Vidita Priyadarshini, YouthSpeak March
What is a nation? How does the nation define us? Is the nation conducive to realization of Humanist values? What does a nation do to women/the feminine?
When Benedict Anderson used the phrase “imagined communities” to define a nation, he did not mean to equate it with falseness. Instead, he meant to explain a mode of identification with a set of historical practices – practices through which social difference are created, sanctioned and performed. These practices constitute people’s identities in ways which are extremely gendered, and the nation depends on this gendering to continue to control the lives of its pledgers. Despite nationhood invoking a shared sense of unity, historically, nations have amounted to sanction of gender difference through its institutions, which have been utilized to legitimate themselves. One of the obvious ways in which nations undertake a gendered discourse is the differential resource allocation – wage-gap, healthcare, education.
Virginia Woolf said, “As a woman, I have no country.” She seemed to suggest that women had no stakes in defending countries which treated them like second-class citizens. Yet women, while being victims of this popular version of aggressive nationalism, have also been used to carry its burden.
Let’s take a look at the institutions which claim to be the “protectors” of a nation’s value-systems, from the Boy Scouts in the USA to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in India – virtuosity is described in normative masculine ways, such as honour, courage, sexual virility, discipline. The word association with masculinity keeps women out of its ambit in two ways. First, the notions of masculinity devalue other qualities as virtuous and useful; relegating what is associated with ‘femininity’ (care, kindness, love) to the background. Secondly, masculinity is not allowed to be appropriated by the woman – the ‘good’ woman must remain confined to ideas of femininity. While the adherences to these limited ideas of masculinity vary across time and place, one finds a willful acceptance of gendered roles in nation-building.
In the predominantly male project of nation-building, gender difference is used as a justification for defining the idea of national difference. Women are subsumed under the territorial body of the nation, marked as bearers of the nation, but never given any direct agency to define it. Elleke Boehmer writes that the ‘motherland’ of male nationalism may “not signify ‘home’ and ‘source’ to women.” The mother-ness of a woman does not allow her to be a defining agent in what the nation will constitute of. The mother-ness only allows her to confine herself to a set of values essential for a male-centric nation-building project – a biological reproducer of people, a biological reproducer of boundaries (through limits on sexual/marital relations), as modes of carrying national culture and as ‘wealth’ of national significance.
Anne McClintock writes that there is a paradox within nationalistic narratives. The family is deemed analogous to the nation. The division of power within families, which assumes the subordination of women as a ‘natural’ fact, any form of hierarchy within the nation could be depicted as a function of nature. The imagery of the family is also used to justify all forms of paternalistic interventions; violence is a progressive tool under benevolent patriarchy.
The nation demands the woman to be the ideal mother, protecting her children from images of violence, simultaneously decrying men who profess pacifism. The nation demands a woman to tightly clutch onto her ‘purity’ in times of war, whether it’s the Jigai (female ritual suicide) in Japan, or the Jauhar in India. The woman is portrayed as the sexual victim as well as the sexual aggressor – “our” women who are assaulted and “other” women who tantalise us in our dreams. The selfing and othering process always looks at women as points of reference from which to decide the strength of their project.
What is a nation built of, and integrated through? Our imaginations of nations look at women in strictly defined roles of daughter, mother, wife, akin to the family. The surveillance of women’s lives and bodies are inherent to this imagination. The masculine nation warrants marginalizing the feminine and feminized sections of the population, whilst rejecting the efforts of the feminine to cross over to the masculine side. The frequent policing of women who express sexual autonomy is a case in point.
The nation is not just about war-time violence on women. The everyday negotiations women undertake to carve resistance-free spaces for themselves, to be able to exercise their autonomy, are examples of the grave psychological violence women must undergo to be able to live their lives with the ideals we as Humanists cherish. As Humanists, we must also look at the gradation of experience women face based on class, religion, race, caste, or sexual orientation. If the nation doubly disadvantages women in all aspects, how do we shape our struggles against this masculine-heteronormative-patriarchal entity?
The views expressed in opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the policy or views of the IHEU.