Insiders and Outsiders: Within and beyond the Gendered Nation

Barbara Einhorn. Handbook of Gender and Women’s Studies. Editor: Kathy Davis, Mary Evans, Judith Lorber. 2006. Sage Publication.

This chapter examines the intimate relationship of gender, nation, and nationalism, both in scholarship and in the lives of real people. It begins by showing how scholarly attempts to define the nation have, historically, omitted gender, both as a key social variable and as a tool of analysis. Feminist interventions since the late 1980s have breathed new life into considerations of the ways in which not only gender, but sexuality, ‘race,’ class, and religion play into, and are in turn affected by, nationalist projects. Underlying both notions of nation and the politics of nation-building is a gendered power politics. The deployment of gender and sexuality in the politics of national reproduction helps to forge close links between nationalism and militarism. The chapter considers how the language of citizenship and the practices of transnational feminism might serve to contest and transcend the political limitations and the exclusionary tendencies of nationalism.


This chapter considers how processes of nation-building rely on gendered discourses and symbolic representations. These discourses have material, embodied consequences for both insiders and outsiders, especially when the nation feels itself to be under threat or during periods of actual inter- or intranational conflict. Nationalist discourses interact with political institutions and manipulate social and cultural practices to imprint gendered identities on embodied subjects, attempting to make them malleable within the power struggles of the nation-building (or nation-defending) process. I demonstrate the interplay of gendered discourses with normative notions of sexuality, class, ‘race,’ and religion in the service and reproduction of the national idea. In discussing how the language of citizenship might facilitate contestation of the gendered hierarchies naturalized by nationalist discourses, I pay tribute to the transformative potential of feminist initiatives enacting a ‘transversal politics’ across the boundaries of nationalist conflicts (Cockburn, 1998; 2004; Yuval-Davis, 1997).

The Nation as a Concept

The nation is an elusive entity. Despite frequent conflation of the two concepts, it is not synonymous with the nation state. The nation is an amorphous ‘idea,’ an ‘imagined community’ (Anderson, 1983). Yet nationalists usually intend it to map onto a particular geographical territory or ethnic community in their intention to create a political state. The idea that nationalist strategies aim to translate ideologies of belonging into political statehood is contested by theorists who hold that the nation brings together those with allegiance to a shared cultural heritage (Smith, 1991: 74). Such theorists see the nation as timeless and immutable, hence fundamentally ahistorical and ‘natural.’ For Eric Hobsbawm, this ‘naturalization’ forms part of a process of ‘inventing traditions’ (1983: 1).

The need for norms of behaviour and traditional practices to be continually reinvented through ritual hints both at the precariousness of imputed homogeneity within the national community and at the centrality of gender in articulating and perpetuating the sense of national belonging. Somebody has to invoke and perform the rituals that reinforce these norms and to inculcate them into the next generation in order to ensure historical continuity. This ‘somebody’ is woman-as-mother-of-the-nation (Peterson, 1994), with the nation construed as ‘metaphoric kinship’ (Eriksen, 1993:108; Smith, 1991: 79), or as ‘family-writ-large’ (Golden, 2003: 85).

The nation is in fact both political—in striving to create a state or to defend national boundaries—and cultural, representing a set of values and meanings inscribed in ‘a system of cultural representation’ (Hall, 1992: 292). Yet nationalism as an ideology can be enlisted either in the support of political modernization or in support of a backward-looking traditionalism, and has therefore often been referred to as ‘Janus-faced.’ Nations can emphasize their ‘shared socio-cultural attitudes and historical memories’; they can also manifest ‘disrespect for and animosity towards other peoples (racism, xenophobia, antiSemitism)’ (Alter, 1994: 3). Most nations define themselves negatively, against (imputed) Others. As communities, they tend to be exclusive, not in clusive.

While nations claim a unity of insiders against outside groups, they are in fact neither homogeneous nor united. The issue of power emerges here, not only as an issue of power over Others, but as a hierarchy of power among ‘insider’ groups in the struggle for ‘authentic’ national identity. It is here that gendered—and sexualized—discourses creep in, defining who belongs to the national body and disciplining those who do not, setting dominant ‘insiders’ against ‘enemies within’ (Kofman, Phizacklea, Raghuram, and Sales, 2000: 37). Tamar

Mayer argues that the nation was ‘produced as a heterosexual male construct, whose “ego” is intimately connected to patriarchal hierarchies and norms’ (2000a: 6). Sheila Allen reminds us that ‘both in social science and in practice, women have been defined as the “Other” within (1998: 55). Men take on the duty of policing shared norms, ensuring that women enact their allotted roles in the national drama and causing tension between women who conform and any who resist. Nationalist discourses also discipline men who fail to perform normative masculinity. Leslie Dwyer confirms that ‘the repression and policing of sexualities labelled as aberrant’ have made them the scapegoats of nationalist narratives (2000: 27-8).

Early Feminist Studies of Nationalism

According to Cynthia Enloe, ‘as insightful and helpful’ as Benedict Anderson and other theorists were ‘in charting new ways to think about the creation of nationalist ideas, they left nationalists…ungendered’ (1993:231). Much academic scholarship on the nation still remains both gender-blind and disembodied. Yet ‘international politics and global political economy impact directly and often violently upon the bodies of actual people’ (Pettman, 2000: 52).

Enloe pioneered the feminist challenge to theories of nationalism, showing that international affairs, the realms of diplomacy, inter-state relations, and (inter)national conflicts were not exclusively the preserve of men. She uncovered apparently obvious truths, namely that diplomacy depended on the charms of diplomatic wives, that international affairs and trade would founder without the input of (largely) women secretaries, and that militaries depend not only on women support staff, but also on the sexual services of women. From this insight, she concluded that ‘making women invisible hides the workings of both femininity and masculinity in international politics’ (1989: 11).

Most early feminist contributions to scholarship on the nation focused on the ways in which nationalist discourses manipulated and instrumental-ized otherwise invisible women. They primarily highlighted how nationalism depicted women-as-objects, exploited women-as-symbols, and affected women-as-victims. In their path-breaking text Woman-Nation-State, Floya Anthias and Nira Yuval-Davis elaborated five ways in which women figured in the national project, as: biological reproducers of the ethnic collectivity; reproducers of the boundaries between ethnic/national groups; agents in the ideological reproduction of the group’s ethical and cultural identity; symbolic signifiers of group differences; and active participants in national identity struggles (1989: 7). Kumari Jayawardena (1986) was the first to argue that struggles for national liberation in former colonial countries in Asia initially empowered their female participants.

The involvement of women activists in nation-building projects and the successes of nationalist movements in introducing emancipatory measures have also been documented for Poland, Korea, Finland, Israel, and Palestine. Yet most accounts agree that while these activists subordinated gender-based demands to the goal of national independence, their mobilization resulted in neither the establishment of women’s organizations nor the adoption of feminist agendas after the achievement of national independence. Rather, ‘normalization’ processes tended to return women to ‘their “accustomed place”’ (Jayawardena, 1986: 259; see also Fidelis, 2001; Juntti, 1998; Kim, 1996; Marakowitz, 1996; Sharoni, 1998: 1070).

It is understandable that many early feminist theorists of nationalism concentrated exclusively on women. In doing so, they ‘for the most part, neglected to analyze men as an equally constructed category’ (Mayer, 2000a: 5; emphasis in original). Four years after her ground-breaking Bananas, Beaches and Bases (1989), Enloe noted that ‘because we still know too little about women’s experiences of nationalism, we have left ourselves ignorant of men—as men—in the histories of nationalism [and] the uses of masculinity in the mobilization of national consciousness’ (1993: 236).

Recent Feminist Scholarship on Nationalism

Recent feminist scholarship has therefore stressed the decisive impact of notions of masculinity on definitions of national identity, power, and hegemony. This work enhances earlier discussions about how nationalisms construct and functionalize women through discourses of appropriate femininity. Increasing emphasis has been placed on gender relations as relations of (unequal) power in nationalist projects, for ‘masculinity and femininity are not “independent” categories…but are defined in oppositional relation to each other’ (Peterson and Runyan, 1999: 8).

Establishing the pertinence of gender to nation requires us to understand that ‘the notion of nation always suggests a project of power’ (Cockburn, 1998: 37). Since this project has always been dominated by men, ‘nationalist ideologies, strategies, and structures have served to update and so perpetuate the privileging of masculinity’ (Enloe, 1993: 229, 323; 2004: 102-4). Nationalist ideologies rely on constructions of masculinity and femininity to ‘naturalize’ power struggles over who gets to define what the nation stands for. Nations are thus not just ‘systems of cultural representation,’ but also ‘constitutive of people’s identities through social contests that are frequently violent and always gendered’ (McClintock, 1997: 89).

Nation, Gender, and Sexuality

Notions of nation are intimately intertwined with, indeed depend upon, the manipulation of rigid gender norms, such that ‘despite many nationalists’ ideological investment in the idea of popularunity, nations have historically amounted to the sanctioned institutionalisation of gender difference (McClintock, 1995:353). Gender difference as mythic stereotype gets translated into political dicta and behavioural norms for present-day women and men.

‘Woman’ is depicted in the iconography of the nation as the Motherland, the title of the massive statue by Evgenii Vuchetich that dominates Volgograd (Warner, 1985: plate 1). Eric Hobsbawm identifies such ‘personification of “the nation” in symbol or image… as with Marianne or Germania’ as part of the process of ‘inventing traditions…[which] we should expect…to occur more frequently when a rapid transformation of society weakens or destroys the social patterns for which “old” traditions had been designed’ (Hobsbawm, 1983: 4,7). Hobsbawm explains here why nationalist fervour is highest in times of social upheaval or perceived external threat. Despite stereotypes of a weak femininity in need of defence by masculinized militarism, the personification of the nation as Mother Russia, Marianne, or Britannia reveals gender ambivalence and sexual ambiguity. All three appear as part mother, part warrior maiden. Vuchetich’s super-sized Motherland may have breasts and child-bearing hips, but her muscular physique and warlike posture, brandishing a sword, emulate the stance of male warriors. Eugene Delacroix’s famous painting of Liberty Leading the People renders her gown as having slipped, revealing breasts either erotic or motherly, depending on the viewer. Yet she wields a flag in one hand and a bayonet in the other as she stands dominant on a mound, surrounded by the bodies of dead patriotic warriors. Britannia is always depicted as a warrior, with helmet and shield over-riding the soft folds of her gown.

Symbolic constructions of woman as the embodiment of nation decisively affect the behaviour and room for movement afforded actual women. Yet these ‘tropes of femininity’ are double-edged in more ways than one. First, they reveal ‘the disparity between the symbolic power of feminine images and women’s material conditions of inferior social, economic, and political status in a range of locations’ (Chan, 2003: 581-2). Second, they stress that national identity is not fixed, but always under construction.

‘Man’ is depicted as the ‘warrior-hero’ or the ‘citizen-warrior,’ entrusted with the almost sacred duty to defend the homeland (Mayer, 2000a: 11; Peterson, 1994). This mythological role necessitates (in real time and real terms) men protecting—and policing—the sexuality and reproductive function of the ethnic/ national group’s women. In this way, ‘the metaphors of nation-as-woman and woman-as-nation suggest how women, as bodies and cultural repositories, become the battleground of group struggles’ (Peterson, 1994: 79; see also Peterson, 1996: 7). Thus, the gendered divisions of symbolic national identity signal material relationships of unequal power in which ‘through control over reproduction, sexuality, and the means of representation, the authority to define the nation lies mainly with men’ (Mayer, 2000a: 2). In George Mosse’s early formulation, women provide ‘the backdrop against which men determine[d] the fate of the nation’ (1985: 23).

It may seem obvious from this exposition that sexuality is inextricably entwined with gender in nationalist ideology, but with few exceptions (Mosse, 1985; Parker, Russo, Sommer, and Yaeger, 1992), this connection was missed in scholarship on the nation until very recently. Now it has been recognized that nationalist discourses use ‘images and practices of sexuality [as] the malleable means of reproducing homogeneous and bounded communities’ (Dwyer, 2000: 27). Women’s sexuality is seen as threatening the idealized vision of woman-as-nation. It is therefore sanctified and robbed of its unruly potential in images of powerful and protective—but definitely asexual—national motherhood (Einhorn, 1993: 223).

Historically, the threat of unrestrained sexuality was evident in the British imperial project that sought both to domesticate the exotic Other and—through images of the unbridled sexuality of ‘the natives’—to discipline both the British working classes and Jews, constructed as ethnic Others, in the ‘Mother country’ (Gilman, 1985; McClintock, 1995). For British colonists, ‘the imperial conquest of the globe found both its shaping figure and its political sanction in the prior subordination of women as a category of nature.’ In nineteenth-century Britain, empire and nationhood rested on a metaphor of family arranged as a gendered hierarchy. Paradoxically, the taming of femininity this implied ‘took different forms in different parts of the world.’ Middle-class British women were constrained within a regime requiring their sexual—and racial—purity. Meanwhile, ‘Arab women were to be “civilized” by being undressed (unveiled), while sub-Saharan women were to be civilized by being dressed [in clean, white, British cotton]’ (McClintock, 1995: 24,31,47, 61, 357-8). Inderpal Grewal sees ‘home’ and ‘harem’ as ‘useful spatial tropes by which female subjects were constructed in both England and India within a colonial context that linked patriarchal practices’ (1996: 56; also 5-6, 38-9).

Nationalist ideologies deploy ‘us’ versus ‘them’ narratives in which ‘our women are always “pure” and “moral” while their women are “deviant” and “immoral”’ (Mayer, 2000a: 10). Such mythologized models of national virtue personified are one side of a duality that offers women only two possible roles, ‘the infantilized angel of the house and the victimized whore’ (Grewal, 1996: 41). Both these roles deny women subjectivity and agency.

As if to illustrate this binary, Russian immigrant women in Israel are cast as prostitutes (disruptive of the national community) whom Israeli women—as ‘mothers-of-the-nation’ (custodians of the nation’s moral values)—seek to educate (Golden, 2003: 86). ‘Othering’ via stereotypes also applies to Russian men who are depicted as ‘mafia.’ In Israel, where, as Deborah Golden argues, notions of ethnicity figure larger than those of citizenship as tags of belonging, these gender stereotypes have acted as ‘national cautionary tales’ (2003: 96-7).

Normative notions of appropriate (heterosexual) sexuality in narratives of the nation leave many women and men within the nation in a precarious situation (Allen, 2000; Peterson, 1999). Such norms place compliant women on a pedestal through a symbolic equation of femininity with maternity, but simultaneously proscribe non-procreative and/or non-heterosexual sexuality. Dangerous sexuality is seen as emanating from either ‘enemies’ within, or the ‘Other’ nation’s men. As potentially either rape victims, or, worse still, the enemy’s whores, women in nationalist conflicts are ascribed only two roles: passive victimhood or active treason.

Both Women in Black in Israel, whose weekly silent vigils protest the occupation of Palestine, and Women in Black in Belgrade, protesting the conflicts in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, drew (and draw) insults from passers-by couched in terms of disloyal sexuality. In Jerusalem, the women are seen as metaphorically ‘sleeping with the enemy,’ and cursed as ‘Arab fuckers’ and Arafat’s whores’ (Helman and Rapoport, 1997: 690-1; Women in Black, 2001). In remarkably similar terms, Belgrade Women in Black were called ‘motherfuckers,’ ‘Shiptar bitches,’ or ‘bloody Turks’ (Bozinovic, Zajovic, and Zarkovic, 1998: 8-9). An essentially political opposition to state strategies becomes reinterpreted as national and sexual betrayal, treason against an ethnically conceived national community (Golden, 2003: 93-4).

For men, too, the presumption that masculinity means heterosexual virility expressed through aggression against Others constrains and stigmatizes not only homosexuals, but also objectors to militaristic national projects. An example is ‘the US military… [which] fosters a model of transcendent national citizenship that is closely aligned with heterosexual masculinity’ (Allen, 2000: 310). Both gays and opponents of militarism are labelled pejoratively as effeminate, not ‘real’ men, thus as being of the wrong gender. Such negative typecasting is especially prevalent when the nation perceives itself as under threat in terms of either demographic decline, which requires heteronormative ‘performance’ of masculinity as procreative sex, or outside attack, which requires men to act as warriors. In former Yugoslavia, men who dared to oppose militarist conflict in the early 1990s were labelled not ‘real’ Serbs or Croats and/or denigrated as homosexuals (Zarkov, 1995: 112). Similarly, men of the ‘enemy’ ethnicity were derided as ‘fairies’ (Ugresic, 1998: 118). These discourses constructed ‘violence-oriented masculinity’ as the only way for patriotic men to demonstrate their claim to ethnic-national belonging and ‘real’ manhood (Korac, 1996: 137).

The Politics of National Reproduction

Nationalist narratives slide easily from the iconography of nation-as-woman to the construction of woman-as-nation, figuring women as ‘Mother Earth,’ the fecund body of the nation. This narrative is translated into a moral imperative requiring women both to ‘represent’ the nation through moral virtue and social norms, and to reproduce the national/ethnic group in biological as well as cultural terms. While the politics of national reproduction require policing the sexual activity of both men and women, women balance on a particularly narrow tightrope. They may be adulated as ‘mothers-of-the-nation,’ but are ‘always suspect (potentially disloyal)’ (Mostov, 2000: 98), because they may choose to express their sexuality—or worse still, to procreate—with the ‘wrong’ men (Nagel, 1998: 259; Yuval-Davis, 1996; 1997).

Injunctions to ‘bear babies for the nation’ generally have a racist and/or classist subtext. US population policies differentiate women according to both racial or ethnic group and class in a nation state ‘conceptualized as a racialized national family’ (Hill Collins, 1999: 126-7). In Singapore, ‘a dangerous agenda of racial and class manipulation’ was evident in an extraordinary 1983 attack on ‘the nation’s mothers’ by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. He lambasted highly educated Chinese women for failing to reproduce. The none-too-subtle subtext pitched their presumed ethnic and class superiority against the ‘inordinate reproductive urges’ of under-educated, working-class women of Malay and Indian ethnic origin (Heng and Devan, 1992: 344-5).

Israeli women are given positive incentives to have more children in the ‘demographic race’ to avoid ethnic dominance by the Palestinians (Yuval-Davis, 1997: 30). The ‘white plague’ rhetorically cited by Serb politicians to chastise Serbian women as delinquent (i.e. reluctant) mothers, conjured images of Serbs swamped by ethnic Albanians whose women were no more than ‘baby factories’ or ‘demographic reactors’ (Bracewell, 1996:26-7; Mostov, 2000: 98-9). Yet such appeals rarely succeed, encountering active or passive resistance by the ‘insider’ women to whom they are addressed. Ironically, a Serb politician’s call in the early 1990s to ‘all Serbian women to give birth to one more son in order to carry out their national debt’ was not even designed to promote demographic growth (Zajovic, 1993: 26). Rather, it signalled women’s patriotic duty to bear sons who could be sacrificed for an abstract idea of the motherland (Bracewell, 1996; Kesic, 2002/2004: 65).

The instrumental use of gendered stereotypes in the name of national reproduction becomes most evident in the intimate inter-relationship of nationalism and militarism. It is epitomized in constructions of women as the ‘Motherland’ whom masculinized and militarized citizen-soldiers are enjoined to defend by killing ‘enemy’ men and defiling their women. Dubravka Ugresic describes the nationalist struggle in former Yugoslavia as ‘a masculine war. In the war, women are post-boxes used to send messages to those other men, the enemy.’ She cites a 1991 TV programme in which the President of Croatia handed out medals to the widows and mothers of ‘brave Croatian knights who had laid down their lives on the altar of the homeland’ (1998: 119,121-2; emphasis in original).

Rape in war is the ultimate expression of the link between nationalism and militarized masculinity, since its deliberate purpose is to destroy the culture and the very identity of the ‘enemy’ by polluting ‘his’ seed and thus disrupting the ethnic purity and continuity of the Other community (Hansen, 2001: 60; Salecl, 1994: 16-17; Seifert, 1996). Rape in war thus operates both as military strategy and as personal violation. The ‘enemy’s’ women are attacked simultaneously as ‘female Other’ and ‘ethnic Other’ (Morokvasic, 1998: 81; Zarkov, 1995: 115; 2001). The 2003 Iraq War demonstrated how national military might provides the rationale for male as well as female ‘enemies’ to be denigrated via their sexuality. While the involvement of American women soldiers in sexually humiliating Iraqi men prisoners apparently countered simplistic views of women as always and only the victims of masculinized militarism, the routine rape and sexual abuse of Iraqi women prisoners in the very same Abu Ghraib Prison received a much more muted media reception (Harding, 2004; Paul, 2003; Wilkinson, 2004).

Intersections of Nation with Gender, Religion, Ethnicity, and Class

Constructions of national identity depend on fixed notions of gender difference. The combination with other markers of difference, such as religion, ethnicity, and class, creates powerfully marked discourses that promote exclusionary practices both within and between national communities. Cockburn argues that exclusionary nationalisms can only be overcome by changes in the gender order, for just ‘as patriarchy and ethno-nationalism are partners in theory, sexism and racism are partners in practice.’ She feels that ‘women stepping out of line in terms of gender can be specially effective activists for change in the ethnic order’ (2004: 198).

Religion is a vital ingredient in the potent mix constituting national narratives. In many Catholic countries, the Virgin Mary is seen as symbolizing the nation. In Poland, the Black Madonna of Czestechowa is faceless. She wears a crown, denoting her as Polonia, Queen of Poland. Her unattainable ‘holy’ purity is transmuted for mere mortal women into the heroic image of Matka Polka, the ‘Polish Mother.’ This image honours the Polish women who defended hearth and home, keeping Polish national culture alive while their men were resisting foreign invasion during the 150-year period up to the First World War when Poland had virtually ceased to exist as a nation (Einhorn, 1993; Kramer, 2005; Ostrowska, 1998). Images of the nation as Madonna equate femininity with chastity and asexual maternity. This kind of iconography depicts the spectre of female sexuality as a portent of danger and destruction, unless domesticated and subjugated to the national project.

In Ireland too, the Virgin Mary is cast as Queen of Ireland. Not only has Mary ‘been used as a symbol of the Irish nation’s moral purity,’ but in her image, contemporary ‘Irish women and the female body are particularly targeted as strategic to the conservative battle to preserve the Irish nation and its moral alterity with respect to Europe’ (Martin, 2000: 71, 78). National identity is linked with maintaining Irish bans on abortion and divorce. A religious pamphlet published in 1994 explicitly states that the separation of sexual intercourse from reproduction in Ireland represents the death of the nation (Martin, 2000: 76-7; emphasis in the original).

The current rise of fundamentalist discourses in all monotheistic religions synthesizes with nationalist narratives in which religious dogma unites with racist myths and strategies. Many extreme right-wing groups in the United States, for example, subscribe to religious fundamentalism while espousing ‘an American sense of nationhood [that] depends greatly on creating myths about white male supremacy’ (Mayer, 2000a: 11).

In India, contemporary ideologues of Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) draw on a combination of gender and religious differences. In an attempt to counter the negative feminization of Indian men propagated by the British, they at once appropriate British colonial precepts of ‘Christian manliness’ and paradoxically ‘reinvent tradition’ by masculinizing Hindu deities: ‘The disengaged, androgynous, divine Ram has become a masculine Hindu warrior’ (Banerjee, 2003: 173). This imagery is manipulated in the name of political goals, such as those of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) based on the idea of ‘one nation, one people, and one culture.’ Sikata Banerjee fears that while ‘more moderate proponents of Hindutva will perhaps emphasize ideas of Hindu pride and cultural dominance… radical followers will agitate for acts of war against the “other” or “enemy” of the Hindu nation, be it Islam or Christianity’ (2003: 172).

Class difference is also implicated with gender in discourses of nationalism, albeit often more covertly than religion or ethnicity. In Belarus, ‘national issues… are mostly manifestations of… class formation,’ which Elena Gapova sees as ‘the major social process in the post-Soviet world.’ In this process, ‘class necessarily includes the emergence, or rather the reconfiguration, of masculine privilege.’ Both nationalism and class formation can be seen to ‘demand specific gender arrangements and invoke particular symbolic representations of men and women… in which men are subjects and agents, and women are redefined as sexualized or private objects’ (2002: 641, 654).

Ethnicity was cast as the basis for national belonging in the ‘ethno-nationalisms’ that emerged in the 1990s’ conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo. Another perceived foundation of national identity is shared language. Yet the case of former Yugoslavia demonstrates clearly that strongly exclusionary nationalisms do not necessarily emerge from neatly separate ethnic, linguistic, or religious communities. Nor do the discourses of nationalism necessarily reflect people’s lived realities. Both Bosnian Muslims and Orthodox Serbs are ethnically Slavic peoples (Allen, 1998: 50). Inter-marriage over many generations among Croats, Serbs, and Bosniaks further blurred ethnically conceived lines of demarcation (Meznaric, 1994: 82). Serbo-Croat was, until the hostilities, the language spoken by all warring parties. The desire on all sides to distinguish themselves as fundamentally different from ‘ enemies who were their brothers until a short time before’ prompted the invented claim that no such language existed (Ugresic, 1998: 122; emphasis in original).

Racism is endemic in nationalist claims of internal cultural or social cohesion, especially at times of instability or crisis (Kofman et al., 2000: 38). Discriminatory racism has been seen as the dominant characteristic—and hence also the legacy—of British imperialism (Allen, 1998: 59). More recently, there are perceptions that the British nation is a myth, a racist construct with which not many of the country’s citizens identify, especially not young Black and Asian people in London who see ‘Englishness’ as synonymous with being ‘White’ (Phoenix, 1995: 29). Contemporary English nationalism operates ‘as an exclusionary force to deny racialized minorities a British/English identity with full rights of citizenship’ (Allen, 1998: 59).

Nationalism, Citizenship, Transnationalism

The most fundamental problem with nationalist discourse is that it casts women as symbolic markers and policy objects, not as active political subjects. Women feature as vessels of national reproduction or as rationale for national contests, but rarely as national actors (McClintock, 1995: 354). Deniz Kandiyoti encapsulates this:

Wherever women continue to serve as boundary markers between different national, ethnic and religious collectivities, their emergence as full-fledged citizens will be jeopardized, and whatever rights they may have achieved during one stage of nation-building may be sacrificed on the altar of identity politics during another. (1991: 435)

Spike Peterson has argued that as long as ‘the motherland is female, but the state and its citizens-warriors are male,’ effective political and state power will remain defined in terms of masculine norms (1994: 80). The essentialist difference-based discourses and exclusionary practices of nationalism label women both within and outside the nation as Other, setting women against men but also compliant women against dissenting women. In this process, they also limit women’s ability to attain political subject status, to access citizenship rights, and to engage in collective struggles for gender equality.

It is possible to counter the difference-based language of nationalism with the language of universalism. However, this must be done in a contextualized way that acknowledges and does not attempt to erase the real differences in power between women and men, and between women and women, both within and across national communities. Chandra Talpade Mohanty argues that ‘in knowing differences and particularities, we can better see the connections and commonalities because no border or boundary is ever complete or rigidly determining.’ There is a double need: both ‘for women of different communities and identities to build coalitions and solidarities across borders,’ and for political campaigns within borders, using the universalist language of citizenship to counter the essentialist and exclusionary language of nationalism (2003: 226).

From a gender perspective, the main reason to rehabilitate the language of citizenship is that the national state retains the power to confer citizenship rights. Reports of the death of the nation state in the context of processes of economic and political globalization are premature (Einhorn, 2006; Jacques, 2004; Rai, 2003). While supranational political entities (such as the EU or the UN) can in some instances override national states in forcing compliance with equality legislation, their power to do so depends on grassroots pressure within nation states (Hoskyns, 1996; Rai, 2003: 19; True and Mintrom, 2001). In most cases, it is still the national state upon which individuals can make claims for social entitlements; and which has the power to include or exclude from citizenship.

I would argue that the language of citizenship is more effective in contesting discursive nationalist and neo-conservative exclusions than the discourse of human rights. For while there has been some success in translating feminist claims that women’s rights are human rights into international legislation, notably in the case of rape in war, it remains true that ultimately policies formulated at an international level (UN, EU) require the nation state as the locus of enforcement (Werbner and Yuval-Davis, 1999: 2-1). It is also at the level of the national state rather than in the international arena that feminist political struggles can achieve a loosening of nationalist strictures on women and men.

In Croatia, during the transition ‘from a multiethnic federation to an ethnically founded sovereign nation state…women’s bodies [became] symbolic, then real battlefields on which all kinds of wounds, discrimination and violence [were] inflicted,’ Vesna Kesic asserts. While men could be attacked on the basis of their ethnicity, ‘the focus of the attack was still their political or ideological standpoint.’ By contrast, ‘women’s sexuality was always targeted, even when the real stake of the campaign was their ethnic belonging or political standpoint.’ During this period, women ‘almost disappeared from public life,’ comprising only 5.4 per cent of Croatia’s first independent parliament. In the 1999 elections following the end of rule by the ultra-nationalist Hrvatska Demokratska Zajednica (HDZ, Croatian Democratic Union) women won 21 per cent of parliamentary seats (Kesic, 2002/2004: 79-80).

Just as there is a need for feminist organizing to overcome gender-based and intra-women inequalities within nation states, so there is an increasing demand for transnational feminist networking to overcome both the exclusionary practices of closed nationalist entities and the structures of gender inequality inherent in them (Mackie, 2001). Cynthia Cockburn documents inspiring examples of women working across ethnic, religious, and nationalist divides. Working with women in Bosnia, Israel, Northern Ireland, and Cyprus, she shows how women acknowledge and respect their differences while maintaining a willingness to work through the pain suffered as a result of their respective positionings within nationalist conflicts. Without attempting to subsume, eliminate, or resolve those differences, women in these projects have engaged in difficult dialogue in order to create strategic political alliances (1998; 2004). In doing so, they apply—or enact—what Nira Yuval-Davis has called ‘transversal politics,’ aiming not for homogeneity or unity, but for an inclusive approach to the common problems inherent in gendered nationalisms (1997).

‘Transversal politics’ involves a search for commonalities while not denying, nor yet being derailed by, differences. It requires the acknowledgement of differences in power as well as in political, ethnic, or religious identities. Most of all, ‘it demands a shared vision of the nature and goal of the dialogue, including a sense of a shared future’ (Cockburn, 2004: 38-40). Transversal politics can thus be seen as both successful contestation of nationalism and a form of coalition politics across the divides of national and other differences; in other words, a form of transnational citizenship practice. It offers some hope of transcending the narrow confines of gendered and exclusive nationalisms en route to the achievement of mutual respect and understanding between peoples, across the divides of gender, class, ethnic, national, and religious differences.