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Citizenship from a Feminist Lens

By Vaishnavi Pallapothu

Illustration from Those Who Belong Book Launch & Reading. Source: Jill Doerfler

Citizenship can be defined as the “status of a person recognised under the law of a country of belonging” and denotes an individual’s membership of a sovereign state under international law. [1] Although citizenship is considered a universal concept that every individual is entitled to equally, it is, in fact, a heavily gendered concept. Feminist critiques have challenged traditional articulations of citizenship as a gender-neutral and universal right, and more broadly, the historical exclusion of non-cis het men in citizenship on account of their gender. In light of these dynamics, as well as the expanding scholarship and discourse challenging the state as a monolith, feminists have explored the possibilities of feminist conceptions of citizenship which are more inclusive and non-discriminatory.

Gendered Conceptions of Citizenship

Traditionally, citizenship is defined in terms of civil, political, and social rights and duties that one holds in relation to the nation state. On closer examination, it is apparent that the expectations from these rights and duties are heavily gendered and theorising citizenship in sociology, political and science and international relations has overlooked the reality that women are treated as second-class citizens even after the establishment of the state. The absence of protection for women’s rights, the failure to recognise their contributions to the national economy through both the public and private realms and the systemic failure to implement constitutional rights of women are all reasons why women are consigned to ‘second-class citizenship’. The most fundamental aspect of citizenship is presumed to be the right to vote and historically, women in most countries were denied suffrage and were granted this right much later than men. In terms of duties, the key duty of citizenship is considered military service – a heavily masculine institution in many countries that limits or prohibits non-male people from enlisting. In countries such as South Korea and Singapore, men are obligated to enlist, and it is considered the highest patriotic duty to carry out the role of soldier-citizen. [2]

The division between the private and public spheres also contributes to the gendered conception of citizenship. Feminist scholars such as Carole Pateman have argued that the grant of citizenship is often conditional to the participation in the public sphere. “This public citizen is seen to be a rational, unemotional individual able to transcend their own body, interests and partiality” [2] and this means that women, members of the LGTBTQIA community and disabled people are disadvantaged as they are seen as bodies that do not perform their public role as citizens as they are associated and located within the private realm. Individuals belonging to one or more of these marginalised groups have also been historically “structured out of the public” [3] and may not enjoy some of the benefits conferred to citizens such as a minimum standard of living, access to welfare and health services, the right to bodily integrity and freedom from the fear of violence. Immigrants, refugees, asylum-seekers are also scrutinised based on their potential for the economic contribution and, by extension, the value added to the public realm in the host country.

Postcolonial critiques of mainstream discourses of citizenship point out how the framing of citizenship as a relationship between the state and the individual is a colonial export that “imposed a centralising authority on otherwise multicultural, multi-religious, multi-national and multi-ethnic societies”. [4] Celestine Nyamu-Musembi discussed how relationships between different groups representing particularistic identities (kins, tribes, religious groups) were constructed by colonial powers using state power and how these relationships continue to be discriminatory in the present. [4] For example, refugees and asylum-seekers from Muslim majority countries continue to be discriminated against by many states. Therefore, far from being a vestige of the past, the state-society relations established by colonialism continue to influence state-society relations today and shape the positions and lived experiences of the marginalised individuals in the larger community.

Feminist Conceptions of Citizenship

To envisage more inclusive forms of citizenship, the first step is to move away from an assumption of universalism and the structuring of citizenship based on the lived experiences of a typical cis het man. Drawing from maternalism and difference feminism, early feminists employed strategic essentialism to argue that women’s capacity for reproduction and motherhood, and therefore the vitality of the private sphere to the existence and continuation of the public sphere, are legitimate claims to citizenship. Advocates of this strand of feminism take into account the inherent difference between men and women and used this to justify that the yardstick of the masculine idea of citizenship is heavily limited in scope. [5] In contemporary times, such approaches are considered homogenising and essentialising by effectively re-gendering gender. A truly feminist approach to citizenship would recognise women as citizens in their own right and as deserving of status of citizenship because of their inherent humanity instead of their positionality or role in the public or private sphere.

Global South feminists start with the premise that “citizenship needs to be an active concept - not only a status, but a practice and process of relating to the social world through the exercise of rights/protections and the fulfilment of obligations”. [5] Sweetman, Rowlands, and Abou-Habib contend that although citizenship is based on the idea of universality, its operationalisation and the lived experiences of citizenship are not. It is not enough for citizenship to merely be an active and evolving process but also one that enshrines the needs and interests of everyone in the politics. As Sweetman et al. perfectly summarised: “this requires an emphasis on equality of outcome, rather than an assumption that everyone starts out from a position of equality”. [5] An intersectional feminist approach to citizenship would consider how gender, sexuality, race, class, caste, religion, migrant status, and disability shape the degree to which an individual can be an “active citizenship” and participate in their political and civic duties. As these lived experiences are very context-specific, a feminist conception of citizenship would be bottom-up and grounded in an analysis of the realities of different marginalised groups lives.

Sweetman et al. argued that “a range of different forces, ranging from traditional patriarchal social relations which conceptualise men as full citizens and women as their dependents, to global markets and businesses which circumvent labour rights, seeing women’s work as of secondary importance to men’s, undermine the idea of a state which can protect and support human rights for all.” [4] A feminist perspective on citizenship would challenge the dominant state-centric conceptions that views citizenship as merely a relationship between the individual citizen and the state. Extending the gaze beyond the state to look at other social and political institutions such as the household, economic and legal institutions, and civil-society organisations shows us that there are arenas outside the state from which marginalised groups can participate as active citizens. This would lead to broadening the ambit of citizenship to not only include legal and rights-based provisions, but also agency. A feminist reconstruction of citizenship would additionally consider the possibilities of post-state ideas such as cosmopolitan or denationalised citizenship “whereby citizenship is seen as being predicated on a more universal notion of personhood rather than national belonging.” [2]


1. IPU. 2005, Nationality and Statelessness: A Handbook for Parliamentarians, http://archive.ipu.org/PDF/publications/nationality_en.pdf

2. Munday, Jennie. 2009, Gendered Citizenship, Sociology Compass 3/2, 249-266

3. Walby, Sylvia. 1994, Is Citizenship Gendered?, Sociology Vol. 28 No. 2

4. Sweetman Caroline, Rowlands Jo and Abou-Habib Lina, 2011, Introduction to Citizenship, Gender and Development Vol 19, No. 3

5. Mukhopadhyay Maitrayee and Singh Navsharan, 2007, Gender Justice, Citizenship and Development, Zubaan

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