limitations of international governance.[21] In other words, intersectionality can help to hold institutions to account by requiring them to attend to the multi-faceted issues of violence and by highlighting the shortcomings of the narrow prescriptions guided by indicator culture. According to feminist scholar Elizabeth Grosz, this commitment, which she refers to as an 'open' feminist future, is 'the very lifeblood of political struggle, the goal of feminist challenge.'[22]
  10. To illustrate how intersectionality provides an opportunity for this particular kind of feminist intervention in international governance, this chapter proceeds in two parts. It begins by sketching the travels of intersectionality within the academy, considering how ensuing debates inform and contest the application of intersectionality in different disciplines. Drawing guidance from Grosz's work, I then attend to how intersectionality has been and could be employed as a framework for the international agenda on counteracting violence against women. Overall, my intention is to initiate a conversation about how the inclusion of intersectionality within this particular UN agenda might inform the development of counterhegemonic tools aimed at responding to various facets of violence against women.

    Intersectionality's travels within the academy
  11. It is not easy to map the extent of intersectionality's travels. Crenshaw herself admits that she is 'amazed at how it gets over- and under-used,' describing many applications as 'just multiplying identity categories rather than constituting a structural analysis or a political critique.'[23] This section traces developments around intersectionality across disciplines as a way of exploring the influence of its travels.
  12. Intersectionality entails multiple iterations. In 1989, through an analysis of U.S. anti-discrimination law, Crenshaw explains intersectionality as an analogy by arguing that law requires complaints to follow a unidirectional pattern. In contrast, she writes, the act of discrimination, 'like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction, it may flow in another. But if an accident happens in an intersection, it can be caused by cars travelling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them.' [24] Similarly, black women can endure discrimination in multiple ways, revealing the shortcomings of anti-discrimination law's unidirectional approach. For Crenshaw, black women's oppression is not rooted in race or gender, or even a combination of both; instead, it is manifest at the intersections of race and gender.
  13. In 'Mapping the Margins,' Crenshaw further details the tenets of intersectionality. Using the case of violence against women of colour, she describes how the 'top-down' nature of law does not attend to the experiences of all women; rather, it addresses the most privileged members of this social group, white women.[25] Correspondingly, in relation to racism, law privileges the experiences of men of colour. Marginalised by discourses of gender and race, the positions and perspectives of women of colour can seem invisible.
  14. In response, Crenshaw develops intersectionality to capture how at least two axes of subordination overlap in practice, focusing on structural, political and representational dimensions. Structural intersectionality, Crenshaw writes, includes the multiple forms of subordination that render the experiences of black women qualitatively different from those of their white female and black male counterparts. Political intersectionality is comprised of factors that contribute to the misrecognition of these distinct differences. For instance, like law, anti-racist and feminist coalitions are often guilty of privileging one axis of subordination, which undermines any universal claims of ending either racial or gender oppression. The third aspect, representational intersectionality, considers how symbolic practices obscure women of colour in broader discourses. In other words, this last component examines how law conjoins or interacts with other social forces to render the unique experiences women of colour invisible.
  15. Intersectionality reflects the focus and form of Critical Race Theory (CRT). CRT, a critical response to orthodox and critical legal scholarship's failure to analyse the complex issues of race and racism manifest in law,[26] uses 'legal storytelling' to convey 'experiences with racism and the legal system' and then applies those 'unique perspectives to assess law's master narratives.'[27] By juxtaposing mainstream narratives upheld by the law with counter-narratives from people of colour, CRT scholarship articulates the misnomers and discrepancies of legal practices and their influence on people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.
  16. As a concept that reveals how hegemonic power operates, intersectionality thus delivers what appears to be a comprehensive analytical toolkit for activists and scholars concerned with counteracting oppression. On the one hand, it enables closer reading of the relationships between experiences of marginalisation, the impact of structural inequality, and the implications of discourse. On the other hand, it assists in pinpointing how and where the law fails to attend to the multi-faceted dimensions of violence. Further, according to Trina Grillo, intersectionality and anti-essentialism provide important 'checks' by revealing how individual experiences are often divergent, even within social groups.[28] It is perhaps not surprising, then, that so many scholars use intersectionality to guide research on a variety of social problems.
  17. As intersectionality has crossed into other disciplines, it has taken on other dimensions. For instance, in recognition of changes in Europe stemming from economic downturns, immigration, legal responses and civil unrest, some scholars have adapted intersectionality to advance theories of globalised inequality, gender and non-gender specific.[29] In contrast, other feminists engaging broader issues of transnationalism have employed queer theoretical insights to rework—and in part reject—the claims of intersectionality's widespread applicability.[30] While these particular innovations may have promise, a number of feminist scholars, among them Crenshaw, contend that many intersectional analyses merely attribute issues of inequality and marginalisation to the nexus of 'race-class-gender' instead of analytically unpacking their relations as intersectionality prescribes.[31] Yet, as a 2013 special issue on intersectionality attests, there is still a need for more intersectional analyses attuned to the transnational dimensions of discrimination and violence against women.[32]
  18. The genesis of intersectionality as a catch-all category for various forms of inequality is an unsettling development. Crenshaw expressed intersectionality as a tool to unveil the consequences of misrepresentation, yet its deployment has led to scholarly work that overlooks social relations contributing to oppression rather than unpacking them.[33] Nikol G. Alexander-Floyd contends that this problem transcends research findings, arguing that the proliferation of intersectionality has diluted the contributions of black feminists and other women of colour. Specifically, she charges that the use of positivist and quantitative methods to 'prove' intersectional problems not only results in marginalising the voices of women of colour as subjects, but also as scholars.[34] The travels of intersectionality, Alexander-Floyd argues, have unfortunately contributed to 're-subjugating black women's knowledge.'[35]
  19. Intersectionality's proliferation has sparked debates about what factors should count and what should be abandoned within intersectional analyses, as well as questions about whether attending to various forms of difference (for example, sexuality, disability, age actually undermine the development of more robust theoretical approaches to the nexus of race, gender and class.[36] Some scholars, such as Dorthe Staunæs, point out that a limitation of intersectional scholarship is the lack of critical attention paid to the performance of multiple identities as practices distinct from the structural coalescence between categories of race, class and gender.[37] Nancy Ehrenreich argues that this development is an outgrowth of intersectionality's narrow reliance upon identity, which is a limited construct for analytical and political mobilisation. Instead, Ehrenreich states, rallying against a common enemy and 'a single, complex set of [subordinating] structures and ideologies' can serve as a more productive basis for coalitions.[38] One problem with her solution, however, is there is not always a space of neutrality or a rallying point that avoids conflict between groups. [39]
  20. Amidst these debates, there are discussions about how to study intersectionality.[40] Ange-Marie Hancock, for instance, suggests that intersectionality should be applied as a general research paradigm used to study populations other than women of colour. Although acknowledging intersectionality's origins as being reliant upon women of colour, Hancock characterises them as but one 'content specialization' of intersectional research.[41] Hancock advocates the utility of incorporating quantitative methods, a recommendation supported by Leslie McCall.[42] In particular, McCall states that a post-positivist framing of intersectional research facilitates the incorporation of a variety of methodologies, including quantitative approaches. What constitutes a post-positivist and feminist framing, however, is not clear in McCall's analysis, and Alexander-Floyd argues that both Hancock and McCall minimise the important contributions of black feminist intellectual thought in favour of appealing to dominant modes of knowledge production—the very systems to which intersectional critique initially responded.[43] She aptly notes that Hancock's and McCall's recommendations to embrace mainstream methods 'invites and enables criticisms of intersectionality scholars' perceived lack of sophistication or inadequate methodological elaboration.'[44] In turn, their calls to expand (and in essence change) intersectionality threaten to negate forms of knowledge about and produced by women of colour.
  21. The travels of intersectionality thus yield some problematic outcomes. Responding to these concerns, Sora Han discusses on how women of colour influenced intersectionality through both scholarship and activism, employing a critical theoretical reading to explore how these histories might inform the cultivation that she refers to as an 'intersectional sensibility.'[45] She emphasises the utility of intersectionality as a practice—and praxis—of reading the texts and narratives presented to us. Providing a careful reminder that all commentaries are mediated and incomplete in their account, she presents the intersectional sensibility as an approach attuned to the role of representation and how it obscures marginalised persons. She acknowledges that there is an array of experiences, identities and structural constraints that a researcher (as a critical reader) cannot fully know. Intersectionality, she elaborates, requires 'an acute and self-conscious sense of history, not as events of the past, but as past events that are instantiated by the work of a text and the reader's desire to work with the text.'[46] Han's recommendation embraces what Donna Haraway famously describes as 'feminist objectivity,' which accepts that knowledge is inherently partial in nature and retains nuances that cannot be understood through a positivistic lens.[47] Although intersectionality has been challenged through its travels, Han's reconsideration of its tenets and debates around them reiterates its methodological promise as a feminist concept.[48]
  22. Although taking distinctly different positions, the stances of Hancock, McCall, Alexander-Floyd, and Han taken together demonstrate how intersectionality can reinvigorate scholarly debate and contribute to 'good' feminist theory. More importantly, as Han's analysis demonstrates, an essential facet of intersectional work is to query the power and politics of representation on a variety of levels. The next section of this chapter focuses on the UN agenda regarding violence against women and how it evokes an intersectional lexicon. As the embrace of intersectionality within international legal agendas reveals tensions similar to those revealed by academic deliberations, its incorporation prompts the need for a sustained feminist inquiry into the mechanisms of international governance, not a celebration of law's recognition of intersectionality's promise.

    International law as a feminist future of intersectionality
  23. Within platforms concerned with gender and international human rights law, intersectionality is a recognised agenda.[49] Despite this recognition, Nira Yuval-Davis explains that the deployment of intersectionality by 'UN-related bodies is just emerging and often suffers from analytic confusions that have already been tackled by feminist scholars who have been working on these issues for longer.'[50] The inclusion of intersectionality is nonetheless notable, particularly in the ways that the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Its Causes and Consequences applies it to highlight policy failures. First, as Manjoo acknowledges, intersectional forms of discrimination contribute to violence against women, and second, responses to these forms of violence do not address the nature or extent of intersectional factors underpinning violence against women across the globe. This recognition opens a space to reconsider policy interventions, but, as Yuval-Davis warns, this process is challenging and requires more than merely adding intersectionality to the language of UN agendas.
  24. Merry's insights on indicator culture help to explicate the difficulties of overcoming the law's tendency to misrepresent different women's experiences. Even though the UN agenda on violence against women evokes intersectionality as the framework, indicators emerge as the empirical measures of violence and the progress made in counteracting it. In doing so, evaluations can render complex connections as narrow or causal links, actively directing attention away from the structural forms of violence that inform them.
  25. To get a better sense of how indicators exercise this level of power and influence, consider the development of indicators in relation to violence against women. In a report delivered by the UN Statistics Division, the first step in developing an interim set of indicators and guidelines for surveys on violence against women was an assessment of 59 nationally representative surveys.[51] Looking at their similarities, differences and scope, it found variances across data with regard to a rather limited cluster of variables: the age groupings of victims, the frequency and severity of violence, and relationships to perpetrators. Providing a breakdown of each category and the relationships between them (where possible), the report concluded with only narrow recommendations, all of which focus on refining UN indicators.
  26. The specific suggestions made by the UN Statistics Division include the need to enhance and then standardise categories pertaining to the perpetrator so as to accomplish three objectives: to broaden their scope beyond a focus on the current or former sexual intimate partner, to qualify indicators around physical and sexual violence in the last twelve months, and to remove redundancies in the language of specific indicators. Identifying problems of measurability, the report suggests the next steps as:

      to define and develop a set of classifications of violence, severity of violence, definition and classification of relationship to the perpetrator and frequency; the need to develop international guidelines that will provide a sound and comprehensive methodological package for instituting violence against women statistical surveys in national statistical systems; and the need to follow-up these activities with training and capacity-building.[52]

  27. This technocratic answer illustrates Merry's observations of indicator culture by demonstrating how a reliance on indicators can undermine the application of an intersectional framework in two important ways. First, these recommendations privilege a focus on victims' direct relations and to experiences of physical and sexual violence, foreclosing broader connections to other forms of structural violence (unless captured through other statistical analysis). Second, the proposed solution to measurement problems is the refinement of categories so as to obtain better data on specific kinds of violence and their frequency rather than employing more open-ended questions to better grasp connections between violence, subordination and context—priorities explicitly articulated by the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Its Causes and Consequences.
  28. In addition to those stated priorities, a Working Group on Women and Human Rights, part of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, recommends other forms of data collection and analysis. They include disaggregated data collection to more accurately depict women's lived experiences of discrimination, contextual analysis to identify 'the root causes and context of the problems that women face as a result of convoluted identities,' intersectional review of policies and systems of implementation to evaluate how policies impact women from various backgrounds across the world and the design and implementation of intersectional policy initiatives to improve mechanisms of counteracting identified patterns of discrimination.[53] Yuval-Davis acknowledges these proposals as significant steps forward, but acknowledges that they pose complex methodological challenges.[54] Foremost among them, she explains, is that they can essentialise 'specific social identities' and overlook 'crucially important political struggles being carried out in many parts of the world that problematize and contest the boundaries of social collectivities.'[55]
  29. Combined with indicators, methods of data collection and analysis recommended by the Working Group offer no corrective mechanisms to avoid portraying race, gender, class, sexuality and other social forces as static or additive variables. Similar to academic criticisms of intersectionality's deployment, Yuval-Davis provides an important reminder that the purpose of using intersectionality is not to detect 'several identities under one,' but instead, 'to analyse the differential ways in which different social divisions are concretely enmeshed and constructed by each other and how they relate to political and subjective constructions of identities.'[56] She argues that field methodology must 'carefully separate, and examine separately, the different levels in which social divisions operate in the communities where they work' and scrutinise 'the subjective constructions of identities. Only when such a contextual analysis is carried out can there be an intersectional review of policy initiatives and systems of implementation.'[57]
  30. Yuval-Davis' clarification regarding intersectional methodology reflects concerns expressed by other feminists who have weighed in on intersectionality. Rather than asking how to fit intersectionality within international agendas, her suggestions offer a preliminary step toward incorporating an intersectional sensibility within the apparatuses of global governance. A recent statement made by the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, It's Causes and Consequences to UN Commission on the Status of Wome,n reflects a some of Yuval-Davis's concerns by rejecting a 'one-size fits all programmatic approach' to combating gender-based violence by arguing for the inclusion of 'multiple approaches' that focus on localised tactics and account for 'differences within their community populations.'[58] This builds upon previous UN Rapporteurs' efforts to expand perspectives about the nature and scope of violence against women and to encourage the international community and its member nation-states to confront intersectional issues unpinning gender-based violence.[59] Thus, it seems that, at least in relation to attempts to prevent and counteract violence against women, there is a willingness to consider forms of intersectional knowledge that exceed the logics of the prevailing indicator culture.
  31. The intense academic debates around intersectionality may yield productive techniques that can be applied to international governance, especially if we take a page from Grosz's 'Histories of a Feminist Future' and shift our attention toward instilling an 'indeterminate future' for intersectionality within this domain. According to Grosz, committing to 'an open future' requires rejecting the belief that past developments should predict future projections. The one condition of such a trajectory is institutionalised feminist praxis, which encompasses more than one strand of feminism and contestations between producers of feminist knowledge. In fact, according to feminist legal scholar Janet Halley, the irreconcilable splits between different camps of intellectual thought are inherently valuable. Rather than support a project of feminist compromise, she advocates 'a politics of theoretical incommensurability,' which includes contributions of 'people involved in a context of deep internal critique, debates so intense that they were sometimes experienced as "war".'[60] Like Grosz, Halley does not characterise a feminist future as a linear sequence of validating existing knowledge. Rather, Halley embraces the ruptures and disjunctures that complicate prevailing ideas. Advancing such a project requires engaging the shortcomings of many intersectional analyses alongside the resulting possibilities of their proliferation. It is a project of travel and dialogue, not a model seduced by notions of linear development or progressive evolution.
  32. Using intersectionality to frame an international legal agenda is therefore not about refining variables and correlations between them, but about embracing how feminist debate might inform an intersectional sensibility within law. Although disputes around intersectionality showcase divergent perspectives, they do evidence some shared commitments to questioning how both law and research represent women and their experiences. While not a picture of harmonious solidarity, it is one committed to enhancing feminist knowledges. For instance, sceptics of intersectionality call for further critical attention to how legal prescriptions fail to help persons subject to multiple forms of marginalisation by pursuing contextually specific knowledge. If anything, such critiques actually enhance the concept of intersectionality by reiterating a continued commitment to Crenshaw's original criticism of law's essentialist and 'top-down' disposition.
  33. The acceptance of an intersectional vocabulary at the international level opens up a space for feminist engagement. It offers the future possibility for feminist dialogue within the law—as opposed to one that merely focuses on the law. Such an approach keeps with intersectionality's counterhegmonic impetus by offering an epistemological guide to engage law's political, symbolic and structural limits and how structural conditions inform them.
  34. Predicting the outcomes of this line of interrogation is not possible here—and perhaps not desirable if we take Grosz's and Halley's suggestions to heart. What we can do is query the tools and analyses available to us, even those that do not look like the usual tools of the feminist legal trade. This is akin to what Bal refers to as 'unfixing,' the method of travelling concepts.[61] Travel, she writes, supplants 'the loss of methodological guidelines of the sort built into disciplinary paradigms,' because concepts must be carefully brought to bear on problems and objects in ways that do not tacitly accept a particular disciplinary perspective as 'truth.'[62] Travel prompts us to interrogate existing knowledge about concepts and the fields in which we apply them. In this example, we might ask: how do we know what we think we know about discrimination and its relationship to violence against women? What insights gleaned from academic debates around intersectionality could guide a more critical approach to producing and understanding knowledge about violence against women? How could processes of unfixing shed light on the hegemonic influences coming to bear on law and intersectionality?
  35. Intersectionality prompts inquiries into 'the messiness of difference,' which, as Merry argues, is buried by indicators.[63] It provides a method of pursuing the knowledge we lose when relying on an uncritical indicator culture imparted by the UN and its neoliberal appeals. As indicators are statistical abstractions that enable 'easy comparison among groups and countries by converting values into numbers,' this lost knowledge is likely vast.[64] However, adopting intersectionality as Crenshaw originally employed it to analyse law's unidirectional focus provides a mode of confronting the hegemonic claims of indicator culture. Specifically, it enables a critical engagement with how appeals to equivalence and comparison create and reinforce a kind of empirical 'subaltern'—that is, experiences that are so multiply marginalised they are unintelligible.
  36. The subaltern, as illustrated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, is a figure silenced by forces of modernity. 'Between patriarchy and imperialism, subject-constitution and object-formation,' writes Spivak, 'the figure of the woman disappears, not into a pristine nothingness, but into a violent shuttling that is the displaced figuration of the "third-world woman" caught between modernisation, culturalism, and development.'[65] The subaltern, as a category, is a warning to onlookers who seek to fully grasp or represent the experiences of such people. This is an important insight to consider in relation to both law and indicator culture, as colonisation is not simply a process that shapes the territorial spaces people occupy; it infiltrates knowledge through which we come to know about those people.[66] Indicator culture, however, compounds the dilemmas of the subaltern because its empirical appeals dismiss other narrative approaches and the voices that speak them.
  37. Rather than embrace an indicator culture that aims to refine the variables used to measure violence against women, intersectionality requires scholars and practitioners to ask: How do indicators obscure women's experiences or render them invisible? What techniques and methods are necessary to unveiling them? What alternative techniques might we employ in order to better grasp the workings of structural, political and representational intersectionality?
  38. Although the subaltern could be characterised as an 'intersectional location,' its genealogy and scope are distinct—as are many insights from other global feminisms I do not discuss in this paper, which are concerned with how discursive politics inform gendered formations of discrimination and oppression.[67] As a travelling concept, intersectionality offers purchase in a legal space that other feminist concepts do not yet have. If employed in a way that pursues an open feminist future, intersectionality can serve as a starting point to generate a dialogue about the tacit assumptions and values built into international law and indicator culture. This would require taking seriously how intersectionality has travelled and how other feminist concepts have taken shape in and moved through other parts of the world. Combined, these feminist knowledges provide further insight into how structural forces—including law, imperialism, war and even development—obfuscate different women's experiences, even those women not recognised as among the legalised categories of woman. They reflect a commitment to a kind of legal storytelling that is distinctly different from that of the indicator culture.
  39. Although we cannot predict intersectionality's future within international law, we can acknowledge that it—and the contestation it entails—offers a vehicle through which to bring other feminist insights into dialogue with the UN agenda on violence against women. Intersectionality serves as a cautionary reminder not to speak for those who cannot or 'ask others to share our agenda while they wait for their own.'[68] Retaining this anti-essentialist core means resisting applications that succumb to empirical colonialism. While this is perhaps a doubtful strategy within the domain of international governance, there are some feminist scholars already devising strategies. Agathangelou and Ling, for instance, prescribe a three-pronged approach that focuses on local-regional-global interactions, identity-formations, and institutional learning opportunities.[69] S. Laurel Weldon proposes another alternative, suggesting alternative comparative and statistical methods attuned to intersectional concerns.[70]
  40. Intersectionality, as a travelling concept, facilitates a strategic promise for international law because of its current purchase in the discourse. While some may read the UN's limited embrace of intersectionality as a hegemonic appropriation, it is one with counterhegemonic potential. Bal reiterates the importance of committing the labour necessary to retain 'well-thought-out' concepts by rejecting narrow disciplinary prescriptions. The contested praxis of an open feminist future instills this as a value of travel. It serves as a mode through which to discern and unveil how particular evidence-based forms of knowledge simultaneously obscure and contribute to violence against women in its various forms—within and beyond the academic and UN platforms.


    [1] Kimberlé Crenshaw, 'Demarginalising the intersection of race and sex: a black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory, and antiracist politics,' University of Chicago Legal Forum, vol. 14 (1989): 138–67; Kimberlé Crenshaw, 'Mapping the margins: intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color,' Stanford Law Review, vol. 43 (1990-1991): 1241–99.

    [2] Patricia Hill Collins, 'Piecing together a genealogical puzzle: intersectionality and American pragmatism,' European Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy, vol. 3, no. 2 (2011): 88–112, p. 88.

    [3] Promotion and Protection of All Human Rights, Civil, Political, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Including the Right to Development, United Nations General Assembly, UN Doc A/HRC/11/6, 18 May 2009, online:, accessed 25 November 2013; Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Its Causes and Consequences, Rashida Manjoo, United Nations General Assembly, UN Doc A/HRC/17/26, 2 May 2011, online:, accessed 25 November 2013; Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Its Causes and Consequences, Rashida Manjoo, United Nations General Assembly, UN Doc A/HRC/20/16, 23 May 2012, online:, accessed 25 November 2013.

    [4] Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Its Causes and Consequences, Rashida Manjoo.

    [5] Jennifer Nash, 'Re-thinking intersectionality,' Feminist Review, vol. 89 (2008): 1–15.

    [6] Ange-Marie Hancock,'When multiplication doesn't equal quick addition: examining intersectionality as a research paradigm,' Perspectives on Politics, vol. 5, no. 1 (2007): 63–79.

    [7] Nikol G. Alexander-Floyd, 'Disappearing acts: reclaiming intersectionality in the social sciences in a post-black feminist era,' Feminist Formations, vol. 24, no. 1 (2012): 1–25; Robert S. Chang and Jerome M. Culp, 'After intersectionality,' University of Missouri-Kansas City Law Review, vol. 71 (2002): 485–91; Peter Kwan, 'Intersections of race, ethnicity, class, gender and sexual orientation: Jeffrey Dahmer and the cosynthesis of categories,' Hastings Law Journal, vol. 48 (1997): 1257–92.

    [8] Judith Butler and Joan Wallach Scott. 'Introduction,' in Feminists Theorize the Political, ed. Judith Butler and Joan Wallach Scott, New York: Routledge, 1992, pp. xiii–xvii, p. xiii; Kathy Davis, 'Intersectionality as buzzword: a sociology of science perspective on what makes a feminist theory successful,' Feminist Theory, vol. 9, no. 1 (2008): 67–85.

    [9] Sally Engle Merry, 'Epilogue: the travels of gender and law,' Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific, vol. 33, December 2013, online:

    [10] Sally Engle Merry, 'Measuring the world: indicators, human rights, and global governance,' Current Anthropology, vol. 11, no. S3 (2011): S83–95.

    [11] Merry, 'Measuring the world,' p. S85.

    [12] Merry, 'Measuring the world,' p. S93.

    [13] Anna M. Agathangelou and L.H.M. Ling, 'Desire industries: sex trafficking, UN peacekeeping, and the neo-liberal world order,' The Brown Journal of World Affairs, vol. 10, no. 1 (2003): 133–48.

    [14] Agathangelou and Ling, 'Desire industries,' p. 133.

    [15] Grace Kyungwon Hong, '"The future of our worlds": black feminism and the politics of knowledge in the university under globalisation,' Meridians, vol. 8, no. 2 (2008): 95–115, p. 100.

    [16] Hong, '"The future of our worlds",' p. 100.

    [17] Alexander-Floyd, 'Disappearing acts.'

    [18] Mieke Bal, Travelling Concepts in the Humanities: A Rough Guide, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002.

    [19] Bal, Travelling Concepts in the Humanities, p. 4.

    [20] Bal, Travelling Concepts in the Humanities, p. 4.

    [21] Elizabeth Grosz, 'Histories of a feminist future,' Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 25, no. 1 (2000): 1017–21.

    [22] Grosz, 'Histories of a feminist future,' p. 1017.

    [23] Michele Tracy Berger and Kathleen Guidroz, 'A conversation with founding scholars of intersectionality Kimberlé Crenshaw, Nira Yuval-Davis, and Michelle Fine,' in The Intersectional Approach: Transforming the Academy through Race, Class, & Gender, ed. Michele Tracy Burger and Kathleen Guidroz, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009, pp. 61–78.

    [24] Crenshaw, 'Demarginalising the intersection of race and sex,' p. 149.

    [25] Crenshaw, 'Demarginalising the intersection of race and sex,' p. 151.

    [26] Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic. Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, New York: New York University Press, 2001.

    [27] Delgado and Stefancic, Critical Race Theory, p. 9.

    [28] Trina Grillo, 'Antiessentialism and intersectionality: tools to dismantle the master's house,' Berkeley Women's Law Journal, vol. 10, no. 1 (1995): 16–30.

    [29] Sylvia Walby, Globalisation and Inequalities: Complexity and Contested Modernities, London: SAGE, 2009.

    [30] Jasbir Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times, Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.

    [31] I use 'race-class-gender' here only for consistency, not to suggest their order of importance.

    [32] 'Intersectionality: theorizing power, empowering theory,' Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 38, no. 4 (2013): 785–1055.

    [33] Kathleen Daly, 'Feminist perspectives in criminology: a review with Gen Y in mind,' in The SAGE Handbook of Criminological Theory, ed. Eugene McLaughlin and Tim Newburn, London: SAGE, 2010, pp. 225–46.

    [34] Alexander-Floyd, 'Disappearing acts,' p. 19.

    [35] Alexander-Floyd, 'Disappearing acts,' p. 1.

    [36] Gudrun-Axeli Knapp, 'Race, class, gender: reclaiming baggage in fast travelling theories,' European Journal of Women's Studies, vol. 12, no. 3 (2005): 249–65; Beverley Skeggs, Formations of Class & Gender: Becoming Respectable, London: SAGE, 1997.

    [37] Dorthe Staunæs, 'Where have all the subjects gone? bringing together the concepts of intersectionality and subjectification,' NORA - Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research, vol. 11, no. 2 (2003): 101–10.

    [38] Nancy Ehrenreich, 'Subordination and symbiosis: mechanisms of mutual support between subordinating systems,' University of Missouri-Kansas City Law Review, vol. 71, no. 2 (Winter 2002): 251–324, p. 319.

    [39] Chang and Culp, 'After intersectionality,' pp. 486–89.

    [40] Examples include: Staunæs, 'Where have all the subjects gone?'; Buitelaar, Marjo, '"I am the ultimate challenge": accounts of intersectionality in the life-story of a well-known daughter of Moroccan migrant workers in the Netherlands,' European Journal of Women's Studies, vol. 13, no. 3 (2006): 259–76; Nash, 'Re-thinking intersectionality'; Baukje Prins, 'Narrative accounts of origins: a blind spot in the intersectional approach,' European Journal of Women's Studies, vol. 13, no. 3 (2006): 277–90.

    [41] Hancock, 'When multiplication doesn't equal quick addition.'

    [42] Leslie McCall, 'The complexity of intersectionality,' Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 30, no. 3 (2005): 1771–1800.

    [43] Alexander-Floyd, 'Disappearing acts.'

    [44] Alexander-Floyd, 'Disappearing acts,' p. 21, n. 5

    [45] Sora Han, 'Intersectional sensibility and the shudder,' in Feminist Interpretations of Theodor Adorno, ed. Renée Heberle, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006, pp. 173–91, p. 174.

    [46] Han, 'Intersectional sensibility and the shudder,' p. 185.

    [47] Donna Haraway, 'Situated knowledges: the science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective,' Feminist Studies, vol. 14, no. 2 (1988): 575–99.

    [48] In a different paper, I explore how incorporating such an approach can productively shift the scholarly focus of intersectionality within a field of inquiry. See Kathryn Henne and Emily Troshynski, 'Mapping the margins of intersectionality: criminological possibilities in a transnational world,' Theoretical Criminology, vol. 17, no. 4 (2013): 455–73.

    [49] Anastasia Vakulenko, 'Gender and International Human Rights Law: the intersectionality agenda,' in Research Handbook on International Human Rights Law, ed. Sarah Joseph and Adam McBeth, Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2010, pp. 196–214.

    [50] Nira Yuval-Davis, 'Intersectionality and feminist politics,' European Journal of Women's Studies, vol. 13, no. 3 (2006): 193–209, p. 206.

    [51] United Nations Statistics Division, Methodological Overview of Surveys on Violence against Women, 2009, online:, accessed 19 November 2013.

    [52] UN Statistics Division, Methodological Overview of Surveys on Violence against Women, p. 12.

    [53] UN Commission on the Status of Women, Draft Agreed Conclusions on Gender and All Forms of Discrimination, in particular Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, 2001, online:, accessed 19 November 2013; Vakulenko, 'Gender and International Human Rights Law,' pp. 204–05; Yuval-Davis, 'Intersectionality and feminist politics,' pp. 204–05.

    [54] Yuval-Davis, 'Intersectionality and feminist politics,' p. 205.

    [55] Yuval-Davis, 'Intersectionality and feminist politics,' p. 205.

    [56] Yuval-Davis, 'Intersectionality and feminist politics,' p. 205.

    [57] Yuval-Davis, 'Intersectionality and feminist politics,' p. 205.

    [58] Statement by Mrs Rashid Manjoo United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Its Causes and Consequences, New York: Commission on the Status of Women, 29 February 2012, online:, accessed 25 November 2013.

    [59] United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Its Causes and Consequences (Yakin Ertürk), 15 Years of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Its Causes and Consequences (1994–2009)—A Critical Review, 2009, online:, accessed 19 November 2013.

    [60] Janet Halley, Split Decisions: How and Why to Take a Break from Feminism, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006, p. 3.

    [61] Bal, Travelling Concepts in the Humanities, p. 328.

    [62] Bal, Travelling Concepts in the Humanities, pp. 327–28.

    [63] Merry, 'Measuring the world,' p. S86.

    [64] Merry, 'Measuring the world,' p. S86.

    [65] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of a Vanishing Present, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 304.

    [66] Bal, Travelling Concepts in the Humanities, p. 327.

    [67] This alludes to a broader critique of the centrality of U.S.-based scholarship. See Elora Halim Chowdhury, 'Locating global feminisms elsewhere: braiding us women of color and transnational feminisms,' Global Dynamics, vol. 21, no. 1 (2009): 51–78.

    [68] Grillo, 'Antiessentialism and intersectionality,' p. 30.

    [69] Agathangelou and Ling, 'Desire industries,' p. 148.

    [70] S. Laurel Wheldon, 'The structure of intersectionality: a comparative politics of gender,' Politics & Gender, vol. 2, no. 2 (2006): 235–48.


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