Can Europe Make It?

Women’s rights in the EU: a privilege for some women?

The European Commission’s annual colloquium on fundamental rights calls for reflection on ‘intersectionality’. A trendy buzzword for policy makers, but can it lead to equality in practice for all women?

Sarah Chander Julie Pascoët
20 November 2017

Screenshot: Addressing the 2017 Annual Colloquium on Fundamental Rights.“Equality between women and men is one of the European Union's founding values” says the website of the European Commission. Since inclusion of the principle of equal pay for equal work in the Treaty of Rome in 1957, the European Union has made gender equality a priority of its work. Through legislation, gender mainstreaming and specific measures, the Union has achieved great strides in social, economic and political progress for women in Europe.

But did these strides benefit all women? To what extent are considerations of race, religion, class, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity germane to the EU conception of gender equality?

These questions form a critique of European policies from the concept of intersectionality. Originating from black feminists in the US, intersectionality is the awareness that mainstream feminist approaches do not necessarily address the multiple forms of discrimination and oppression faced by some women. Inherent to the concept of intersectionality is the view that a universalist feminist approach is not sufficient to achieving equality for all women. Women are not a homogeneous group, they are not affected by discrimination and misogyny in the same way because of their different backgrounds and profiles. The 2017 Women Who Shape Brussels Power List was described by Politico Editor as inescapably white. Without women of colour in positions of power, the policy is unlikely to change any time soon.

Assessing European Union gender equality policies from an intersectional perspective, we see that in their universalism, they primarily serve white, middle-class, straight, cis-women. In fact, women of colour[1] – and issues directly impacting them – are, for the most part, ignored.

The invisibility of women of colour in European policies is apparent in numerous fields. For example, the EU’s communications on the gender pay gap highlight that women in the EU earn on average 16% less than men for each hour worked. Such headlines completely ignore the fact that many ethnic minority women are paid less than white women and ethnic minority men.

Further, policies to achieve gender balance in leadership positions are unconcerned with other grounds of equality. The European Commission’s proposal in 2012 of a target for 40% women in company boards made no reference to the underrepresentation of minority women in management positions, or the multiple forms of discrimination faced by women of colour in European labour markets.

The European Union has also remained reluctant to acknowledge that violence against women is a combined experience of racism and sexism for some women, which increases their exposure to violence and marginalisation. In many countries, victims of racially and religiously motivated hate crimes are overwhelmingly women. In France in 2016, 75% of islamophobic acts targeted Muslim women and accounted for 100% of the most violent attacks.

Attention to women of colour in the EU policy sphere is primarily focused around topics such as female genital mutilation and early marriages. Although crucial issues to be tackled, the focus on these ‘intra-community’ issues allows European governments to emphasise discourses of cultural inferiority whilst evading responsibility for structural racism and exclusion as a facet of European society. Mainstream feminist organisations in Europe only exacerbate this (with paternalistic, exclusive and sometimes islamophobic conceptions of issues such as the headscarf). Focus on ‘intra-community’ issues allows European governments to emphasise discourses of cultural inferiority whilst evading responsibility for structural racism and exclusion as a facet of European society.

Many of these oversights in European policy are explained away by a lack of data on race and ethnicity in many European Union member states, making these women and their compounded experiences of racism invisible. However, the ambivalence of EU gender policy to the situation of women of colour goes deeper than this. It relates to both the inability of institutions to acknowledge that women can have multiple identities, not necessarily aligning with norms of middle-class, white, European feminism, and the complete underrepresentation of racial, ethnic and religious minorities in positions of power in the European Union.

Representation of women of colour: changing the policy and the policy maker?

One key argument supporting the need for equal representation has been that the policy often reflects the policy maker. And unfortunately, it is increasingly apparent that the EU has a racial diversity problem. Whilst all European Union Institutions have made conscious steps to improve internal gender diversity through equality monitoring, reporting and targets for women in management, this proactive approach has not been applied to the representation of ethnic minorities in their staff.

In a recent attempt at a comprehensive diversity and inclusion internal policy, the European Commission published a less than ambitious document which foresees no specific measures to improve racial diversity.

Women of colour are in a place of double exclusion. Whilst no specific measures exist to advance diversity on the grounds of race, ethnicity and religion, they also cannot expect to be recognised within gender diversity efforts. For example, the annual Women in the European Parliament report, which analyses progress on the representation, pay and progression of women in the European Parliament, has no indicators for women of colour.

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Screenshot: 2017 Annual Colloquium on Fundamental Rights.Unfortunately, this underrepresentation is reflected more broadly in the Brussels power centre. Women of colour are almost entirely underrepresented in the institutions and in the wider bubble of NGOs, lobby groups and think-tanks. The 2017 Women Who Shape Brussels Power List was described by Politico Editor as inescapably white. Without women of colour in positions of power, the policy is unlikely to change any time soon.

Intersectionality in policy making: achieving full gender equality

Incorporating intersectionality in European policy making is a unique chance for all women in the European Union to have their issues acknowledged and addressed. It would allow a holistic approach to women’s rights and multiple discrimination, with the aim of achieving equality for all women.

Setting targets and adopting policies to achieve gender equality under the current understanding is wholly insufficient to eliminate structural barriers specific to women of colour.  Policies need to take into account the complexities and diversities of experiences of women of colour in order to ensure that they positively impact outcomes for all women.

Finally, reflecting intersectional experiences of discrimination and violence would widen the relevance of the women’s movement and build a strong basis for solidarity. Intersectionality is first and foremost about being able to acknowledge power relations.Intersectionality is first and foremost about being able to acknowledge power relations.

Many expectations are raised with this year’s European colloquium on women’s rights. It is a key opportunity for the European institutions and EU Member States to build more inclusive European gender equality policies by putting intersectionality into practice for women of colour and going beyond the buzzword.

The European Network Against Racism has highlighted the invisibility of women of colour in European policies, including with its project on the impact of Islamophobia on Muslim women, and will continue to do so. Women of colour have been ignored for too long in European policy making. That is about to change.

[1] Women of racial, ethnic and religious minorities, including (but not limited to) migrant women.

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