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Of Gender and Nationalism


Image: Wikimedia Commons
By Kirthi Jayakumar

In her famous book titled Bananas, Beaches, and Bases, Cynthia Enloe wrote, “Nationalism has typically spring from masculinized memory, masculinized humiliation, and masculinized hope.” According to feminist scholarship, women and gender identities are marginalized in nationalistic pursuits – often relegated to symbols.[1]  This isn’t entirely surprising, given, as Mostov noted, “The topography of the nation is mapped in gendered terms: feminized soil, landscapes and boundaries, and masculine movement over these spaces.”[2]

Within nationalism, gender-specific roles are produced and reproduced, where men are placed on a pedestal as protectors of the nation, as the guardians of national boundaries / borders, and as those in charge. Women, on the other hand, are responsible for the continuation of the “pure” identity of the nation through reproduction (physical), and by being the symbols (“motherland”) of the ideological and cultural manifestations of nationalism.

The nationalist identity aggressively celebrates the idea of motherhood and women’s identities as mothers. This automatically excludes trans women from the identity of “women,” for their bodies are not naturally predisposed to give birth. Any attempt by cis women to refute motherhood, be it through abortion or choosing not to have children, is seen as an assault on nationalism, thereby providing enough room to control women’s bodies to bring them in line. This was seen in Croatia during the war with the former state of Yugoslavia, where Croatian President Tudjman blamed women who chose to have abortions for the tragedy that unfolded in Croatia.[3] In Serbia, the mainstream media called for the provision of medals for Serbian women who bore children.[4]

This portrayal of women and women’s bodies is also the basis of the narrative that uses sexual violence and rape as a war weapon: for if women remain the symbols and anatomical ambassadors of a nationalist identity, they are also the targets for the defilement of that very nationalist identity. For example, the creation of the “Bharat Mata” identity by Bankimchandra, represents the motherland as a goddess that men had to fight to protect. Similarly, in the nationalist movement in Ireland in the latter half of the twentieth century had exhorted Irish men to fight for “Mother Ireland.”

Within this representative symbolism, only certain kinds of women’s bodies can be represented.[5] The body must be pure, and imbued with love and sacrifice, with all semblance of desire being suppressed.[6] The connotation attached to this symbolism is that of purity and chastity – the destruction of which is seen as the destruction of the nation. In seeking to protect the nation from the enemy, be it a colonial power or a modern-day terror outfit, or a state against whom war is being waged, this chastity and purity is being protected, as well.

Even a cursory perusal of the symbolic representation of nationalism through women’s bodies will show you that the assortment of bodies are cis women’s bodies, and are largely white, upper caste, upper class, and a borderline saintly demeanour that best describes their lack of sexual desire. The consequential manifestations of this trend among women are twofold: either the erasure of women from the frontlines of political activity, or the desexualisation of women in order to fit into the realm of political action.[7]  

Gender identities produce and reproduce violence, even as violence produces and reproduces gender identities. The cyclical relationship is essentially a product of a rigid binarization of gender and an automatic demonization, exclusion, and anomalization of any gender identity that does not fall within the scope of the binary on the one hand, and in turn, keeps this rigid binarization-and-anomalization dynamic alive. The larger purpose to be served is the continuation of the nationalistic identity as a vehicle of power.  





[1] See Yuval- Davis 1997, McClintock 1995, Enloe 1989, Mayer 2000
[2] Julie Mostov, “Sexing the nation/desexing the body: Politics of national identity in the former Yugoslavia,” in Tamar Mayer (ed.) Gender Ironies of Nationalism: Sexing the Nation
[3] Abhik Roy, The Role of Women in Nationalist Movements, The Statesman, August 2, 2015  https://www.thestatesman.com/opinion/role-of-women-in-nationalist-movements-79791.html
[4] Ibid.
[5] Hira Naaz, Women's Sexuality in the Indian Nationalist Discourse, Feminism in India, August 14, 2017. https://feminisminindia.com/2017/08/14/womens-sexuality-indian-nationalist-discourse/
[6] Ibid.
[7] Vaishnavi Pallapothu, "Gendered viewing of politicians by the media," The Gender Security Project, April 13, 2019. gendersecurity.redelephantfoundation.org/2019/04/gendered-viewing-of-politicians-by-media.html