I know, I”ve been totally boring the past couple weeks. It’s the end of term, what can I say?
Anyway, I felt like I was neglecting y’all, so here’s a little something to munch on while I’m away. It’s a paper I wrote last term for a class on gender and international development. Sorry if it l ooks weird, things don’t translate so well from MS Word sometimes.
(Imagi)Nations: Discourses of (Domi)Nation
Mother country, homeland, motherland, mother tongue, land of our forefathers, brotherhood of men. These symbolisms are commonly spoken in moments of nation-building, painting a picture of “nation” as inextricably tied to personal connections of home and family. These symbolisms also inform identities in particular ways through intricately woven overlapping relational discourses of gender, race, sexuality, and nation. They are presented in the usual way of ideology – as divorced from any notion of embodiment.
However, these symbolisms are not just rhetorical devices, devoid of meaning and impact on those whose bodies match the symbols. They are part of nationalist discourses that have negative ramifications on bodies – specifically, the bodies of women. This paper problematizes the conflation of nationalist representations of idealized, symbolic female bodies with real women’s bodies, through a discussion of two important intersections of nationalism and female embodiment – reproduction and mass rape – and argues that nationalism threatens women’s physical safety, rights and freedoms, and citizenship.
In 1983, Benedict Anderson wrote that the nation is an “imagined political community” – imagined because members will never know all other members, “yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion,” and community because “regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship.”[i] There are ideological underpinnings binding each nation together into a cohesive political unit – an (imagi)nation.[ii] (Imagi)Nations are not tantamount to states; states are sovereign political units with official borders recognized by the international community.[iii] National boundaries do not always end with the geographical boundaries of the state, as evidenced by transnational unions like the European Union and the African Union. Nations sometimes have no “official” geographical location, as in Zionism, or Black Nationalism; nations, unlike states, are not tangible.
(Imagi)Nations hold identities, which are constructed in relation to other identities. National identities often exist in opposition to other national identities – Palestine and Israel, for example – and are also constructed in relation to the nation’s members in terms of racial, gendered, and sexual identities. Nations denote borders, borders that open and close, that include some and exclude others. These borders are largely imaginary – although they can be conflated with state boundaries – constructing an (imagi)nation along racial, ethnic, religious, sexual, and gendered borders.
Gender, race, and sexuality are all social and cultural constructions, just as are (imagi)nations. All of these categories of identity are normative, historical categories formulated in relation to each other and differing from culture to culture. Each of these constructs breaks down into sub-constructs, which are involved in binary, oppositional relationships with each other, and each of these relationships is a relation of power. Gender breaks into “man” and “woman,” with man holding privilege. Race is broken into basic categories of “white” and “non-white,” privileging those who are white. Sexuality divides into “heterosexual” and “homosexual,” with heterosexuality holding privilege. (Imagi)Nations define themselves in terms of “insiders” and “outsiders,” privileging insiders.
These constructions are contentious, because they are far too broad. Gender leaves out those who are transgendered, transsexual, androgynous, and intersexed. The racial category “non-white” is obviously and laughably broad, and even “white” neglects the importance of ethnicity; also at issue here is the exclusion of people of combined race/ethnicity. Binary ways of viewing sexuality define away the experiences of bisexual and queer people. Finally, nations are problematic, as questions arise about who is an “insider” and who is an “outsider,” leaving in limbo millions of immigrants, refugees, displaced persons, and asylum seekers. It becomes clear how troubling these constructions are, as these imagined categories of identity are applied in arbitrary but systematic ways to real, embodied people. Nevertheless, it is these incomplete and non-contextual constructions that are the building blocks of society. It is these constructions that bind societies together and allow for the formation of nationalism.
Indoctrinations: Representations of Women in Nationalist Discourses
Nationalism, then, writes Tamar Mayer, is “the exercise of internal hegemony, the exclusive empowerment of those who share a sense of belonging to the same ‘imagined community.’”[iv] Nationalism speaks to a shared loyalty to the ideologies that bind members of the (imagi)nation together. Nationalist ideologies draw on social constructions of gender, race, sexuality and nation, and offer representations of members based on these categories. These representations are then used as part of nationalist discourse. These narratives almost always present the nation itself as a feminized figure in need of protection, thus positioning women and men in particular ways.[v] Mayer writes, “The intersection of nation, gender and sexuality [and also race] is a discourse about moral code, which mobilizes men… to become its sole protectors and women its sole biological and symbolic reproducers.”[vi]
The nation is envisioned as a patriarchal family, a “fraternity”[vii] or brotherhood of men, in which the traditions of the “forefathers” are passed down through the generations to young men who become the heroic protectors of those traditions. Women, on the other hand, are defined out of participating in the fraternal national project as equals, and are conceived as mothers, the reproducers of the nation whose wombs bring forth the next generation of the patriarchal line. Julie Mostov writes, “women physically reproduce the nation, and men protect and avenge it.”[viii]
Women become “the mothers of us all”[ix] in nationalist discourse, the keepers of morality and traditions of the forefathers through sexual and reproductive purity,[x] which emphasizes the racialized nature of (imagi)nations. Here, racism creates hierarchy, coded through gendered formulations of family.[xi] These gendered, racialized familial formations are strongly heterosexist, defining out of membership lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. People who produce combined-race children are conceived as a threat to the cohesiveness of the nation, and childless people become disloyal members, as participation in national family values and traditions requires reproduction.[xii]
(Imagi)Nations reinforce and support male privilege: when the nation is imagined as a patriarchal family, and citizenship is imagined as a brotherhood, women are excluded from positions of power and there is no equal sisterhood in citizenship. Zillah Eisenstein writes, “Nations are made up of citizens and the fiction here requires that anyone can be of the nation… [Women] are absented from the fraternity… They are given no voice.”[xiii]
Women instead become markers for the nation – women’s status stands in for the progress of the nation as a whole.[xiv] Through this process of homogenization, individual women are silenced, their identities lost. Women’s bodies become sites for viewing the nation, sites for debates around tradition, and sites where the (imagi)nation is regenerated. Women’s bodies are fetishized in nationalist discourses, and the boundaries of women’s bodies are conflated with the borders of the nation. Hence, nationalist discourses seek to protect and maintain the integrity of national/female bodily borders from invasion/penetration of “outsider” (male) citizens/nationalists, once again demonstrating the racialized nature of (imagi)nations. The maintenance of the nation’s racial and ethnic integrity can be clearly seen in the practical control nations exert over the sexuality and reproduction of both their own and other nations’ women.
Dominations and Subordinations: Reproductive Control
(Imagi)Nations control women’s reproductive role in a number of ways. In Indonesia, population control is a major part of national identity, and women are encouraged to limit the number of children they have. Indonesia is presenting an image of a controlled and focussed nation to the world, a modern nation ready to participate in the global political economy. Key to this project is presenting a controlled image of the national family – national family planning, so to speak – and it is doing so through stringent control over female contraception.[xv] Reproduction is divorced from sexuality in this context,[xvi] and heavy emphasis is placed on modern medical contraceptive technologies – indigenous methods are tied to ignorance and tradition (which in this context is not-progressive, and therefore not valued).[xvii] Other western ideologies have come along with contraception, transforming Indonesian society from one in which divorce was frequent, family ties were flexible, and women were key participants in public spaces to one in which monogamy, marriage, and the image of virtuous Indonesian housewives and mothers are normative.[xviii] Contraception is turned into a spectacle by which “model couples” who have been using contraception for several years are rewarded before a national audience, children’s television programs include the national mantra “two children are enough” in songs and skits, signs are posted on the doors of houses where contraception is practiced, and village maps are posted in town halls indicating which families are contraceptive users, or “acceptors”.[xix] Women are positioned as the primary targets of contraception, making women’s bodies the sites on which nationalist discourses and political values are articulated.
In Ireland, control over reproduction takes quite the opposite form. Here, women are encouraged to have children in order to continue the Irish nation, its traditional and religious values, and its political movement for independence.[xx] The national imagery in Ireland is not one of a generic female figure that represents the nation – the figure that represents the Irish nation is the Virgin Mary, mother of Christ. Mary is used as a national symbol of Irish purity and morality, and acts as a fantasmic icon of femininity for Irish women to mimic. Angela Martin writes, “It is through mimetic performance that Irish women come to embody femininity and, by extension, the Irish nation.”[xxi] Following the theological teachings of the Catholic Church, abortion is illegal in Ireland,[xxii] which restricts women’s reproductive choices and conflates women’s bodies with the borders of the nation as debate swirls over whether or not to allow pregnant women to travel outside Ireland in order to avail themselves of more lenient abortion laws in neighbouring areas. In 1992, the famous “X Case” was brought before the Irish court. “Miss X” was a 14-year-old girl who was impregnated during a rape, and was denied permission to leave the country to obtain a legal abortion in England. The Irish High Court ruled to allow Miss X to travel to England only after her attorneys convinced the court she would commit suicide if she were not permitted to leave.[xxiii] The X Case demonstrated a conflation of national boundaries with the female body, and that a member of an (imagi)nation cannot shed her identity so easily as she may cross national borders. The morality of the entire Irish nation was placed on the womb of one young girl, a rape survivor, whose participation in the (imagi)nation was limited to coerced motherhood, her body appropriated by nationalism for political ends.
Exterminations, Impregnations and Alienations: Mass Rape
When conflict arises between nations, one of the chief points of attack on the nation is on the embodiment of all the nation’s ideals – the nation’s women. Mass rape attempts to eradicate the (imagi)nation by destroying the representation of the nation as a cohesive patriarchal family unit. Because the nation is imagined as a woman, and nationalism makes women responsible for reproducing the nation, women are placed in a precarious position. In many war-torn areas, such as the former Yugoslavia, Nazi Germany, Rwanda, the Sudan, Somalia, and the Congo, mass rape has been and is being used as a method for stamping out national identity. Male nationalist soldiers and rebels hope to gain power over an opposing nation by forcing women to reproduce a different (imagi)nation through forced impregnation. Women’s bodies became the literal boundaries of the (imagi)nation,[xxiv] emphasizing the representation of women as a “symbolic collective.”[xxv]
While the violation actually happens to the bodies of the women of the nation in a systematic way, the violation is conceived as one against the nation’s men.[xxvi] The conceptual outrage over mass rape is not primarily outrage over widespread gendered violence. The outrage is that mass rape is a form of systematic racism against the men of the nation. Mass rape is commonly viewed as more serious than widespread rape, for example in South Africa where rape statistics are the highest in the world,[xxvii] for the simple reason that mass rape is genocide – it is not directed merely at the women who are victimized, but at the entire race/ethnicity, including and most importantly, the men to whom the women belong. Rape presents a challenge to women’s citizenship because it is a political act committed against people based on their membership in a particular social category – that of “women.”[xxviii] Rape, whether during war-time or not, is a hate crime. However, it is not taken seriously as such until it is performed on a widespread scale on the basis of membership in a particular ethnic group – a group to which men also belong. Mass rape is viewed as a national security issue, as in the Bosnian-Serbian conflict in which international intervention in response to mass rape in the region ended the war.[xxix] In this process, women have been silenced and forgotten, abandoned by their families and often forced to bear their rapists’ children, thereby reproducing a new (imagi)nation.
Nations are at once “imagined communities,” and a category that inform the identities of its members. Nations present a picture of cohesive identity to the world and to its own members. Nations are conceived alternatively as patriarchal families, and as women in need of protection. Nationalism takes these pieces and puts them together into a narrative, which is experienced differently by different members. Women are represented in these narratives as the reproducers of the nation, the moral centre of the nation, the mothers of us all. Men are positioned as protectors and avengers of the nation’s moral purity.
Nationalist narratives not only position women into restrictive roles of subordination, they place women in dangerous and precarious positions. The representations of women in nationalist discourses have real effects on the bodies of real women. The narratives of nationalism mould the experiences of real women in national settings. Because nations and states are not identical, national narratives challenge women’s rights of state citizenship and threaten women’s physical safety and integrity by conflating women’s bodies with national borders and ensuring that women fulfill their roles as reproducers and keepers of morality. When representations of women are reiterated and embedded so deeply in the rhetoric, language, and imagery of a nation, one cannot expect an absence of tangible effects on the bodies of the real women who hold membership in that nation.
One cannot expect, either, for women to remain silent and submissive. The women of the nation are not fantasmic symbols, but embodied agents. The face of nationalism is changing, as third world and post-colonial feminist discourses challenge nationalism and find spaces for discursive and material resistance against oppressive nationalist representations of women. The good thing about socially constructed categories, like gender, sexuality, race, and nation, is that they are not grounded in any objective truth. There is possibility for changing these categories, and the discourses that come out of them.
[i] Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Revised Edition ed. London and New York: Verso, 1991, 5-7.
[ii] (Imagi)Nation is a term I’ve coined to draw particular attention to the imagined nature and aspects of nations and national identities. – JS
[iii] Mayer, Tamar. “Gender Ironies of Nationalism: Setting the Stage” in Gender Ironies of Nationalism: Sexing the Nation (Mayer, T., ed.). London: Routledge, 2000, 2.
[iv] Mayer, ibid, 1.
[v] Mayer, ibid, 10.
[vi] Mayer, ibid, 6.
[vii] Anderson, ibid, 7.
[viii] Mostov, Julie. “Sexing the Nation/Desexing the Body: Politics of National Identity in the Former Yugoslavia” in Gender Ironies of Nationalism: Sexing the Nation (Mayer, T., ed.). London: Routledge, 2000, 89.
[ix] Eisenstein, Zillah. “Writing Bodies on the Nation for the Globe” in Women, States, and Nationalism (Ranchod-Nilsson, S., and Tetrault, M.A., eds.). London: Routledge, 2000, 35.
[x] Mayer, ibid, 7
[xi] Eisenstein, ibid, 41.
[xii] Mostov, ibid, 91.
[xiii] Eisenstein, ibid, 42.
[xiv] Eisenstein, ibid, 43.
[xv] Dwyer, Leslie K. “Spectacular Sexuality: Nationalism, Development and the Politics of Family Planning in Indonesia” in Gender Ironies of Nationalism: Sexing the Nation (Mayer, T., ed.). London: Routledge, 2000, 29.
[xvi] Dwyer, ibid, 32.
[xvii] Dwyer, ibid, 34.
[xviii] Dwyer, ibid, 39.
[xix] Dwyer, ibid, 41-42.
[xx] Martin, Angela K. “Death of a Nation: Transnationalism, Bodies and Abortion in Late Twentieth-century Ireland” in Gender Ironies of Nationalism: Sexing the Nation (Mayer, T., ed.). London: Routledge, 2000, 67.
[xxi] Martin, ibid, 69.
[xxii] Actual law remains ambiguous under a litany of amendments and appeals. As it stands now, abortion is illegal unless it is necessary to save the pregnant woman’s life. See the Irish Family Planning Association: “Abortion Law in Ireland – A Brief Summary” at <http://www.ifpa.ie/abortion/hist.html >, the Center for Reproductive Rights: “The World’s Abortion Laws” at < http://www.crlp.org/pub_fac_abortion_laws.html > and The Site: “Abortion in Ireland” at <http://www.thesite.org/sexandrelationships/safersex/unplannedpregnancy/abortioninireland >for more information. All accessed online November 22, 2006.
[xxiii] Martin, ibid, 75.
[xxiv] Mostov, ibid, 90.
[xxv] Mostov, ibid, 91.
[xxvi] Mostov, ibid, 96.
[xxvii] Du Toit, L. “A Phenomenology of Rape: Forging a New Vocabulary for Action,” in (Un)thinking Citizenship (A. Gouws, ed., 2005). 253-274.
[xxviii] Du Toit, ibid
[xxix] Hansen, Lene. “Gender, Nation, Rape: Bosnia and the Construction of Security,” in the International Feminist Journal of Politics 3, 1 (2001). 55-75.
1. Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Revised Edition ed. London and New York: Verso, 1991.
2. Dwyer, Leslie K. “Spectacular Sexuality: Nationalism, Development and the Politics of Family Planning in Indonesia” in Gender Ironies of Nationalism: Sexing the Nation (Mayer, T., ed.). London: Routledge, 2000, 27-62.
3. Du Toit, Louise. “A Phenomenology of Rape: Forging a New Vocabulary for Action,” in (Un)thinking Citizenship (A. Gouws, ed., 2005). 253-274.
4. Eisenstein, Zillah. “Writing Bodies on the Nation for the Globe” in Women, States, and Nationalism (Ranchod-Nilsson, S., and Tetrault, M.A., eds.). London: Routledge, 2000, 35-53.
5. Hansen, Lene. “Gender, Nation, Rape: Bosnia and the Construction of Security,” in the International Feminist Journal of Politics 3, 1 (2001). 55-75.
6. Martin, Angela K. “Death of a Nation: Transnationalism, Bodies and Abortion in Late Twentieth-century Ireland” in Gender Ironies of Nationalism: Sexing the Nation (Mayer, T., ed.). London: Routledge, 2000, 65-86.
7. Mayer, Tamar. “Gender Ironies of Nationalism: Setting the Stage” in Gender Ironies of Nationalism: Sexing the Nation (Mayer, T., ed.). London: Routledge, 2000, 1-22.
8. Mostov, Julie. “Sexing the Nation/Desexing the Body: Politics of National Identity in the Former Yugoslavia” in Gender Ironies of Nationalism: Sexing the Nation(Mayer, T., ed.). London: Routledge, 2000, 89-110.
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