In January 1992, the Earth Summit in Rio formalized the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which articulated a concept called "Common but Differentiated Responsibilities," or CBDR. Specifically under Article 3, Paragraph 1, and Article 4, paragraph 1, the comprehensive convention speaks to how all states in the world have a shared obligation to address environmental destruction, but denies equal responsibility of all states with respect to protecting the environment. Sitting in law school as I pored over my Environmental Law text book, an idea struck me, that I couldn’t quite wrap my head around.
It would take me all of eight years to articulate it. How about looking at gender inequality through the CBDR lens? How about importing a concept that addresses a problem that challenges all of humanity, to another problem that challenges all of humanity?
Women world over will testify that misogyny thrives around them. And so, regardless of the many boundaries that divide us in the form of nationality, race, religion, caste, colour, ethnicity, language, economic capacity and literacy levels, patriarchy is common. Women worlds over have been affected by patriarchy, and have been discriminated against – whether they realize it or not, actively think about it or not. It’s not just the women who are affected by gender inequality. All genders are adversely affected by patriarchy – be it in the pressure it puts on men or the othering it encourages of gender identities that do not conform to the binary.
Adding all the factors back – nationality, race, religion, caste, colour, ethnicity, language, economic capacity and literacy levels – the burden of a gendered oppression is altered depending on which end of the spectrum one stands, when it comes to these other identities. Many of the world’s communities come with histories of oppression, of subjugation and generations of facing discrimination, that then goes into making the gender-based discrimination much heavier for those communities to bear. The fount of this articulation takes me back to Kimberle Crenshaw, who looked at feminism and addressing gender inequality through the lens of intersectionality. To Black Feminism, sexism, class oppression, gender identity and racism are inextricably bound together. To Islamic Feminism, gendered oppression is about discourse and practice articulated within an Islamic paradigm. To Feminists in India, gendered oppression needs to be studied through the lens of caste, class, ethnicity and colour. Chinese Feminism is tied to socialism and class issues.
The root of this theory of intersectionality, lies in the concept of epistemic privilege, or standpoint theory, the concept which explains that people who are marginalized have a position of privilege in terms of understanding "how the world works." As Sandra Harding argues, people who are marginalized remain in a “privileged position to access the objective truth," since marginalized groups learn the dominant viewpoint while they experience its limitations, which in turn puts them in the best position to see the limitations in the system. This makes the impact of patriarchy and misogyny differentiated.
It’s important, always, to remember that gender is an identity that one embraces – and it is not rigidly binary as some believe it to be. The impact of a gender identity that is non-binary, or transitional, is an incredibly personal experience and comes with its own slew of challenges. In the light of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s recent comments on trans women, it is all the more necessary that we understand the dynamics of marginalization. Transitioning from one gender identity to another is nothing like turning a switch on or off. It is an accretion of thoughts, feelings, personal identity explorations and choices – and in the course of evaluating these parameters, there is an element of personal struggle involved. To sweep these struggles aside and to oversimplify the concept of gender, ignoring fluidity, is to trivialize an otherwise significant truth.
To this end, then, although we’re all fighting for the common goal, the efforts will splinter if the many dimensions of gender inequality are not accounted for.
Zooming out even further, the inter-gender dynamics account for how the burden of addressing gender inequality is differentiated. Whatever theories you may subscribe to that informs the “origin” of patriarchy, all of them dovetail to one point of convergence: the dominance of the male, the subjugation of the female and the ostracism of the non-binary gender identity. Being male comes with tremendous privileges – and this privilege can be turned around on its head to question structures that prop up constant gender inequality. A man could use his privilege to demand to restructure the way women are viewed. Episode 12 of Season Five, of The Mindy Project feeds right into this, where an Indian woman finds herself wishing she was a White Man – only to find her wish granted. But instead of seeking out what privilege offered from a standpoint of entitlement, the character proceeds to question the structural violence of patriarchy. Being female comes with the pre-installed burden of misogyny that the woman is then forced to bear for the rest of her life – but a simple evaluation on where she stands in the pecking order through an intersectional lens can help bridge the gap that other identity-related privileges offer.
Circling back to where I started from, if we can look at gender inequality through the framework of common but differentiated responsibility, our efforts around restoring the balance would be more meaningful. In our everyday lives, we are incredibly capable of inertia. Maybe this is the force we need to change.
Kirthi Jayakumar is an activist, artist and writer from Chennai, India. She is also part of the 2017 cohort of the Local Pathways Fellowship. She founded and runs the Red Elephant Foundation, a civilian peace-building initiative that works for gender equality through storytelling, advocacy and digital interventions. She is a member of the Youth Working Group for Gender Equality under the UNIANYD. Kirthi is the recipient of the US Presidential Services Medal (2012) for her services as a volunteer to Delta Women NGO, and the two-time recipient of the UN Online Volunteer of the Year Award (2012, 2013). Her second book, The Dove's Lament, made it to the final shortlist for the Muse India Young Writers' Literary Award. Kirthi was recently invited to the United State of Women Summit at the White House in Washington DC, as a nominated change-maker. She is also a Zen Doodler, and her works have been commissioned by corporate establishments, non-profits and art collectors world over.