Posted by Manjusmriti

“As a woman, I have no country. As a woman, I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.” 

– Virginia Woolf

Can there be a “Nation” for women? In a world, where the moment a girl comes out of the womb of her mother till the end of her life, she keeps on losing her identity, which is often pictured and defined by her activities delineated according to a male-centric family, society and nation. Her identity comes to be in a society which is afflicted with entrenched gender inequality, widespread misogyny and subjugation of women, even societal norms, laws and institutions are heavily prejudiced against women. The truth is however, that people of different genders are positioned differently and thus any discourse on gender and nation cannot be complete without addressing the issue of gender relations and the intersections therein. 

Virginia Woolf’s exhortation to women to form their own “Outsider’s Society”, maintaining a distance from masculine patriotism and nationalism comes in such a backdrop. National projects are drawn from societies only and are thus not immune to gender relations prevalent therein. 

Also read: ‘Nationalism Revisited’: In The Personal Interest Of The Right-Wing Regime

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Most of the theorisations about nations and nationalism have ignored gender relations as irrelevant. Why are women usually ‘hidden’ in the various theorisations of the nationalist phenomenon, asks Nira Yuval Davis.

Most of the theorisations about nations and nationalism have ignored gender relations as irrelevant. Why are women usually ‘hidden’ in the various theorisations of the nationalist phenomenon, asks Nira Yuval Davis.

Conception of society has often been such that, it has been divided into public and private domains. Women (family) have been relegated into private domain and have been kept separate/excluded from the political sphere which falls into public domain. Women, for generations, have been restricted to their private houses without any due share in the organisation of society. Even though women are seen as the biological reproducers of the nation, their role in the socialisation and cultural construction of nation has been mostly restricted, symbolic and evocative. 

There can be various explanations for such gendered division of politics and national processes. One of them and a crucial one is, to quote Nira Davis, – “social and economic power relations and the cross-cutting social divisions”. There is a sort of vicious circle of unequal status of men and women; their power difference is a manifestation of their unequal social and economic positions in a society, which in turn is a result of traditional social exclusion and lack of access and opportunities given to women due to their inferior standing. 

What can patriotism and nationalism mean for women in such a setting? Obviously, it can nowhere be similar to masculinist conceptualisation, because her very ‘sex’ and position sets her quite apart. How can she be empathetic and exuberant for a ‘nation’ which does not provide her the same share or possession to wealth and legal protection?  How can she cheer for an army which doesn’t give her an equal chance to defend her nation? How can she call a country her own if the very history of that country has sidelined her? And thus, Virginia Woolf says, “When all these comparisons have been faithfully made by the use of reason, the outsider (daughter) will find herself in possession of very good reasons for her indifference. She will find that she has no good reason to ask her brother to fight on her behalf to protect “our” country.” (Three Guineas – Virginia Woolf)

Women have been traditionally viewed as someone who need to be restrained and controlled in order to keep morality of society intact; whether we talk of Victorian morality or the views of Manusmriti or popular Indian mythology. Shiva, in Hindu mythology, had to come to ‘control’ Kali, while Parvati, Lakshmi and Savitri…are the ideal images of women, as those under the control of the gods. 

Even in the nationalist movement of India, women’s bodies and their rights became the point of contestation between colonial authorities and our nationalist heroes; but, in the larger discourse, women’s voices were marginalised, their desires obscured and their agency sacrificed at the altar of political freedom of nation. The place of women and social practices related to women was restricted to ghar/private/domestic sphere of the social space and the burden to maintain its spiritual essence fell onto the shoulders of women. Colonisers were viewed as encroachers onto the sacred land/territory of nation; but any attack on social practices (like abolition of sati pratha or widow remarriage etc.) was viewed as annihilation of identity of the nation. Any change in the lifestyle of women, in the nineteenth century, inspired from western culture was ridiculed in different art forms (literature, social parody, paintings etc.) and women coming out of “sacred spaces” of their homes were looked down upon. And in the second half of the century, a new discourse of nationalism began to be formed, where an attempt was made to define the social and moral principles for locating the position of women in the “modern” world of the nation. (The Nationalist Resolution of the Women’s Question – Partha Chatterjee)

What role and agency did women have within these renewed social and moral principles? Were women given choice or due space herein? Often, women are revered as goddesses and thus the nation came to be depicted as Bharatmata.  But, was there any substantial gain for women in social and economic sphere beyond this symbolic gesture, which was certainly effective in whipping up an evocative response and awakening people to nationalist aspirations and thus served a purpose; but at what hidden cost?

Also read: Bharat Mata Iconography: Nationalist Imaginations Of Femininity & The Female Body

One can never forget the gendered aspects of communal violence which came along with the freedom and partition of India or sexual violence against women unleashed with the rise of Hindu cultural nationalism following the Babri Masjid demolition and riots thereafter. All kinds of frenzied mobs have used rape as a form of subjugation and humiliation in pretext of defending their own kind of nationalisms. One needs to reflect as to even in normal circumstances, what place and kind of agency is given to Muslim women– a minority in an India with increasing communal tensions within?

Even today, in rape cases, a woman is judged for her dress, for her not being careful enough of the surroundings. The timing at which she had stepped out of her home is question; while, at the same time, women continue to fight a legal battle for declaring marital rape a crime within the confines of their home, supposedly a safe place. Instead of looking at the complex reality of women as individuals and the pain that they’ve to endure, they are often seen and referred to as someone’s daughter/wife/mother. Instead of looking at a crime as a violation of women’s dignity or privacy; crime is looked down upon as violation of family’s honor. Other than to protect the family’s privacy, why do we feel the need to hide the identity of a rape victim and resort to terms like nirbhaya/gudiya, even if it comes out of empathy? Doesn’t this amount to as a crime against women’s individuality?

Women cannot freely explore their sexuality and desires without binding themselves into a socially-acceptable union like marriage and without being shamed or chastened, but, the body of a rape victim can be burned by a state government in absence of her parents and guardian. And, now governments have the audacity to bring proposals for surveillance of women in various forms in pretext of protecting them, but can one think of regulating movements of men, even in imagination? No…why so?  Though, we get to see strong women political figures, the stark reality is that most of the women politicians (especially at lower levels) are proxies for the men of their houses and parties, and a Women’s Reservation Bill to increase participation of women is yet to be passed in the parliament of the biggest democracy. Meanwhile, none less than the Chief Justice of India questions patronisingly women’s involvement in protests.

Women were depicted as simplified and passive beings in a nation where the woman and the idea of the nation were fused together: “The nation came to be viewed as woman; and the woman as national muse.” Women, their struggle for survival, their sufferings was suppressed and hollowed out in the manner. 

Again, the question that stares us in the face, remains: where do women belong to? And perhaps, this was the question that Eavan Boland was lamenting in her work, “A Kind of Scar: The Woman Poet in a National Tradition”, where she complained about the conspicuous absence of women poets in Irish poetry which was predominantly male. She says, women have been used as motifs, as decorations in poetry and raised to emblematic status. Women were depicted as simplified and passive beings in a nation where the woman and the idea of the nation were fused together: “The nation came to be viewed as woman; and the woman as national muse.” Women, their struggle for survival, their sufferings was suppressed and hollowed out in the manner. 

A nation where women will not be just elements of decoration but locus and agents of change, in the words of Virginia Woolf, will be an elastic society, where the common ends will be to achieve justice, equality and liberty for all men and women. 

Naari ka naara….aazadi!!!


Davis, Nira, Y., Gender & Nation, SAGE Publications Ltd., London, 2008.

Pecora, Vincent, P., ed., Nations and Identities, Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 2001.

Manjusmriti is pursuing Masters in Philosophy from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. She keeps a keen interest in politics and social issues like education, gender equality. She can be found on Twitter and Facebook.  

Featured image source: Al Jazeera

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