Urvashi Butalia asks why feminism and nationalism sit so uneasily together
and charts women’s unequal relationship with the nation-state.
‘I don’t understand what you mean by this nation business,’ says Ramrati, a poor construction worker from Kanpur in north India. ‘What does it have to do with me? All I’m concerned about is my family and where their next meal is coming from. Why should I feel any concern for this thing you call a nation? After all, no-one asked me how I felt when it was being made.’
I have often asked myself similar questions. What, or who, for example, is an Indian? What is it that makes up my identity as an Indian? And more, as an Indian woman? What do I have in common with the millions of other women who fall under the same broad rubric? Little other than the fact of this nationality which has been thrust upon us. And yet, there have been any number of times when I have felt a sense of closeness, of belonging with other ‘Indian’ women. I have found myself claiming my ‘Indian-ness’ with pride and passion in places that lie beyond the geographical boundaries of my country, assuming somehow that I am different from those I am talking to, and similar to those I am talking about.
Why does nationalism exert such a powerful pull? Rada Ivekovic´, a Croatian-Serbian philosopher living in exile in Paris has one explanation. She tells me that in today’s world identities are in a permanent state of flux – feminist identities, ethnic identities, identities based on disability, sexual preferences, religions and so on. In the face of this the new nationalisms offer a security to which people cling, a primordial rootedness.
So why do I as a woman feel so uncomfortable about my relationship with the nation-state? Tanika Sarkar, an Indian historian, enlightens me: ‘Women will always be incomplete national subjects. This is because a nation is a territorial concept. Land is central. Yet women often, and most women in India certainly, have no right to land. These two things, home and land, will never belong to them.’ (In many Indian languages the words desh – roughly, country/nation – and vatan – home – are often used overlappingly.)
And yet women do feel that they have a stake when it comes to nation-building. Half a century ago our ‘nation-ness’ – or our nationality – was defined in opposition to another newly formed nation, Pakistan. The Indian nationalist movement mobilized thousands of women from across classes, castes, communities.
Tanika explains again: ‘Often,’ she says, ‘it is at times when the nation comes into being through a process of struggle that women can come into their own. Women are not only incomplete subjects, but in a permanent state of homelessness. Thus the search for a homeland, which is what new nations are often about, is a search with which they deeply identify, and in which they feel involved.’
But once the nation comes into being, women have little to do with how it is formulated.
In India after 1947, laws were made to men’s advantage; it was men (mainly upper-caste Hindu men) who put the Constitution together. When policies and plans were formulated, they made no mention of women. For Indian nationalists, some citizens were more equal than others. But then, I tell myself, Indians are not unique in this: there’s hardly a place in the world where national liberation movements have meant liberation for women.
So this is why all ‘true’ nationalists are supposed to be men. We’re told that they’re the ones who go out and fight to defend the nation, who lay down their lives for it, who carve out nations, who define their boundaries and who create their laws and social mores. Perhaps this is why the ‘nation’ means little or nothing to women like Ramrati.
But there is a way in which women, and women’s bodies, become central to the process of nation-making. Normally relegated to the margins, at times of nationalist struggle women come to symbolize the honour and virtue of the nation. They become the icons, the mother-figures for whom men are willing to lay down their lives. It is on this notion of womanhood that the cultural identity of the community and the nation is staked.
Throughout the freedom movement in India, nationalists portrayed the country in feminine terms. India was ‘the motherland’. When another nation, Pakistan, was carved out of its territory, it was as if the body of the mother – India – had been violated. Maps of India, with the body of a woman, often a goddess, mapping its territory, were commonplace among Indian nationalists. On 14 August, 1947, the day before the country was partitioned and became a ‘nation’, the front page of a Hindu right-wing weekly, the Organiser, carried a map of India on which lay a woman. Her right limb (which mapped Pakistan) had been severed, with Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, leaning over her holding in his hand a bloody knife.
In the large-scale violence that Partition generated, thousands of women were actually raped, abducted, sold into slavery and prostitution, both by their own men and those of the ‘other’ community. When the time came for them to ‘go home’, many had formed new relationships and did not want to leave. A female social worker at the time, trying to send a group of 21 abducted women back to their ‘national’ home was faced with the question: ‘Who are you to meddle in our lives?’ Another, engaged in similar work, said that at times she sympathized with the abducted women ‘as a woman’, but she felt that she had to ‘act as an Indian’ and so actively participated in their return. The abducted women had no choice: once a woman was located, her sexuality (otherwise feared to be out of control through sexual congress with the ‘other’) could be regulated and return was enforced. Hindu and Muslim women had to be brought back to their Hindu and Muslim nations, to their real ‘nations’.
Thus the same motherland which came to signify ‘home’ and ‘country’ for men had a different meaning for women. For Indian women, the process of nation-making was not one of finding an identity, rather it was simply one where old, existing patriarchies, old models of hierarchy and control, found new expression. Women were left very much where they were before – and perhaps even worse off.
Today, the problem hasn’t gone away. Rather, it has become more complicated. India’s new nationalism, vocally pro-pounded by the Hindu right wing, sees women as mothers and wives, supporters of men as they struggle for a Hindu rashtra or nation. Feminism is an ugly word. Good Hindu women stay at home and help to shore up patriarchy.
On occasion they are allowed access to the public space, but the boundaries are very clearly demarcated. You can bring ‘national honour’ to the country by winning a beauty contest (and there was tremendous pride in India last year because both the Miss Universe and Miss World crowns had gone to Indian women) but demanding equality of citizenship is seen as ‘anti-national’ and ‘Western’.
This is why feminists in India today have a harder task than ever. It is their research that has exposed the gender-blindness that informed the process of nation-making in 1947. They’re the ones who are resisting the homogenization of the Hindu Right. They are calling for the State to grant equal rights to all its citizens. In the last few years, it is women who have started the process of opening up contact with their sisters in ‘trouble’ areas such as Kashmir and Punjab – another activity that has earned them the epithet ‘anti-national’.
Women are saying: we only want nationalism if it means gender equality and democratic rights. We only want a nation that accepts women and other marginalized people as citizens and full national subjects. If not, this nationalism, and this nation, is not worth having. It’s time to question and reframe the definitions we have been given.
Urvashi Butalia is a writer and editor. She works in Delhi with Kali for Women, India’s first feminist publishing house which she co-founded in 1984.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996