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Analysis of Intersectionality in Terms of Gender Discrimination

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“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” Audre Lorde


In this essay, I’m going to write about intersectionality. Though intersectionality can be used to analyze privileges, areas like men and masculinity and human rights and can be applied to other groups of people, I’ll discuss intersectionality in relation to the oppression experienced by women with an example of the trafficking/migration of Ethiopian women to the Middle East as a social injustice aspect. The illustration will briefly describe the causes of trafficking and the consequent oppressions the Ethiopian domestic workers are facing from an intersectional standpoint.

Before coming to ISS, I had no exposure to the idea of intersectionality. I was wondering why women in Ethiopia haven’t achieved the potential to compete equally with their men counterparts despite all the efforts by the government, women associations, and other stakeholders especially since 1991. Among other things, the government puts affirmative action to compensate what they did lose in the past socio-economic and political policies and help them cope with men in the areas of education, politics, and other aspects. However, progress in making women influential in family, community, and national decision-making levels in all aspects of their lives is not satisfactory or almost nonexistent in the rural areas. This motivates me to focus on intersectionality in this essay. This paper contains four parts. The first part discusses the rationale behind the selection of intersectionality followed by the historical evolution of intersectionality and the third part highlights the relationship between intersectionality and development with a brief presentation of causes and effects of women trafficking. The final part presents a short concluding remark.

Now I come to realize that many of the gender analysis tools employed by various development agents including the government emphasize only on gender relations. Hence, certain factors and experiences become invisible or oppressions that are peculiar to a certain group of women (e,g., the Falasha women) haven’t received attention. However, intersectionality paves the way for the analysis of other sources of oppressions by challenging the supremacy of gender. Intersectionality is about looking at different sources of oppression simultaneously and understanding that the various sources of oppression influence each other.

Besides, Nash (2008: 4) maintains that intersectionality is also a theory of privilege and analyzes the contradictions of domination and privilege (for example, a woman may be dominated due to her gender but privileged because she is a white). In other words, women from the same race and colour may be subjected to varied forms of discriminations and advantages. An intersectional analysis of poverty, for example, is not only concluding that there are disproportionately poor women, but it requires going further to examine which group of women are poor and exploring whether the historical processes and past policies have impacted certain group of women.

The Evolution of Intersectionality

The term intersectionality came into being in the late 1980s and early 1990s from critical race studies, a movement by scholars from the legal academy in the United States challenging the then existing law’s “colour blindness, neutrality, and objectivity”. Intersectionality was born as a counter-argument by black feminists to disprove that women fall in the same category and to show the idea that identity constitutes different interconnecting forms of social relations like race, sexuality, gender, class and to oppose the white feminist’s attempt to consider race as insignificant in the feminist research. From the outset, intersectionality challenges the analysis of gender and race as mutually exclusive and independent sources of oppression used by both anti-racist and feminist leaders instead it sought for the analysis of multiple ways where gender and race come to intersect to form the various aspects of black women’s experiences. For Crenshaw, intersectionality is a “metaphor” and indicates that black women face gender discrimination coming from one direction and race discrimination coming from another direction and they collide in their lives in the ways we don’t expect and anticipate. According to Nash (2011), the concept of intersectionality was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a Law professor and social theorist, in 1989 in the United States during which she clearly argued that the attempt to examine the marginalization of black women should include the intersections that are interwoven and reinforce each other instead of understanding it by considering their colour and gender in isolation. Crenshaw further maintains that black women faced discriminations that are not clearly given attention by the then legal categories of either sexism or racism. However, the existing legal system understood sexism as injustice faced by both black and white women and it used racism to imply the injustice inflicted upon all i.e., black women and other people of colour including men. This understanding made the marginalization of the black women invisible and hindered them from getting legal support. This was clearly observed when five black women sued General Motors for refusing to hire black women before 1964 and when it fired all black women hired before 1970 based on the principle of seniority following the recession .

The meaning and practice of intersectionality change with the advent of different historical periods. Jennifer Nash discusses three periods of time in her attempt to highlight black feminism’s relationship to intersectionality. The early period extends from 1968-87 and characterized by the promotion of various marginalization by the black feminist organizations. This period was followed by what Nash called “watershed years” which covers the time from 1988-1990 during which the concept of intersectionality was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw. The third moment, which witnessed the mutual interchangeability of intersectionality and black feminism, is called a “hip-hop feminist era” and covers the time from 1999- present.

Intersectionality became more famous by social activist Gloria J. Watkins (or through her pen name bell hooks) and sociologist Patricia Hill Collins in the 1990s during their study on black feminism. Collins especially used the term intersectionality to substitute her former idea of “black feminist thought” and shared the idea of Crenshaw that the analysis of marginalization should take intersectionality in to account instead of using gender as the only lens to understand social relations.

The Relationship between Intersectionality and Development

Many agree that development activities are highly gendered, and men take the largest proportion of the participation and fruits of development. Heteronormativity, androcentrism and the way activities are seen within households result in gender inequality especially in the developing world and are exposing women to different oppressions like trafficking. Bastia adds that inequalities due to intersecting factors contribute to the persistence of the gender-based inequalities and these intertwined identities are rarely considered in the development discourse or practice. Besides, mainstream development analysis overlooks the interlinkage of gender-based inequalities with inequalities due to class, race, poverty, ethnicity and other social relations.

Though women are now included in the development narratives and practice and the principle that “investing in women is a smart economics”, the mainstream development neglects other sources of difference and works based on a universalistic understanding of “women, men and gender relations” (Cornwall et al. 2008: 6).

Migration nowadays is an important issue in development. Migrants are sending a substantial amount of money which accounts for a sizable portion of some of the sending country’s GDP and uplifting members of a family out of poverty. Besides, migration is believed to be an influential driver of social change and helps the economy of the receiving countries. However, migration studies remained “gender-blind” until the 1970s and it has been in favour of men. Despite efforts by feminists to criticise the trend, and gender was given attention, mainstream migration studies resist and continued being gender-blind and many of the researchers almost totally focus on gender ignoring the other interacting factors like race, class, and nationality.

The same holds true in Ethiopia. The number of women trafficked migrants is increasing. For example, in its report of 2016, Human Rights Watch revealed that there were 32,986 female domestic workers in Oman alone. Women in Ethiopia are easy prey for the trafficking networks and fall victim of exploitation/violence by their employers due to various intersecting factors like poverty, gender, violence, illegality, race, and other cultural factors like early marriage. For example, many employers in Oman call their domestic workers including Ethiopians as “abid” which means slaves and are oppressed for being black, foreign, illegal, and females (Beydoun 2006: 9). In Ethiopia, gender, early marriage, and poverty put women in a disadvantaged position and restrict their employment opportunities. Ethiopia is characterized by clearly demarcated gender roles between men and women where men are assumed to be breadwinners while women are confined to household activities to which the community gives less value. Consequently, women migrate to the Middle East to be domestic workers which is perceived as an extension of household works they do at home.

Moreover, women constitute the largest portion of the poor sectors of society in Ethiopia. According to Beydoun (2006), due to limited educational training, domestic work and daily labouring are jobs that women can afford. Their attempt to be part of the formal labour market is constrained as they are denied to education and training by the patriarchal system.

However, poverty is being singled out as the main source of trafficking and oppression/violence of Ethiopian domestic workers throughout the Middle East. According to Woldemichael (2013), most of the research that has been done so far concerning the causes of trafficking and the consequent exploitation/violence of Ethiopian domestic workers don’t use intersectionality as a methodology. She went further to claim that government policies too are taking gender as the only parameter during the formulation, implementation, and evaluation of development policies.

However, according to Harcourt et al. (2016), intersectionality is helpful in our effort to understand how the various categories and identities of women are serving as sources of inequalities. They also maintained that intersectionality is serving scholars in the “gender and development” discourse as an analysis instrument and to provide remedies that can embrace diversity and are inclusive. Sara Salem, on the other hand, argues that intersectionality converged with decoloniality is helpful in “developing a non-exclusionary transnational solidarity” so that Western feminism, which is basically based on liberal assumptions, can be applied in other contexts.

Unlike the mainstream feminism which is exclusionary, intersectionality serves as an instrument during the analysis, advocacy and policy formulation that consider multiple discrimination based on different identities and helps us analyze how these identities determine access to opportunities and expose to oppression.

Moreover, Nancy Fraser opposes the dissociation and sometimes the polarization of the claims for social justice: the redistributive and recognition claims. However, Fraser claims that neither redistribution nor recognition is sufficient to address the issue of social injustice. She rather argues that both redistribution and recognition can be addressed in a “single and comprehensive framework,” which she calls “bivalent” conception of justice.

According to Winker and Degele intersectionality helps understand the categories of inequality. They theorize categories of inequality in three levels. Anticategorical focuses how categories are historically developed to show the meaning of identities with the passage of time. For example, the meaning of ethnicity was different in former Yugoslavia before and after the war, which makes ethnicity to be understood as historical construct specific to contexts not a fixed category. Intercategorical, on the other hand, begins with multiple axes of power relations and their intertwining nature and their relationship with ethnicity that affect a group (e.g. victims of war). Intracategorical complexity starts from a specific group like women and then searches for differences in ethnicity, class, sexuality, religion, between them.

Despite its relevance and importance, intersectionality has its own shortcomings. Bastia (2014) identifies the following as its limitations. Its lack of specific methodology, the natural tension it may create between structure, identity, and agency, and its failure to provide with a clear understanding of power.


Intersectionality was first applied to show the idea that people, especially women experience different discriminations and benefits at different levels of social relations based on multiple identities they have and most importantly to indicate that discriminations happen based on different factors simultaneously. Social justice problems like racism, sexism often overlap creating multiple levels of social injustice. An analysis of the social injustice requires the employment of different identities as a lens to seek real and pragmatic solutions. Intersectionality serves as a powerful political and analytical tool to recommend the right strategies in the effort to fight social injustices. An intersectionality-based assessment is important to decolonize Eurocentric feminism and its assumption of what constitutes patriarchy so that analysis can include women with different realities.

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