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Intersectionality A Critical Study With Reference to Indian Writing in English and Rights of Women (By- Reshma Singh)

Intersectionality – A Critical Study With Reference to Indian Writing in English and Rights of Women
Authored By- Reshma Singh1

The perspective of intersectionality emphasises that the social identity of an individual influences the beliefs and experiences of gender making of the individual. It is essential to understand gender within the context of power relation. The concept of intersectionality has been propounded by Crenshaw (1989). It illustrates that the experience of women of different colour, race and sex often results different due to intersecting pattern. Issues like marginalisation, abuse and oppression faced by women of different colour cannot only be understood by the reading of feminist and racial discourses separately, since in many field race and gender intersect each other in shaping political and structural violence against women. In United States and United Kingdom, the concept of intersectionality came under light with black feminist movement as; it was against of patriarchal domination and white feminism. Their arguement was that the oppression on black women is a result of double bind- first being woman and second being black. Although this research paper deals with gender violence in an Indian context, intersectionality has been used to explore the influence of factors like class, caste and economic status.

India has come across many decades from pre-independent era to the post-independent era and has witnessed drastic socio-cultural and political changes, but it has not brought a radical change in the socio-cultural aspect and even in the mindset of the people, rather it recognizes a historical continuity. Indian, being a multi-layered society with the existence of caste and class draws inequality for women due to their social position. Though we have “Right to Equality” (Article 15) and “Right to Life” (Article 21). But still, women face problems in every nook and corner of the country.

1 Is a Ph.D Research Scholar of English Literature, Department of English, Chanakya National Law University Patna, India.

According to sociologists, Indian society is male centred where the head of the family exercises unquestionable power. Cultural studies suggest that discourses in a patriarchal system treat women as weaker, gentler and requiring protection and as a result the discourses decide what is suitable and not suitable for girls and boys. Then this becomes natural to the socio-cultural context.

This is a crude reality that the problem of gender discrimination, patriarchy and marginalization are some of the biggest challenges before us in today’s context. This paper explores the inextricable link between caste and gender in Indian society and analyses Munshi Premchand’s short story Kafan (Shroud) and Sarat Chandra Chattapadhyay’s short story Abhagir Swargo (The Paradise of Abhagi), and explores the nature of discrimination that are considered acceptable in a caste stratified Hindu society as gender discrimination on the basis of class, creed and race is another social evil from ancient times and still has a great impact in Indian culture as we still witness cases like Hathras where a 19 year old Dalit woman was physically assaulted by some upper caste men.

Keywords: Intersectionality, Gender Studies, Patriarchy, Inequality

Intersectionality showcases how the social and political identities of a person influence to give birth to different modes of privilege and discrimination. It includes factors like race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, class, caste etc. All factors merge together to form the social identity that can be a subject of discrimination or empowerment. Intersectionality broadens the scope of the first and second wave of feminism that majorly focused on the equal rights for women. The first two waves were largely based on the experience of women who were both middle class and white. But intersectional feminist approach aims to separate itself from white feminism as many critiques believed that women of different race, caste, creed, religion and colour experience different types of hardships in the society.

What is Feminism?

Feminism is a political stance and also theory that focuses on gender as a subject while reading cultural practices and also a platform to demand equal rights and justice. Feminism believes that gender roles are pre constructed and determined by the society and women are trained to fit in it.

It emphasises that roles that define a woman, roles like sister, mother or wives are not natural rather it is social and women are trained under circumstances from birth to death, to talk, think and act according the social norms. The inequalities that are persistent between men and women are not natural but social, which helps the patriarchy to sustain its power. All social and cultural structures are male dominated and reinforce inequality, but they do not appear oppressive as the women is trained to believe that she is subordinate.

Cultural studies and feminism argues that patriarchal society represents women as weak, mild, innocent, seductive and treats as a sex object or a procreating machine, having few political and financial rights and is subject to abuse. Feminist literary-cultural critics undertake that cultural texts like TV, soap operas, music, painting parallel and duplicate real life power struggle. The task of criticism is therefore to unravel the underlying ideological means within the texts and society because these ideologies work as instrument in continuing women oppression.

History Of Feminism

The traditional and pre-industrial societies were patriarchal by nature and were dominated by men. Then modernising of capitalism is believed to intensify the subordination of women in the society, especially among the middle class. The aristocratic women even under capitalism could acquire independence, though in a limited sphere as being economically well established and even under industrialisation the working women got the scope to work outside of the family. But things were adverse with the middle-class women due to their status and for not being economically independent. During the period of Industrial Revolution and encouraged by French Revolution, Marry Wollstonecraft appeared with her enlightenment principles for justice and equality between gender divisions. Her book “Vindication of the Rights of Women” became the first major text exploring the inequality in gender roles. With this Wollstonecraft rejected the pre dominant notion that women by birth are naturally weaker and inferior to men. She proposed that women should get treated as equal to men and women themselves should strive to be a ‘companion’ to the men rather being mere wives. To acquire these change women need to get educated first.

Here Wollstonecraft has criticised male thinkers like Rousseau who argues that women do not need education. Inspired by the European Enlightenment Wollstonecraft suggested that women should give more significance to rationality and reason in place of sensibility and emotions which the male dominated society considers as feminine quality. Her book had little immediate impact as it was addressed to a society in which the status of men and women was uneven.

In the country though the two genders had different roles but they shared some works including heavy outdoor labour which drew them as similar productive units. But with wage labour and urbanisation things started to change and men sold their labour to the offices and factories and women were addressed to carry out the household tasks. It also affected some skilled jobs like coal mining where, the men folk use to work and the women carried out jobs like weaving in factories. This helped some of the women workers to get politicised and organised. During the nineteenth century they became active in suffragist movement which for the first time ever politicised women’s demand. Before the Suffragette movement the reuniting movement for women was slavery. When Mary Wollstonecraft was calling for women liberation, women were already playing an important role in abolitionist movement. It soon became prominent to the women of the antislavery movement that their is a big difference between them and their male counterparts as they does not share same political level and with the making of Anti-Slavery Society in 1833, women were denied of their rights to sign in Declaration of Purpose. It became conscious of the fact that slavery had to do with gender and race.

Second wave, after the World War II the second wave of feminism got prominence. In this phase, consciousness about sexist oppression on women and how political means try to suppress it, under the structure of power in the society started to grow. Under the slogan “the personal is the political” the second wave feminist focused to counter attack sexism in popular cultures and social institutions.

Three major issues encouraged the reawakening of second wave. In 1961, President John Kennedy established the Commission on the Status of Women. This Commission made a report documenting on the subordinate position of women in the United States and established a council and state commissions to address the problems made in the report.

Another major thing was the publication of “The Feminine Mystique” where Betty Friedan argued that women’s role in the society only get fulfilled as a wife and through her motherhood. Referring it as “the problem with no name”, Betty asserted that a woman does not have any identity apart from the family. Despite the oppression of the society women were raising their voice of unhappiness. National Organization for Women (NOW) became the third event stirring the feminist movement. In 1966, with Betty Friedan serving as the first president of NOW it reached new heights.

After almost sixty years of Wollstonecraft, the ‘women question’ reappears with the voting rights of women, to allow them to get divorced and access to higher education and thereafter to professional works. But the most notable work that contributed significantly was Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own”  (1927), a very innovative polemical work marking a difference from her earlier elitism of Bloomsbury Group. She was one of the first writers to develop a notion of reading and education that centred on the women. She argued that it is the patriarchal domination in the field of reading practice and education system that restrict the women readers from reading a text as women because they have been trained to read it from a male perspective. Woolf also argued on the gendered authorship of a text. According to her the language of the text available to women is patriarchal and the women authors having no other way are forced to use the language that does not express the experiences faced by a woman. All literary modes like diction, realism, linearity are male generated and up-hold as true aesthetics in the society. Thus, works from women that does not own these qualities get rejected. However, Woolf was very careful to secure that she was not privileging the female oriented thinking. Her proposal of androgynous creative mind, influenced by the psychological theories by Carl Jung and one of the most controversial theories of her was an endeavour to go beyond the male / female binary. Another text that influenced second wave of feminism and American feminists like Betty Freidan was Simon De Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” (published in French in 1949; translated to English in 1984). Based on her existential feminist approach she argued that, woman does not possess any ‘essence’ of womanliness rather it has been constructed by men and society. As Beauvoir says ‘One is not born a woman but she becomes one’, she argues that the women measuring under the standards of men found themselves always inferior and accept the stereotype construction of the society which becomes instrumental to promote patriarchy and thus forms the Subject-Other relation where Man is the subject and the Woman is the other.

To get independent from this De Beauvoir proposed that women should take charge of their own and must become Subjects of their own right instead of founding themselves as inferior or other.

Third wave, the astounding legal and political success expanding women’s rights in the post war era indicates that the women movement achieved many of its goals. During 1990s the feminist initiatives began in serious and interrupted political progress. Unlike second wave of feminism, young women were make acquainted with feminism through college coursework (positively) or by media depictions (negatively). Though feminism lacked any common definition, it is with the third wave of feminism that the focus on the intersection of class, race, gender and sexuality started to gain prominence.

Historical Background Of Intersectionality

In the field of legal studies intersectionality was introduced by Kimberlé Crenshaw through her pair of essays published in 1989 and 1991. While it began with the exploration of the oppression on black women in the society and the way in which they both sustained at an intersection and experience of the black woman, today the fields of it has broadened enough and includes various other social identities. In the fourth wave of feminism, identities like race, gender, sex, class, nationality, religion, body type plays a crucial role to understand how women get subjugated through different layers in the social circumstances.

The concept of intersectionality emerged from Critical Race Studies and necessitates the interrelation of gender and race. It depicts the multifarious connection between race, gender and other branches that collaborate together to oppress while allowing privilege to certain people. The study of intersectionality also shows that how gender, colour, class, creed, race etc. operate together to shape the experience of people. Crenshaw used the term intersectionality to denote the adverse effects of it in creating political, structural and representational views of violence against the minority group of people in the society and workplace.

In the case of DeGraffenreid v. General Motors (1976), Emma DeGraffenreid and four other black female workers claimed employment discrimination against the black women as a result of General Motors’ seniority based system of layoffs. The court considered the allegations of race and gender individually, finding that the male workers of the African-American company disproved the racial discrimination and on the other hand the white female officer workers denied gender discrimination. The court brush aside the amalgam of discrimination and dismissed the case. Crenshaw argued that in this type of cases, the courts does not consider the adverse experience faced by the women for being ‘black’ and treating them as ‘others’. Sojourner Truth’s speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?” (1851) paved the way for the idea of intersectionaliy way before the term was coined. Here she spoke from a racialized position as a former slave to analyse essentialist notion of femininity. She has also asserted that white women are often treated as emotional and elegant while black women are subjected to racialism. But this was largely dismissed by white feminists who thought that this would divert them from the women’s suffrage aim to the attention on liberation. Anna Julia Cooper in her essay “The Coloured Woman’s Office” (1892) presented the black women an important part of the society as they experience multiple facets of maltreatment. Patrica Hill Collins has located the genesis of intersectionality among the black feminists, Latin feminists, indigenous feminists and Asian American feminists from 1960s to 1980s. She has also noted the existence of other intellectuals in other places who has discussed about the idea of intersectionality, like in Cultural Studies the Stuart Hall has pointed out the issue. She has noted that during the second wave of feminism, the ideas that together labelled as “intersectionality” combined in US academia under the name of “race, class, and gender studies”. Her theory represents the sociological crossways between modern and post- modern feminist thought.

Bell Hooks expressed the emergence of intersectionality as a challenge to the notion of gender was the primary factor determining the fate of a woman. His historical debarring of black women from the US feminist movement stem in many black feminist of 19th and 20th century, such as Anna Julia Cooper, to challenge their historical exclusion. This disagreed with the previous notion of the feminist movement that being woman, everyone feels and face same kind of oppression and share same life experience. This movement lead by the white middle class women suggested that women being a homogeneous category suffer and experience the same. But after the establishment of the fact that black, poor or disabled women undergo different issues, the feminists began to search the new ways of how gender, class, race play a vital role in determining the identity of a woman and their destiny. Recent academics, like Leslie McCall have proclaimed that the introduction of intersectionality in the field of sociology has a critical role to play. Iris Marion Young argued that differences must to be addressed in order to find a uniform social justice issues that generate alliances

that help in changing the society for the better. It relates to the epitome of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW). Since the term was propounded many scholars have come with the historical support for intersectionality theory. Beverly Guy-Sheftall and other contributors to “Words of Fire: An Anathology of African-American Feminist Thought” a collection of articles have described multiple oppressions black women in America has witnessed. Deborah K. King’s article “Multiple Jeopardy, Multiple Consciousness: The Context of a Black Feminist Ideology” (1988) has also used intersectional analyses even before the term was coined.

Black Feminism, Critical Race Studies And Intersectionality

Black feminism got importance due to a convincing argument, that oppression on    black women was a result of double bind- of being women and on being black. Black feminism was against patriarchy and white feminism. Philosophers like Bell Hooks noted that even in the black arts movements and in civil rights movements the problems of black women was rarely addressed. Many feminist critics have argued that the Black Power movement was inherently patriarchal. In 1990s writings by Patrica Hill Collins, Hortense Spillers and Hazel Carby marked the beginning of black feminist thoughts. Their aim was to create forms of knowledge built upon the experience of black women. It underscored the need to include cultural and racial study within the feminist argument.

From mid 1980s race has become a central concern in cultural, social and political theory. It is also a component of legal theory and marks the question of racial discrimination. In the latter decades of twentieth century, race studies have become cultural expressions and manifestations of race and ethnicity. Thus studying race means to read literary and cultural texts for the social roles, disadvantages, cooperation and political significance of a racial and ethnic group. It will be more accurate to set race studies as socio-cultural and political reading within social theory, literary criticism, legal studies and historiography.

It is through black feminist movement and critical race studies that concept of intersectionality has emerged. Though intersectionality started with the study

of the interplay between gender and race, over the period of time other elements of oppression have been added to the theory. Anathology like “This Bridge Called My Back” (1981) published by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa explored how classification of sexual orientation mix with class, race and gender to create more distinct political categories. Sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois has added the aspect of black political economy as an instrument to suppress women. According to him economy also plays an important role to dominate the women. Collins has uses a Marxist feminist approach and calls it “work/family nexus and black women’s poverty”. In her essay “Black Political Economy” (2000) she has described the intersections of gender hierarchies, consumer racism and disadvantages related to it in the labour market can be called as black woman’s unique experience.

Kimberlé Crenshaw, has identified three different forms of intersectionality in her essay “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color” (1991) in which she has talked about, Structural intersectionality which incorporates classism, sexism and racialism as an weapon of women subjugation. Here Crenshaw has displayed that how through different structural means women become the victim of domestiv violence. Another is Political intersectionality, which separates white and black women in two different arenas. Here white women suffer from gender biasness and men of colour suffer racial biasness while the coloured women become the victim of both gender and racial biasness. The third form is Representational intersectionality, which creates an image in support of coloured women and condemns sexist, racist oppression. It highlights the importance of women of colour should possess representation in media and contemporary setting.

Intersectionality And Third World Women

Chandra Mohanty has discussed about the alliances between women in the global context. She has rejected western feminist theory and accepted the fact that “third world women” are often thought as corresponding entity but the fact is their experience of oppression is dominated by their historical, geographical and cultural facts. The lack of homogeneity and different intersecting ideas can be observed even through feminism in India. It showcases how women in India practice feminism and how they become the victim of multiple intersecting identities that differ from the western culture and other non-western, third world countries.

Premchand’s Shroud And Intersectionality

Munshi Premchand’s short story “Kafan” later translated in English as “The Shroud” (1936) is a brief example of women marginalisation and intersectionality. The story centres on the death of the female character Budhiya, wife of Madho and Ghisu’s daughter-in-law and her final rites. In the story the family belongs from the chamar caste which according to the ancient Indian Varna system is the untouchable caste. Sadanand Shahi has classified “Kafan” within the final phase of Premchand’s literary style where he has written about “stinging critique of various economic, social and cultural aspects of contemporary India” (Shahi 251).

The story is about the marginalised section of Indian society, where people get suppressed due to their caste and creed. Among the three characters, Budhia is the worst sufferer of this. Budhia, the dead women is absent presence like her shroud that has to be arranged, but till the end we never see the proper arrangement for Budhia’s funeral. The story starts with Budhia, wriggling in labour pain and Madho and Ghisu sitting outside the cottage, but none pays any visit to her. At the end of the first section she dies, alone and unseen with the same pain. She becomes the figure deserving the pity and pathos for her worst suffering. Budhia becomes the victim and has been exploited under the institution of marriage as she has performed all her duties expected from her while Ghisu and Madho “two shameless rascals” (Premchand 226) avoid their labour and responsibility. Even prior to her demise she has been neglected to an extent that arouse bitterness even in the readers as Premchand writes “the father and the son seemed to be waiting for her to die so that they could have a good night’s sleep” (Premchand 226).

After Budhia’s death, Ghisu and Madhav’s quest for a shroud for the dead woman bears the symbol of negligence within her lifetime is inculcated with harsh irony. In “Sadgati”, the barbarity of Brahmanical oppression through caste is incorporated in the figure of the Pandit and his wife. Budhia is not only neglected throughout her life but also is a victim of patriarchal domination under Ghisu and Madho’s selfish materialism.

Premchand in his Presidential address to the Progressive Writers’ Association in 1936, named as “Sahitya Ka Uddeshya”, proclaimed literature can be best defined as a criticism of life and all that is ugly or detestable, all that is inhuman, becomes intolerable to a writer.

Premshand, being a presenter of hard realities of life, has drawn the character of Budhia from the perspective of an oppressed women. She being woman suffers in the hands of patriarchy and being poor suffers in the society. The story though narrates the life of a marginalised family, still Budhia becomes the prey due to her class and caste in a patriarchal and hierarchy dominated society. Here the shroud becomes the symbol of pathos as even after death she didn’t get a shroud to cover her body. With this story, Premchand has delineated the adverse effects of caste and creed system in India and also voices intersectionality which has been clearly depicted through the character of Budhia, who suffers for being woman under patriarchy and also under intersecting factors like poverty, lower-caste etc.

Sarat Chandra And Intersectionality

The author was born in Bengal in the year 1876 and through his works he has voiced the concept of intersectionality as a weapon to persecute women. He is specially acknowledged to have dealt most soft-heartedly with his women characters. In the ancient India, the Aryans were superior in both mind and look. The law-giver Manu has specify that lower caste women are accessible to men of higher Varna and on basis of this logic, Brahmin men has access to women off every caste and the lower caste woman was exploited by all. The lower class women were therefore called as dasis, who were exploited and regarded as exploitable. Sarat Chandra has managed to break the conventional thoughts about women while creating his female characters who like him belonged from the marginalised section.

In his short story “Abhagi’s Swarga” he has dealt with the issue of intersectionality as the upper caste women are recognised as Sati-Savitri and idolized as devis, on the other hand the character Abhagi suffer from extreme poverty. Here the author has beautifully depicted the aspiration of a lower class, marginalised woman to be cremated like the wife of the zamindar of high caste. On the demise of the upper caste women, the entire village mourned for her and attributed her identity as devi, because she died as a married woman and successfully avoided being dying as a widow. In the upper caste Hindu society, it is considered as a blessing for a woman, dying before her husband with all her marks of marriage. It is viewed as an auspicious death and assumed that the woman ascend to heaven. The lower caste women, virtuous like the upper caste is never considered the same status. Therefore when this poor women dies, due to utmost poverty, her son has no other option left apart from fire the whole hut with his mother’s body as he cannot afford the process of cremation. Thus through this the author has portrayed the plight of lower caste and poor woman. The story links the intersecting factors that suppress even the small affections of a woman. Here Abhagi being poor and lower caste never receives any fondness or same status like the upper caste woman.


To conclude, the works of Premchand and Sarat Chandra reflects the tension that perceives in the lower section of women, who in every nook and corner face get victimised by race, class, gender, caste etc. Although the Indian social structure has got changed drastically, still from the ancient times, many of the dilemmas are recurring again in new forms. Even in the age of globalisation and urbanisation, women face abuse with multiple intersecting factors. As, Crenshaw has explored two types of male violence against women: domestic violence and rape, in modern world women encounter both. On practical context, in India intersectionality is still in practice as we witness cases like Hathras, where a 19 year old Dalit (formerly known as untouchables) girl got gang raped by for upper caste men. The incident took place on 14th September 2020, when the girl went to collect cattle fodder from the farm. Four men dragged her with dupatta around her neck and injured her spinal cord. The violence made her paralyzed with severe injuries and her tongue got cut off while she was trying to resist their attempt. Though she fought for her life and later on for justice, still she could not survive the battle and lost her life on 29th September 2020.

The dusted pages of history bear the proof that even the loyal champions of liberty excluded women from their rights and of such instance in Stuart Mill’s “Essay on Liberty”. In India also the situation was not so heart warming. However The Constitution of India has safeguarded certain rights to women. Article 14 and 21 guarantee basic human rights and right to life, liberty and Equality and article 15 it prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.

As Martin Luther King Jr puts it,

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly”.

The position and status of women is of concern. Even in the home or outside, the participation of women in making decisions is very marginal never reaching even up to 25% of the total population of women. At the same time, people view women as bearer of traditional cultural heritage in India, but the question arises that is it possible for women to do it without political and economic power? According to the NCRB report, 2019 recorded over 4 lakh cases of crime against women, up from 3.78 lakh in 2018 and 3.59 lakh cases in 2017. The farmers of the constitution has adopted many ways to secure women, from getting marginalised and dominated by patriarchy, but everything seems a farce when, incidents like Hathras or Nirbhaya take place. In the age of liberalization, globalization and diversification women are trying to set up their own world independently. Women of each section and every caste, class, creed, religion etc. has their own rights and if we want to make a better society, we need to uphold the equal rights for each and every woman. The factors that create intersectionality and deprive women from their rights should get omitted and the stereotypical mindset needs to get change.

From time immemorial women are fighting for their rights. Starting from the first wave of feminism till the fourth wave which started around 2012 and demands empowerment for women, the use of internet and intersectionality, the fourth wave strives for gender equality in the greatest form. It also voices the issues of marginalised women. As Article one of Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) asserts “All human beings are born free and equal dignity and rights” it means that people from everywhere no matter where they are, who are the parents, or what religion they follow is equal. But for women, the condition is not so satisfying. Thousands of women have to fight against many difficulties to establish their rights. Intersectional factors also dominate them but as Percy Bysshe Shelley (1819) said

“O, Wind, if winter comes,

Can spring be far behind?” (Shelley, 69-70)

The quest for equal rights and justice for every women of every gender, class, creed, religion, colour etc. should continue and they must get equal platform.

Work Citied

Wollstonecraft Mary, “Vindication of the Rights of Women”, Cambridge University Press

Friedan Betty, “The Feminine Mystique”, W W Norton &co

Woolf Virginia, “A Room of One’s Own”, FiNGERPRINT! CLASSICS Beauvior Simone de, “The Second Sex”, Vintage Books

Truth Sojourner, “Ain’t I a Woman”, South End Press

Guy Beverly-Sheftall, “Words of Fire: An Anathology of African-American Feminist Thought” The New Press

King’s Deborah, “Multiple Jeopardy, Multiple Consciousness: The Context of a Black Feminist Ideology”, The University of Chicago Press

Anzaldúa Gloria   E-   Cherríe   Moraga,   “This Bridge   Called   My   Back”,

Persephone Press

Collins Patrica Hill, “Black Political Economy”, Sage Publications, Inc. Crenshaw Kimberlé, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color, Stanford Law Review

Premchand Munshi, “ The Shroud”, Penguin India

Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, “Abhagi’s Swarga”, Ocean Paperbacks, A Division of Ocean Books Pvt. Ltd.

Mill John Stuart, “On Liberty” Simon & Schuster

Gopal Sankaranarayanan, “The Constitution of India”, Eastern Book Company United Nations: Department of Public Information, “THE UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS”, Renouf Pub. Co. Ltd


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