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On the Inherent Misogyny of Nationalist Ideology

25 July 2010
The following is an essay I wrote at the request of my friend over at Notes & Commentaries.  Check him out for economic and political stuff from the Marxist School for Excellence in Historical Enbeardery.  We may do guest posts for each other from time to time, in which case they’ll be indicated like so.


The massive subject of gender and nation is a veritable Venn diagram of issues—imperialism, war & conflict, resistance, migration & diaspora, et cetera—and is therefore impossible to fully cover in the space of a few hundred words. Although people of all genders can be limited by and harmed through nationalist rhetoric, this essay focuses on some of the problems with women’s proscribed role in building and maintaining national identity. That the examples come from the Middle East and North Africa reflects only upon my area of familiarity and is meant to indicate nothing about the MENA region in particular. All of these concepts have global application, and readers are encouraged to keep their local contexts in mind throughout. Some basic theoretical background will be provided with regard to constructing national identity, as well as ways in which women are expected to act as symbols and reproducers of national culture. Following that will be local case studies and a more general, multinational example of gendering law and society.

The most popular framework for examining how nationalist discourse and gender interact is Nira Yuval-Davis’s 1997 book, Gender and Nation. In it she cites three intersecting facets of ‘the nation’ (whether currently existing or the goal of a nationalist project) that constitute collective identity, technical belonging, and criteria for inclusion and exclusion. Briefly, they are Staatsnation, the civil/legal aspects of citizenship; Kulturnation, cultural/religious composition of the actual or idealised vision of the nation; and Volksnation, which concerns ethnic or ‘blood-based’ links to the land.[1]  It is impossible to detail the human element of a particular nation without referring to the specifics of these realms. Furthermore, each has different implications for women and men, fundamentally based upon women’s role as physical and social reproducers of the nation. This designation as symbolic ‘border guards’ or ‘cultural markers’ is the crux of nationalism’s problem for women.

Within Yuval-Davis’s framework for nationalist ideology, the proscribed role for women lies mainly in the realms of Volksnation and Kulturnation (our frequent exclusion from affecting the policies of Staatsnation being, as Ursula Vogel has written, no accident or temporary oversight[2]). Ethnicity-based claims to the land via Volksnation, though rarely without complications, are generally fairly straightforward: some descendants of white Europeans in the U.S., for example, cite their birth on Turtle Island as ‘proof’ of their American-ness over that of differently-coloured immigrants—though the existence of Native Americans/First Nations people and the legacy of white genocide renders these claims horrendously racist and utterly foolish. The ethnic-nationalist role of mothers is similarly straightforward. Under such a microscope, mothers are either in the position to produce the ‘right’ or the ‘wrong’ type of children, which also directly affects how they are perceived by society. (Familiarity with the concept of Othering is fairly important here—though the assertion that cultural relativism is an antidote to it would do well to be taken with a grain of salt.) The difference in social status between “welfare queen” in the post-Reagan U.S. and Germany’s Mutterkreuz recipients during World War II could hardly be more apparent.

Culturally-approved values are central to what should and should not be included in the construction of the national identity. Establishing this rigid model and reinforcing it through media, law, and other channels is essential to perpetuating the envisioned national ideal. In terms of gender, the most straightforward manifestation of this dichotomy is “our women are good like this” and “their women are bad like that.” Within conservative ideology, “good” women are modest, deferential, non-confrontational, obedient, pure, et cetera; for liberals, “good” women are supposed to share many of these characteristics to some degree, though they are also expected to work outside the home (but not too much or too well) and be sexually appealing (but not too boldly, or in front of the wrong audience, or to ask too many questions about their partner’s sexual behaviour). When women are required to embody these concepts on a national scale, it is largely irrelevant how well they actually apply to individuals within the society, or whether such codes of conduct are on the whole desirable or damaging. “Bad” women have been blamed for natural disasters and the downfall of civilisations. Women who appear to be turning down the wrong path in behaviour or appearance are judged against both ‘better’ and ‘worse’ women; the constant, subtle threat of becoming an ignorant, dangerous, or morally-bankrupt Other is an attempt to condition women into self-castigation. When societies are challenged on an aspect of their degrading, abusive, infantilising, or hypersexualised treatment of women, many individuals leap to take up the mantra, “but this is our culture.” They conveniently ignore those among ‘their’ people who take umbrage at such a suggestion (or how poor of an excuse ‘culture’ is for doing anything). There also tends to be a patronising assumption that women’s purity requires intellectual as well as physical protection from polluting ‘outside’ influences and from our own inclinations that contradict the cultural narrative. In the words of Rajagopalan Radhakrishnan, “nationalist ideology sets up Woman as victim and goddess simultaneously.”[3]  What it does not do is allow women a third dimension. We cannot be fully-human agents with legitimate contributions to or complaints about how our society is run. If we protest too much, we give up our ‘right’ to pedestals and protection—which in this Manichean mode of thinking means it’s open season. The specifics of how each society deals with naysayers and defectors differs, of course (with “corrective rape” and “honour killings” among the most infamous, extreme, and infuriatingly common gender-terrorist tactics), but the belief that there should be repercussions for nonconformity is universal.

Deniz Kandiyoti’s insightful text, “Identity and its Discontents: Women and the Nation,” delves into a MENA-focused examination of this burden of representing and transmitting cultural values. She notes that ‘modern’ is often “perilously close” to alien, and names an instance when the backlash against perceived alien-ness and foreign contamination was a literal massacre against the Egyptian women who petitioned the occupying French to enforce European-style family organisation.  Western today is commonly used as a catch-all slur throughout the region against anything considered undesirable.[4]  This seems to have become one of the most successful silencing tactics, as it has found application even where it is entirely factually inaccurate. Religious fundamentalism is the least likely foundation upon which to establish rights for women, but Kandiyoti goes on to warn that when secular nationalist projects break down, women’s civil rights tend to be among the first gains discarded—they are impossible to guarantee regardless of the rhetorical bent, so long as women are considered acceptable social and national markers.[5]  Unfortunately, the success of secular projects can also endanger women: Turkey and Egypt (in 1935 and 1956 respectively) quickly dissolved and disallowed women’s organisations after suffrage[6], and Ba’thi Iraq put a similar moratorium on NGOs after establishing a women’s wing of the Party. Women’s rights activists are often caught in a double-bind that can further go sour in a number of ways. As Kandiyoti has astutely noted, “[t]he demands of the ‘nation’ may … appear just as constraining as the tyranny of more primordial loyalties to lineage, tribe, or kin.”[7]  A look at citizenship law in Tunisia and Morocco, protest and Othering in Jerusalem, and a modern manifestation of sumptuary laws will provide further examples of these demands and constraints.

Because women are designated as symbolic border guards, ethnocentric nationalist ideology requires their separate-and-unequal legal status. Mounira M. Charrad’s comparative study of citizenship law in Tunisia and Morocco illustrates how this can manifest with regard to marriage. The preference given to patrilineage means that in both countries, foreign-born wives of citizens can obtain citizenship with relative ease after a year-long period of residency. In addition to this cohabitation requirement, foreign-born husbands in Morocco must have come from an Islamic, Arabic-speaking country, and must be observing Muslims. (Largely due to gender-focused legal revisions in the mid-1990s, Tunisia’s requirements for foreign husbands do not include these provisions.)[8]  Citizenship for children is also predicated upon unequal laws, as Volksnation blood-right principles are applied automatically through the father in both nations, but only conditionally through mothers. In addition to the legal guardianship precedence given to fathers in these countries, such laws can further restrict mothers’ State-recognised ties to their children. Their responsibility as primary caretakers makes these laws—at their most benign—impractical. Subordinate legal status can also complicate or block women’s economic participation to disastrous effect. If these citizenship laws make it seem as though a woman’s cultural background is considered unimportant, that is because to some extent, it is. The more patriarchal a society, the greater the assumption is that a wife will adopt and conform to her husband’s way of life. It is his cultural legacy and identity that will be transmitted to the next generation. Traces of this rationale are evident in Morocco’s requirement that husbands adhere to Islam (it also supports the idea that Muslim women are discouraged or disallowed from marrying non-Muslim men due to fears that their husbands will not let them practice). Stricter requirements for Moroccan immigrant husbands help to guarantee that their linguistic and cultural background is similar enough to integrate into Moroccan life, as well as ensure that they can function in the country’s public sphere without incident. This understanding of whose cultural heritage is transmitted to children was also apparent during the Iraqi government’s Al-Anfal atrocity, as ethnically Arab Iraqi men were paid to marry Kurdish women in an attempt to breed Kurds out of existence.

Women in Black (hereafter WiB), an international movement of anti-war protesters, is somewhat famous for its decades-long challenge of that favourite national pastime. The Israeli* branch of WiB held a weekly silent vigil at one of Jerusalem’s public squares during part of the second intifada. In the mid-1990s, Sarah Helman and Tamar Rapoport conducted interviews with participants and members of the general Israeli public regarding their opinions and perceptions of the women and their anti-apartheid, Palestinian-sympathetic protests. What they heard from WiB’s detractors was intense nationalist rhetoric which clearly attacked the women for violating acceptable gender- and race-based conventions. Helman and Rapoport’s cab-driving male interviewees in particular showed no self-consciousness in expressing their misogynistic vitriol against the protesters: from belittling their dedication (“they don’t have anything in their life … they’re looking for attention”) to insulting their bodies (“looking at their shit faces pisses me off”), to blatant threats shouted from cab windows (“you should all be fucked and then killed,” “Arafat’s whores”).[9]  Obvious loathing aside, the fear—or at least the intolerable discomfort—the interviewed men felt is evident in their contradictory ways of speaking about the women: they’re useless and childish in one breath and a fundamental threat to national security in the next. In both cases, a proposed course of action is rape and execution. For those of us familiar with women’s political activism throughout the world, such words are unlikely to stir any eyebrows. Framing women as caricatures of both powerlessness and danger, and immediately issuing gender-based attacks to discredit or terrorise, is standard procedure for dismissing the issues in question and maintaining a sense of women’s general social subordinance. Othering along a No True Scotsman trajectory was also an essential component to the attacks against WiB—such brazen women must be foreign invaders (laughably ironic), national traitors, essentially the ‘wrong’ kind of Jew, particularly when compared to the idealised self-effacing Sephardi mother-figure. Framing WiB’s activists as unquestionably Other was an ideologically powerful way to make it impossible for them to Dissent While Israeli. As with the gender-based attacks, this tactic knows no national boundaries.

(*’Israeli’ here is used in a self-identity sense, not as tacit approval of the State. For two excellent articles on aspects of gender in Palestinian resistance movements, see Richter-Devroe and Peteet in the reading list below.)

Morocco, Tunisia, and Jerusalem are fair examples of localised nationalist ideology, but similar dynamics also play out in the international arena. Arguments about whether the idealised woman appears ‘liberated’ or ‘oppressed’—an extraordinarily popular subject for both conservative and liberal white Western would-be saviours*—often amount to little more than red herrings. Whether the particular reasoning takes on a religious or secular bent, it will have much to say about the state in which women ought to exist. Since late 2001, global media attention has been given to the tired debate over legislating forced veiling and unveiling. Potential bans in a few increasingly xenophobic and conservative-leaning European nations unsurprisingly garner the most attention, though there have been numerous bans and enforcements in the 20th century MENA region that contemporary policymakers would benefit from studying. The idea of legislating dress code is problematic whether for or against particular items, and neither position has much of anything to do with what is most desired by or even beneficial to the women it will affect. Irvin Cemil Schick’s interpretation of this callous disregard for actual women has been that

a photograph of an unveiled woman was not much different from one of a tractor, an industrial complex, or a new railroad; it still merely symbolised yet another one of men’s achievements. Once again reduced to mere objects, women were, in these images, at the service of a political discourse conducted by men and for men.[10]

It is a bold statement. However, his claim is hardly refuted given the general disregard for the reality that legislating the bodies and behaviours of women and girls directly harms them. Can policymakers truly believe that the ‘secular’ and ‘modern’ appearance of the unveiled woman in Schick’s example will of itself guarantee her liberation from patriarchal civil society and economic inequality? Eliminating such disparities requires a bit more effort than demanding that women don or doff a particular configuration of fabric. Unfortunately, however, a girl’s ability to attend school or otherwise exist in the public sphere may be dependent upon such a decision. On the ‘other side’ of the practicality aisle, will a woman’s full conformity to culturally-prescribed dress codes actually protect her from gender-based violence? See the BBC’s “Egypt’s sexual harassment ‘cancer’” article and the ubiquity of rape-victim-blaming in the West for the tip of that particularly insidious iceberg. In the grand scheme of things, however, the particular objects of these legislative adventures are not the real issue. What arguments by Kandiyoti, Schick, and others ultimately support is the idea that fixating on a clothing-to-freedom ratio usually serves as a distraction from the fact that making that decision for women (culturally or legally) subverts their sociopolitical subjectivity and fundamentally denies their full humanity.

(*See Nadje Al-Ali’s post on the ‘liberation’ of Iraqi women, as well as her book in the reading list, for more criticism in that direction.)

What can we do about the raw deal nationalist ideology presents to women? We must be wary of any nationalist project that promises to “get around to women” when “more important matters” have been taken care of. Obvious language of inequality aside, how common this claim is seems to be inversely proportional to how often the new government makes good on it. Though many folks at the head of nationalist movements would be loathe to admit it, their projects need the support—or at least compliance—of women as a class. Women’s liberation is not a bargaining tool for the powerful. It is essential to our full humanity and to the ethical legitimacy of the human species. Compromising a single facet of liberation for some other political gain is a declaration that women don’t deserve fully human status. When we support women’s movements throughout the world, we must make sure that particular organisations we assist do not exploit other women. Failure in this realm is a trademark of individualist liberal empowerful feminism, within which (mostly white middle- and upper-class) Global North women are encouraged to profit off of the labour of disadvantaged women in the Global South, all the while avoiding to issue any serious challenge to capitalism, racism, and patriarchy. Going against the narrative of the big three and giving our support to worthwhile local organisations that do the same are also things we can do in established nations. Thinking even more locally, we can openly resist far-right assertions that protesting the status quo is equivalent to treason—and other silencing tactics—among our acquaintances. On a daily basis, we should challenge misogynistic attacks that attempt to modify women’s behaviours and appearances to fit how the attacker (or the social narrative in general) asserts that women should exist. Of course this list is far from exhaustive. Other, particularly more specific solutions (like getting RAWA something off their wish list), are certainly welcome.

As a final note, many of the ways to resist nationalist gender regimes are unfortunately dependent upon a position of some privilege or of willingness to put life as we know it on the line. Women are not to be blamed for failing to secure liberation in the face of massive social, political, and economic disparities, threats and acts of gender-terrorism, and agonising global indifference. It is up to those with the most power to level these fields as much as possible and secure liberation for everyone. Meanwhile we are all responsible for challenging the dominant sociopolitical narratives to the best of our abilities.


[1] Yuval-Davis, Nira. (1998) “Gender and nation,” Women, ethnicity and nationalism: The politics of transition, Eds. Wilford & Miller. London: Routledge, pp. 25-26.
[2] Vogel, Ursula. (1989) “Is Citizenship Gender-Specific?” Political Science Association presentation. April, pp. 2.
[3] Radhakrishnan, Rajagopalan. (1992) “Nationalism, Gender, and the Narrative of Identity.” Nationalisms & Sexualities, Eds. Parker, et al. New York: Routledge, pp. 85.
[4] Kandiyoti, Deniz. (1991) “Identity and its Discontents: Women and the Nation.” American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 35, pp. 433-434, 437.
[5] Ibid., 441, 435.
[6] Ibid., 438.
[7] Yuval-Davis, Nira. (1998) “Gender and nation,” Women, ethnicity and nationalism: The politics of transition, Eds. Wilford & Miller. London: Routledge, pp. 30.
[8] Charrad, Mounira. (2000) “Becoming a Citizen: Lineage Versus Individual in Tunisia and Morocco.” Gender and Citizenship in the Middle East, Ed. Joseph. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, pp. 74, 76-79.
[9] Helman, Sarah & Rapoport, Tamar. (1997) “Women in Black: Challenging Israel’s Gender and Socio-Political Orders.” The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 48, No. 4. Dec., pp. 693, 690.
[10] Schick, Irvin Cemil. (1990) “Representing Middle Eastern Women: Feminism and Colonial Discourse.” Feminist Studies, Vol. 16, No. 2., pp. 369.


Further reading:

-Deniz Kandiyoti’s cited “Identity and its discontents” as well as “Bargaining with Patriarchy” (1988) and its 1998 follow-up are important texts within transnational feminism, though most all of her work is excellent.  Added 27/7: a collection of articles with public access at OpenDemocracy.

-Nadje Al-Ali’s Iraqi Women: Untold Stories from 1948 to the Present is a thoroughly readable and engaging interview-based history everyone should be familiar with before nodding in agreement with the “women’s liberation” line by Western imperialists.

-See the cited Radhakrishnan text for an India-focused take on why nationalist projects subordinate feminist activism.

-Cynthia Enloe’s Maneuvers: The International Politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives rates high among the author’s works on the subject.

Cynthia Cockburn is a general expert on gender in war and imperialism.

-The Women on War anthology (Daniela Gioseffi) has a broader scope than this essay, and contributions by dozens of important writers across the continents and centuries.

-The cited “Women in Black: Challenging Israel’s Gender and Socio-Political Orders” is an excellent but depressing exploration of the climate surrounding Jerusalem’s WiB activists.

-Sophie Richter-Devroe’s chapter on women’s activism in Palestine in Women and War in the Middle East: Transnational Perspectives addresses the difficulties facing Palestinian and Israeli anti-apartheid feminists (Julie Peteet’s “Male Gender and Rituals of Resistance in the Palestinian Intifada” in the Masculinity Studies Reader is a good companion text).

-Also in the Masculinity Studies Reader is R.W. Connell’s “The History of Masculinity,” which attempts to explain Western rugged-individualist masculinity in the context of early imperialist exploration.

-For Western homonationalism, see Jasbir Puar’s “Feminists and queers in the service of empire” in Feminism and War (Chandra Talpade Mohanty’s transnational feminist texts are also quite informative).


2 Comments leave one →
  1. 27 July 2010 10:22

    Hot off my email presses, here’s a collection of Deniz Kandiyoti’s writing (which doesn’t require stuffy academic journal access):

    Really, she’s brilliant. And actually readable!

    The link has also been added to the post.

  2. 29 July 2010 15:13

    And a lighter take on bans here in the UK, which is fairly close to my opinion:

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