Gender Bias In The Construction Of Nationalism – by Sarah Mokweba
…why is nationalist ideology depicted as though men and women have different goals and agendas for the nation? Why is nationalism portrayed as patriotic manhood and exalted and romanticized motherhood? Why should the liberation of these two genders be unequal and different?…
Post-independence, nationalists use the state to facilitate further divides. For example, refusing to treat citizenship as a gendered relationship between the state and its citizens overlooks the manner in which both (men and women) participate in state institutions and also how they are affected by state policies and laws differently.
By Sarah Mokweba
Defining Nationalism …
Nationalism is generally used to describe the phenomena of anti-colonial domination/ subjugation and the actions taken towards achieving and maintaining self-determination, as well as national identity. To sum the two descriptions given, nationalism is both a goal and a state of being.
As a tool against colonial rule, nationalism has been a dominant force towards the re-imagination and re-configuration of human agency. However, this re-imagination and re-configuration doesn’t occur in vacuum, it takes place in a society already socialised in a certain way and in favour of a certain gender (not necessarily sex). In itself, the human agency that is in quest of is that of a certain gender.
Nationalism, as a form of identification and system of representation, is constituted as a gendered discourse right from its beginning; its construction occurs in an already gendered society. As such, these already socially constructed ideas of femininity and masculinity shape the participation of females and males (or women and men) in the building of nations and states. This extends also to how the roles of these two mentioned genders are epitomized. The focus of nationalism on primarily men and women genders also disregards the existence of other genders and sexualities who partake in the struggle for freedom.
Who represents Nationhood?
Theorists and proponents of nationalism – Fanon, Cabral and Machel being the exception to the rule – have seldom felt the need and importance to explore how nationalisms are implicated in gender dynamics. This is to say nationalism the world over never afforded women and men the same privileged access to political power and resources of the nation-state. Although some nations have progressed to advocate for the equality of (binary) genders; it has seldom manifested into an actual practice of gender equality. In instances where women are afforded equality, there’s a certain typology that these women need to adhere to.
There exists an interchangeable relationship between theorists of nationalism and nationalists themselves; in how the reduction of women manifests. This is two-fold: firstly, in theorising about the making of nations and states, women are depicted as auxiliary participants in the quest for political freedom and are also relegated to minor and symbolic roles in nationalist movements, in relation to men. Both these manifestations are mechanisms of excluding and erasing work of women in political organisations, movements and decision-making.
Due to this, the account/ narration of the construction of nations and states placed women as supplementary participants in the struggle for freedom. There often is an omission or exclusion of women and their work in the making of states/ nations and a downplay of their roles as members of the nation. The scripts in which these roles are embedded are written primarily by men, for men and about men. Women are, by design, supporting actors whose roles reflect masculinist notions of femininity and of women’s proper “place”.
As a result, the needs of the nation are synonymous with those of men and their frustrations and aspirations. Women on the other hand are construed as the “bearers of the nation” as inferred by Fanon in his essay Algeria Unveiled [translated]. The national state, as an institution, has a hierarchal authority structure which places males at the top and females in subordinate positions often characterized by unrecognized and uncompensated labour. The forced identity of motherhood onto women, and its exaltation has made it difficult for women to choose to stay single/ unmarried, to choose to not have children or to identify as homosexual/ queer. This reverberates the notion that women should always be at the service of men and this is their destiny, and not as independent members of the national community.
There also is the propensity to liken the nation to a family by nationalists which is symbolized as male-headed household where there exist ‘natural’ roles for both the man and the woman to play. This gives rise to the obsession about the purity of women as ‘mothers’, and prompts interest in the sexuality and sexual behaviour of women. These women have to be ‘well-behaved’ because their actions have potential to shame the family – and the family’s shame becomes the nation’s (the man) shame.
Nationalisms represent political power and are closely tied to the state as well as its institutions. These institutions include media, schools, churches, the military and political organizations. Nationalism uses these institutions to (re)invent and perform social difference through elaborate social practices which continue to perpetuate gender stereotypes.
This then begs the question: why is nationalist ideology depicted as though men and women have different goals and agendas for the nation? Why is nationalism portrayed as patriotic manhood and exalted and romanticized motherhood? Why should the liberation of these two genders be unequal and different?
Feminism and Nationalism: Uneasy Bedfellows?
The analysis or examination of the manner in which nationalism is gendered shouldn’t be done in a manner that conflates the terms ‘gender’ and ‘women’. Nor should focus be placed on women only as this overlooks how gender in its entirety shapes politics and the nation-state. This overlooks what is systematically designed as masculine and how it reveals itself in structural, cultural and social contexts as well as the accompanying activities.
The symbolism that women have to perform is a prescribed one, and as a result, there exists repercussions for (political and personal) actions of women who do not conform to predefined typologies and roles awarded to women in nation states. If women choose or decide to stand up for their rights as women, they are often described as disloyal to the cause/ revolution.
Faced with these constraints, women sometimes attempt to decree nationalism through embodying the traditional roles allotted to them which entail supporting their husbands, raising the (nation’s) children as well as serving as symbols of national honour under the title “mother of the nation”. In other instances, the women are compelled to demonstrate strength outside the ‘confines’ of their own gender by performing masculinity and (masculine) militancy. They repeat and perpetuate the authoritarian attitudes of nationalism and react with severe intolerance to any form of non-conformity, especially from fellow women. Nonetheless, whatever role women play in nationalist struggles, they still find themselves harshly under the thumb of institutionalized patriarchy in the end.
Subsequently, because of the lens within which women are viewed in nationalist struggles, women can too exploit their patriarchy-informed positionality to advance nationalists struggles. It is for this reason that women in the African National Congress at the height of apartheid would be able to recruit with ease for underground operations.
The involvement and integration of women, especially formally, into the African nationalist and liberation struggles wasn’t due to explicit and intentional invitation. Iit stemmed from their own agency and was in response to repression and violence from non-democratic regimes and apartheid authorities. For example, the first ever notable action repelling subjugation of women by the apartheid state dates back to 1913 where women had restricted access to cities and urban areas. In response, hundreds of women marched to Bloemfontein to discard of their passes. It was under this clout and climate of militancy that the then Bantu Women’s League (now ANCWL) came to formation in 1918. It however took the ANC 31 years after its formation, and 25 years after the formation of the Women’s League, to grant women full membership and voting rights.
The rise of the feminist struggle in the midst of the liberation and nationalist struggle has always been met with resistance, regardless of the fact that feminist movements are in response to imperialism which marginalizes women in social and economic spheres. In most cases, which is still prevalent, feminism has been perceived as a western concept and sometimes equated to imperialism. This, in part, could be attributed to its misinterpretation as sold by those opposed to it.
Historically, the relationship between feminism and nationalism has been that of double repression; theories of nationalism would ignore gender as a category integral of nationalism. Feminism would too be ignorant of race and class as essential categories of gender. This in turn would place women in a position of difficulty as it would present contradictions in their circumstances. The result would be to treat or view nationalism as the panacea of their oppression. Sequentially, women are then told to remain silent until after the revolution.
Women have continued to organize and mobilize against their repression, within and outside of nationalist spaces as a way of engaging “new” struggles since political independence. But still they encounter backlash and sometimes reversal of whatever gains they would have achieved. This often manifests as cultural and sexist backlash. In dire counterattacks, women are driven back into their traditional roles through sexual and physical assault as a way of ‘putting them in their place’ or ‘teaching them how to be decent and respectable women. Feminism or the championing of women’s rights is a political refusal of gender conflict, and not its cause.
Post-independence, nationalists use the state to facilitate further divides. For example, refusing to treat citizenship as a gendered relationship between the state and its citizens overlooks the manner in which both (men and women) participate in state institutions and also how they are affected by state policies and laws differently. In as much as in independent (and democratic) states women and men vote, gender dynamics still play out in the building of new institutions. Subsequently, women tend to be treated as recipients of state policies instead of agents in the formation of new social and political orders.
It is also about time that nationalists and society as a whole move away from the rhetoric that colonialism and/or capitalism have been women’s ruin, and patriarchy only being a secondary and indirect oppressor destined to wither away when capitalism has been conquered.
… towards a common end?
If nationalism is not acutely informed and transformed by a thorough analysis of gender power, the nation-state will continue to only champion male hopes, aspirations as well as privilege.
Nationalism in itself poses the risk of heightening the denial of difference onto the conveniently ambiguous “collective will” whereas there exist contradictions within the deliberate collectivist character of nationalism; conflicts such as class, gender, ethnicity, regional and generational difference. The insistence on a single politics of identity (nationalism, socialism, feminism etc) cannot ultimately guarantee political correctness as there is no one identity that encompasses the complexity of humans.
- Anne McClintock: “No Longer in a Future Haven”: Women and Nationalism in South Africa. Hutchins Centre for African and African American Research, 51, 104-123. 1991.
- Gay W. Seidman: Gendered Citizenship: South Africa’s Democratic Transition and the Construction of a Gendered State. Gender and Society, 13:3, 287-307. 1999.
- Georgina Waylen: What can the South African Transition tell us about Gender and Democratization? Centre for Advancement of Women in Politics. September 2004.
- Gordana Subotic: Feminism and Nationalism- An Ambiguous Relationship. PhD Thesis. University of Melbourne.
- Joane Nagel: Masculinity and Nationalism: Gender and Sexuality in the Making of Nations. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 21:2, 242-269. 1998.
- Patricia McFadden: Challenges Posed by Nationalism and Neo-Liberalism to Black Feminism. November 2016.
- Patricia McFadden: The Limits of Nationalism; Citizenship and State. April 2008.