Nozizwe Dube: a keen eye for intersectional discrimination

Nozizwe Dube has been paying attention to issues of equality and justice since she was a child. When she moved from her native Zimbabwe to Belgium at age 14, she suddenly became part of a minority herself and was forced to deal with racism and sexism directly. “My interest in this subject grew enormously. I started studying law and am now focusing my PhD research on intersectional discrimination in the European legal system.”

A focus on human rights

Nozizwe studied Law in Leuven, where she obtained her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. She did internships at Belgium’s Constitutional Court as well as the UN. It offered her a behind-the-scenes look at various legal institutions. But in her opinion, her undergraduate studies lacked a focus on human rights and discrimination. “Many daily obstacles you read about, see, and sometimes even experience, were missing from the picture. I missed it, especially since I’m a child of a refugee.” Thus, Nozizwe followed other academics on social media like Twitter, which helped her learn about equality issues and research them.

That’s when she came across the concept of intersectional discrimination, introduced by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. “I read about it and thought ‘Yes, this is exactly what people around me are experiencing!’ As a black woman, I experience both racism and sexism: the confluence of two or more forms of discrimination happening simultaneously. That’s what intersectional discrimination is about: when you can’t blame the discrimination you experience on just one aspect. There are multiple processes at play. Through Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work, I learned more about this concept and about applying intersectionality to anti-discrimination laws.”

“Additionally, she was one of the first legal scholars I knew who combined her knowledge of the law with values like anti-racism and black feminism. I found it very refreshing, especially because some other legal scholars say looking beyond law books isn’t scientific or neutral.” From the start, Nozizwe knew that she wanted to apply her law degree to the areas of discrimination and intersectional feminism. During her master’s degree, she started specialising in international and European law. “Anti-discrimination laws within the European Union are made according to guidelines set by EU directives. Those directives are then transposed into EU member states’ national laws. So this choice just made sense to me.”

Nozizwe Dube in front of the Law faculty

Telling examples

A lot has already been written about intersectional discrimination, so Nozizwe’s goal isn’t to discover new ideas or concepts. “I want to add other aspects to the debate, that haven’t been adequately covered yet. For example, there’ve been court cases where intersectional discrimination clearly played a role. Did the Court not see that? Or did they ignore it? How can the Court step away from that discomfort regarding anything to do with intersectionality? I find those kinds of questions fascinating.”

As a telling example, she cites court cases related to neutrality rules in the workplace, which prohibit the donning of religious items. “The Court recognises that neutrality rules can lead to indirect discrimination based on religion. But there’s actually more to it: gender and racial elements aren’t reflected in their jurisprudence. After all, those who wear headscarves are women and most often non-white people. Three forms of discrimination emerge here: religion, gender, and skin colour.”

It's still difficult to bring legal cases with multiple grounds of discrimination before the Court simultaneously. “That’s why I’m exploring how we can be more mindful of intersectional discrimination within the so-called single axis framework the EU works with: discrimination can currently be more easily recognised if it’s based on one ground of discrimination, like gender, disability or age.”

“I also look at how other courts handle these issues because the EU doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel. I compare case law of the European Court of Human Rights, the Supreme Court in the United States, and the Constitutional Court in South Africa. Which techniques do they apply? Which approaches and methods do they use to recognise intersectionality?” Nozizwe talks to EU lawmakers about the obstacles contributing to the problematic recognition of intersectionality within EU anti-discrimination laws. She also talks to policymakers to examine how intersectionality can become part of broad equality policies at a European level, as many victims don’t (or can’t) bring intersectionality lawsuits to court, for example, for financial reasons. Equality policies can make an important difference.


Surprises and energy boosts

Nozizwe has learned a lot since starting her PhD. The most surprising aspect? “That different grounds of discrimination – like gender, age, disability, and race – are often viewed as separate entities. Like they have nothing to do with each other and compete to see which form of discrimination is the ‘most important.’ This is not how it works”, she explains. “Different kinds of discrimination are more interconnected than you might think. If we strive towards inclusion and equality, we have to fight all forms of discrimination. If there’s injustice somewhere, there’s injustice everywhere: multiple aspects always play a role.”

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Nozizwe Dube in front of the Law faculty_doorstep

Although discrimination law is a complex and sensitive topic, her research energizes Nozizwe.

“Because I feel like everything’s always changing. Not everyone is equally excited about the subject, but when I talk to like-minded academics, I get such an energy boost. It helps to be able to talk to people who work on the same topic.

Of course, I have to always be aware that discrimination is a hot topic that gets used a lot in politics.”


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