By Karil Soral:
‘Bharat Mata’, ‘German Fatherland’, ‘Mother Russia’…. I am sure that you might be familiar with all these terms. We come across them often but tend to ignore a clear gendered notion that is inscribed in them or rather to them. Since the past three decades, a new interest has been drawn to this concept of gender and nation. As one can see from the examples that I have stated above, it is clear that the nation is a gendered entity. Feminist scholarship along with the historians of nation both tended to ignore this. It was presumed that history of men and women was similar. But as I will examine it further, the formation of nation and even experience of citizenship has not been universal and has varied for men and women.
Women have participated in nationalist struggles, for example in the Indian nationalist struggle they were an important part of the Civil Disobedience movement, and in Vietnam, women played an important role in their war against the USA. The feminist historians of the ‘third world’ nations have taken the lead in establishing the linkages (I have deliberately used the term instead of ‘comparison’) between gender and nation. They have shown that women’s emancipation in these countries has gone hand-in-hand with their anticolonial and nationalist struggles. However, having emphasised on the important role played by the ‘third world’ nations in the relation between gender and nation does not mean that we overlook the ‘first world’.
Women have also played a significant role in the production and maintenance of ‘national communities’ as well as ‘national identities’. In Nazi Germany women were looked upon in their ‘traditional roles’ as mothers and as ‘producers of pure breed Aryans’. In India as well, right-wing institutions like the RSS and the VHP use the rhetoric of ‘Hindu mother’ as preserver of the ‘Hindu family’. The point being made here is that through the control of women’s sexuality a community boundary is set up. Women are seen as “markers of community boundaries”.
A paradox emerges here. On the one hand, women have been called upon in nationalist struggles to fight with men against the imperialist powers. On the other hand, a difference has been maintained between the colonials and imperialists and that has been determined by the ‘traditional’ roles of women, as signifiers of a community’s boundary. Thus, women seem to play a role which is between ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ and this is not just limited to nationalist struggles. We can see its continuation in the post-independence period as well. Women are on the one hand looked upon as workers, homemakers (to a small extent) etc. but they are also looked upon as ‘preservers of tradition’. No matter that she might be a CEO of a multinational, ultimately she has to take care of her family.
But a dilemma emerges here. We cannot take women as a unified category of analysis. The experiences of women in India might be different from that in the USA. The experiences of those in the US might be different from say Australia or Kenya. From this, it can be said that the nation though itself is a gendered entity also formulates or is a catalyst in the construction of gender norms. Thus, the nation plays a dual role in the gender analysis. It is itself formulated on gendered lines and it further helps in the preservation or further construction of gender. Further, the nation also provides with the institutions of ’empowerment’ of women.
One other aspect you might have noticed is that this whole gendered entity of nation is formulated on a gender binary. For example, we have ‘fathers’, ‘sons’, ‘mothers’ and ‘daughters’ of the nation. It leads to the normalisation of gender difference as well as there being no talk of other genders. The discourse of nationalism provides legitimacy to normative gendered constructions of masculinity and femininity.
Continuing on our path of this gender difference one can also show (as I have above) that there is a difference in the national entities. There was a construction of particular imagined ‘domestic genealogies’. From this, it can be argued that there was a difference between the imperialists and the colonial nations. Women again played a crucial role in maintaining this difference. For example, the native colonial Indian men were shown to be effeminate and not capable of doing ‘good’ for the ‘native family or women’. At the same time, the British saw themselves as ‘protectors’ of both ‘white’ as well as native women from these men.
A further analysis of the gender roles based on gender difference is necessary here. Men are always looked upon as fighters and protectors of the gendered entity of nation. Women, on the other hand, are looked upon as sacrificing and producing sons for the nation. This brings us to the concept of ‘eroticised nationalism’. This is always, mind you, in a heterosexual manner or rather this ‘eroticised nationalism’ is always heterosexual. One can think of a lot of Bollywood movies that meet this criteria and even famous patriotic songs as well. The nation is gendered as we have seen but it is also seen as a brotherhood or fraternity. This brotherhood excludes all those who are seen as deviants for example, homosexuals. This happens through novels, cinema, pamphlets etc. Some examples may include songs like A.R. Rahman’s ‘Vande Mataram’ and ‘Ab tumhaare havaale vatan saathio’, and movies like ‘Mother India’ etc.
I mentioned above that we must not consider women as a uniform category. Nations shape the discourses of women in a context but they are not the only factor. Race, class, community and caste all shape the experiences of women. Thus, the definition of feminism and for what purpose they use it to their benefit is also contextual. We cannot make the mistake of not considering these differences. But if there are differences between women themselves in that their respective experiences are varied, how can we take them all into consideration and proceed towards a comparative analysis? Also, the fact that nations are being strengthened and are not declining further puts an obstacle in our path of analysis.
There might be some women who want to be identified within a national context, within a particular community but still may strive for feminism as a means of recognition of certain constitutional rights while some may totally disagree with the notion of nation and strive for internationalism. How can we analyse these different experiences? One way might be establishing linkages. But before we do that it has to be stated that to study nation as a monolithic bloc would be a mistake.
Since the past three decades with the coming of the age of globalisation nations as a gendered entity have not declined but only strengthened. However, what this has also meant is that there have been a flow of peoples from one nation to another that is migrations have also taken place and that too on a large scale. What about these migrants? Once they become citizens of another country do their past experiences or citizenship get erased by just the confiscation of their passports? Obviously not. There are certain linkages with their ‘past nationality’. Thus, these migrants are in a sense transgressing the boundaries of two nations, their ‘past nation’, i.e., one from which they migrated from, as well as their ‘new nation’, i.e., one to which they migrated. Also, the flow of capital, multinational corporations or basically the inception of the globalised economy along with these migrations have put the notion of nation as a uniform entity in a flux. But it is because of these very notions that the nations are being
strengthened as well.
Thus, in this globalised world, one can analyse the varied experiences of various feminisms and without a disregard for the contextual analysis through the model of a ‘trans-national feminist’ approach. This model takes into account the domestic issues of women in a particular community, caste, class, race or nation as well as tries to establish the linkages simultaneously through a pan-world approach. Thus, the varied experiences are recognised but at the same time what linkages can be established within these varied experiences are also looked at.