Posted by Nikita Jha

This article on gender and nation reflects the ideas of Uma Chakravarthy, Nira Yuval-Davis, and Mrinalini Sinha on the same. When we talk about nation we don’t just talk about territories, boundaries, governments, or cultures – we talk about a shared sense of history. When we do that we recognise that communities within themselves have differences and so in spite of that we can imagine to belong to the same community. But this does not mean that it is one inevitable form of nation. The meaning of nation varies from people to people – for some it can only mean their family, their village, or maybe connected to practising things like the national anthem and other patriotic songs. Thus one has to recognise that the definitions of national identity is consciously constructed and evolves continuously.

When we talk about the nation, we convey the notions around it in a particular language. It is through this language that India also is called Hindustan which means the land of Hindus, or that ‘Mother India’ is popularly referred to as Bharat mata. When one says this, one associates this nation to only be a land of Hindus and excludes all the other religions. When one says Bharat mata, women’s bodies inevitably become war zone and this is exactly why it is important to talk about the interconnected notions of nation and gender.

Women are often carved out as symbols of culture, thus they become the carriers of national and familial honour. They are the ones who cannot be excluded from the cultural analysis. With context of nation, when we talk about what constitues the public and the private, we talk about women in the private sphere, associating them with responsible for inter-generational reproduction of culture. Women are not associated with the public domain as it is political in nature and politics itself is considered to be masculine in nature.

one has to recognise that the definitions of national identity is consciously constructed and evolves continuously.

Though not recognised, women have contributed largely to the in the nationalist projects by being the upholders of culture, mobilising with men during struggles, and also by participating in wars with men. Women have contributed in the social reform movements and social education movement – for example, Savitribai Phule who promoted girl’s education in Pune. The way Mrinalini Sinha puts this contribution is by denoting women as biological reproducers, boundaries of ethnic groups, carriers of national difference and many more. Yet these contributions are not recognised as all these contributions boils down to reclaiming of male honour.

Recognising masculinity has led to the ‘remasculinisation’ of national culture. The problem with this is that the contributions of women in the nation is never recognised, they are constricted into the private spheres and their bodies have become war grounds. Thus, the question that Mrinalini Sinha is asking is “How can one talk about nation without talking about women?”.

When one talks about the history of nation one also talks about a particular form of family. Here this means to have a particular culture, which is to have a ‘natural’ heterosexual orientation. When one mentions this form of family, the idea of a woman is to be subordinate to a man and perfrom the dutiful role of a mother, wive, and daughter. For example, in Europe ‘abnormal’ sexuality was only associated with Jews, homosexuals, and Africans. Any deviation from heteronormativity became a proof of backwardness of indigenous people.

Also read: On Racism And How My Ladakhi Features Never Quite Fit The Indian Imagination

Such representations of women appeals to their sons and daughters in such a way that they think that it is their duty to protect their mother’s honour. Thus reinforcing the idea that a woman’s body is only to be loved, possessed, and protected. This eroticisation of nation with respect to women not only placed women within the idea of ‘national’ family but also made them the bearers of cultures and more vulnerable to violence. Mrinalini Sinha mentions the burden on women to balance the ‘betweenness’ of women with respect to precolonial traditions and postcolonial modernity. Women needed to be modern but containing themselves to the traditional and the way to that was to be modern yet modest which made women more vulnerable to political agendas.

Women are often carved out as symbols of culture, thus they become the carriers of national and familial honour.

The whole idea of belonging to the nation is also gendered. For example, men are expected to be masculine who are able to participate in the wars, where are women to be sacrificial, faithful and pure. For example in Burdens Of Nationalism, Uma Chakravarti talks about how in Sri Lanka men were the ones participating in the armed struggled and women were the ones who were expected to grieve and attach sentimental value to the whole struggle and they were the ones who were expected to reproduce and give birth to sons so that they could participate in the wars. We also see the same in the movie Khamosh Pani, where Kiran Kher was expected to shut herself down inside her home, whereas her son was outright in participating in politics. With her son’s masculinity came the sense of duty and eligibility that he and all the other men were the ones who could shed blood for the nation. Whereas girls and women were needed to be protected.

The nationalist construction of women and femininity expects women to preserve and transcend culture – for example, teaching about one’s mother tongue attaches the notion of femininity, which therefore needs protection and thus becomes a national project. Creation of this idea around women as mothers has also lead to pervasiveness of the idea of strong female figures – for example the mother’s front in Sri Lanka in the 1980s. This nationalist construction of women constricts women into heterosexual construct that subordinates them. This is also the prime reason why in many countries most women did not get their rights to vote until in the 19th century when different countries started granting it.

Also read: The Angry Hindu Nationalist And The Melancholia Of Lost Masculinity

Women, therefore, have always been major participants in the shaping of a nation. They have participated in the struggles of the nation and states which would not have been a success without their cooperation and participation. It is important to talk about gender and nation because it is because of the historical discourse of events that show women in this specific social and political position that they occupy which clearly subjugated them. This subjugation needs to be addressed, questioned, and fixed.


Nikita is doing her masters in Women’s Studies from TISS, Hyderabad and is on the path to unfold gender with the encounters that she has with people on field, family, and friends. She is sensitive towards issues concerning gender and strives for equality for all. You can follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

Featured Image Source: Hastenteufel

1 COMMENT

  1. Lot of people need to read this article to understand the link between gender and nation building.. A great perspective to clarify this link..
    Thank you for writing this..

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