Mother India: Urvashi Butalia Asks Why Feminism and Nationalism Sit So Uneasy Together and Charts Women's Unequal Relationship with the Nation-State

By Butalia, Urvashi | New Internationalist, March 1996 | Go to article overview

Mother India: Urvashi Butalia Asks Why Feminism and Nationalism Sit So Uneasy Together and Charts Women's Unequal Relationship with the Nation-State


Butalia, Urvashi, New Internationalist


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 over - lappingly.)

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. …

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