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Nira Yuval Davis' "Gender & Nation". An analysis of the interconnection of gender and nation

Seminararbeit 2018 16 Seiten

Geschlechterstudien / Gender Studies


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The construction of nations

3. The construction of women as The Other
3.1 Colonization
3.2 Imagined Communities
3.3 Masculinized memory
3.4 Public vs. private

4. Women as symbols of reproduction
4.1 The three main discourses according to Nira Yuval-Davis

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

In the course of the seminar Theories about Race in Cultural and Postcolonial Studies it was every students’ task to give a short presentation on a chosen text which was to some extent dealing with notions of nationalism, racism, nations, nation- or state-building etc. In this context, I chose Nationalism and Racism by Nira Yuval-Davis, who has been Director of the Research Centre on Migration, Refugees and Belonging at the University of East London since 2009 (cf. University of East London). In this text – that describes different approaches to nation-building amongst other topics – she mentions a connection between gender and nation which, for me, generated much interest. For this seminar paper I decided to take a closer look at the interconnection between gender and nation. I believe that, at first sight, this interconnection is not an obvious one1, but after having read many articles and books on the topic, I can now clearly see it. The article on which this paper is based on was already published in 1993, whereas an explicit book dealing with gender and nation was published by Yuval-Davis four years later in 1997: Gender & Nation. Before that time, not much work was done on the interconnection between gender and nation. According to Yuval-Davis “it is true that including women explicitly in the analytical discourse around nations and nationalisms is only a very recent and partial endeavor” (Yuval-Davis 1997: 3). Previous to her work, only a few scholars existed that seemed not to be gender-blind when it came to theorizations of nationalisms (cf. ibid.). In her article on Masculinity and nationalism, Joane Nagel goes even one step further and states in a bit more radical way that “[f]eminist theorists have argued that this absence of women from the work and thinking of these authors reflects, at best, their gender blindness or, at worst, their gender chauvinism” (Nagel 1998: 243). It was indeed the case that while devoting myself to the topic of gender and nation I came across the same authors again and again. It still seems that the number of scholars who take a really close look at the interconnection between these two notions is very limited. Nevertheless, I was able to get some deep insight that will be presented in this paper. During my research I realized that it was not only important to read various articles by Yuval-Davis, Sylvia Walby, Glenda Sluga or Sam Pryke, just to name a few, but that it was also of high interest to extend my field of investigation to the work of María Lugones and Joane Nagel. Both do research on gender and nation as well, but both choose another and different approach than the other authors. Lugones for example sees colonization as the root of gender bias, whereas Nagel believes that in order to understand womanhood/femininity it is necessary to also study manhood/masculinity. I share both their views and will therefore include them in my work as well. First, I will take a closer look at why nations where constructed in the first place to then analyze women’s constructions within these nations as The Other. Different key terms like colonization, imagined communities, masculinized memory and public vs. private will be introduced and explained. The last chapter will deal with the three discourses introduced by Yuval-Davis which describe the role of women as the bearers of nations from different perspectives. Since most of the work was published in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I will present a more modern view on gender and nation in my conclusion. Nevertheless, it has no negative impact on the quality of this paper that most publications are already about 20 years old. As I will state in my conclusion, the work is still very contemporary.

2. The construction of nations

In order to understand the construction of women as The Other and to comprehend the interconnection between gender and nation, it is necessary to give at least a small insight into how nations are/were being constructed. Nevertheless, it is not the paper’s aim to fully tackle the phenomena of nation, nation- and state-building etc. It has to be taken into consideration, therefore, that a deep study of the before mentioned phenomena is not possible in the context of this paper and also not essential. In her article Nationalism and Racism Nira Yuval-Davis presents various different approaches as to how nations, nationalisms and nationalist ideologies exist. Since “[w]hat constitutes a nation and the extent to which it is a particularly modern or even western phenomenon are controversial questions” (Yuval-Davis 1993: 184), it is not easy to give an exact definition of a nation or tell how and if they were constructed. On the one hand, the so-called primordialists (for example Edward Shils and Clifford Geertz) believe that nations are universal and also natural (cf. ibid.). For them, nations represent an “‘automatic’ extension of kinship relationships” (ibid.). On the other hand, the modernists, like Ernest Gellner and Benedict Anderson, claim that nations and nationalisms are phenomena that are specific to capitalism (cf. ibid.). In this case, ‘social’ facts are more important in nation-building than ‘natural’ facts (cf. ibid.). Within the modernist view, a few nuances exist: Anderson, for example, traces back the development of nations to the invention of print which led to the development of so-called imagined communities which will be further discussed in the next chapters. On the contrary, Gellner believes in “the need of modern societies for cultural homogeneity in order to function”, underlining the construction of nations (Yuval-Davis 1993: 185). Nira Yuval-Davis herself seems to eliminate the primordialists’ believe in a natural origin of nations and sees the establishment of nations as an act of construction just like the modernists. Within this context, key terms such as common culture, common destiny and common origin seem crucial as well when it comes to nations. According to different scholars (e.g. Otto Bauer, Nira Yuval-Davis, Amrita Chhachhi), different commonalities are essential to nations. Members of a nation can either have a common culture, destiny or origin (or a mixture of these) (cf. Yuval-Davis 1993: 187). These similarities lead to the following: “[i]n situations of national, ethnic and racial conflicts, markers of [common] origin [or common destiny] signify particular constructions of exclusion, subordination or even extermination” (ibid.). This means that constructed commonalities construct the belonging to a nation or the exclusion from it. The case of common origin, for example, tends to be the most exclusionary vision since it assumes that belonging to a nation depends on shared blood/genes (cf. Yuval-Davis 2003: 11). Another characteristic of nations is that they are placed in particular historical moments and “are constructed by shifting nationalist discourses promoted by different groupings competing for hegemony” (ibid.). The notion of the nation is closely linked to the concept of the nation-state which sees a total correspondence between the people who live in a certain state and the boundaries of the nation (cf. Yuval-Davis 1997: 11). And this assumption is virtually everywhere a fiction, but nevertheless the foundation of nationalist ideologies (cf. ibid.). The effect of this false assumption is an attempted isolation from others/other nations to protect the imagined commonalities within a nation. In this context, “minorities [are being constructed] into assumed deviants from the ‘normal’, and [are being excluded] from important power resources” (ibid.). As will be seen in the next chapter, women are often (but also to a different degree in different nations) seen as such a minority and therefore are being excluded from power resources and constructed as The Other.

3. The construction of women as The Other

As was explained in the last chapter, boundaries of nations aim at sorting people into ‘us’ and ‘them’, whereas ‘them’ represents The Other (cf. Yuval-Davis 2003: 12). These separations and exclusions do not only take place among different nations, but also within a nation as will become clear. Gender – the (to some extent constructed) difference between men and women – plays a crucial role in nations/nation-building. Yuval-Davis claims that

gendered bodies and sexuality play pivotal roles, as territories, markers and reproducers of the narratives of nations and other collectivities. Gender relations are at the heart of cultural constructions of social identities and collectivities as well as in most cultural conflicts and contestations (Yuval-Davis 2003: 16).

According to Nira Yuval-Davis, women have a somewhat ambiguous position within a nation or collectivity. First, they might symbolize the unity of the collectivity, but second, they are often not part of the collective ‘we’ and are being excluded from the body politic (cf. Cusack 2000: 544). “In this sense the construction of womanhood has a property of Otherness” (Yuval-Davis 2003: 19). When an ‘Other’ exists, questions of how they should be treated arise (cf. ibid.). Since national projects and nations are gendered, proper places, certain behaviors, looks etc. are ascribed to women and also to men in society (Walby 2000: 523) making the difference between men and women and the construction of The Other even more obvious. Nevertheless, it is very important in this context to mention that there are also differences among different women from different nations, so a generalization should be avoided (cf. ibid.). But it is also essential to consider that “no nation in the world gives women and men the same access to the rights and resources of the nation-state” (McClintock 1993: 61). So, seemingly by nature, women present The Other in relation to men. Within a nation, peoples’ participations in the nation-state and access to it is legitimized and limited (cf. ibid.). For women (or other minority groups such as people of color, children, the elderly) the degree of participation and access is confined compared to men’s’ access and participation. As will be discussed later on, the main function of women is to take care of the nation’s reproduction and therefore they are – at least to some extent that has also been changing over time – banned to the private sphere and excluded from the public. Having these existing differences of women and men in mind, one should wonder why the interconnection of gender and nation has not been of crucial importance for so long. As Anne McClintock states: “Nationalism is thus constituted from the very beginning as a gendered discourse, and cannot be understood without a theory of gender power” (ibid.: 63).

3.1 Colonization

While researching for the topic of this seminar paper, it became very helpful to stumble across a paper by María Lugones who did some research on the connection between the modern gender system and colonization. In her work, the fact that gender differences and the establishment of nations is indeed constructed, and not natural, becomes very clear, which is the reason why this subchapter is included in the seminar paper. According to her, “[c]olonialism […] introduced many genders and gender itself as a colonial concept and mode of organization of relations of production, property relations, of cosmologies and ways of knowing” (Lugones 2007: 186). Whereas sex merely depicts different biological attributes, these very differences became signifiers of distinct social categories creating a gender system (cf. ibid.: 193). Taking intersexuality into consideration where “they have some biological indicators that are traditionally associated with males and some biological indicators that are traditionally associated with females” (Greenberg 2002: 112) reveals that “what is understood to be biological sex is socially constructed” (Lugones 2007: 194). The fact that in nations today intersexed human beings are basically excluded since they are neither women nor men, underlines the construction of gender differences and the construction of women as The Other and the inferior sex. In her article, María Lugones also mentions the Yoruba society as an example of how societies did not use gender as an organizing principle prior to colonization (cf. ibid.: 196). Again, the construction becomes visible.

3.2 Imagined Communities

The term imagined communities has already been mentioned and shall now be explained in more detail since it emphasizes the construction of nations, but also that of women as The Other. Benedict Anderson, who closely linked the development of nations to that of print, has coined the concept of imagined communities “which, under capitalism, came to occupy the place religion used to play” (Yuval-Davis 1993: 185). In his opinion, nations are systems of cultural representations where people start to imagine “a shared experience of identification with an extended community” (Anderson 1991: 6). The term itself already reveals the virtue of construction: imagined community – a community that is created, constructed, only a product of thought. If communities, societies, collectivities, nations are imagined, gender differences that exist among them are imagined as well: “the world is divided not only by cultures and languages but also by sexualities, and that Benedict Anderson’s conception of a nation as an ‘imagined community’ – understood as a subjective social construction – is of use in this” (Pryke 1998: 531). Within these imagined, constructed communities, women are believed to be different than men; they are believed to be The Other in comparison to men:

Women are represented as the atavistic and authentic ‘body’ of national tradition (inert, backward-looking, and natural) […]. Men, by contrast, represent the progressive agent of national modernity (forward-thrusting, potent, and historic) (McClintock 1993: 66).

These imagined differences justify for men to put women in an inferior role and to expel them to the private and exclude them from the public as will be discussed later.

3.3 Masculinized memory

In this subchapter it will be explained how nationalisms have “typically sprung from masculinized memory, masculinized humiliation and masculinized hope” (Enloe 1989: 44). It is important to take this fact into consideration since it clarifies the constructed character of women as The Other as well as that of nations. According to Joane Nagel notions such as nationalism, state power of citizenship “are all best understood as masculinist projects, involving masculine institutions, masculine processes and masculine activities” (Nagel 1998: 243). This does not mean that women do not participate in nations at all, but that the scripts in which these roles are embedded are written primarily by men, for men, and about men, and that women are […] supporting actors whose roles reflect masculinist notions of femininity and of women’s proper place (ibid.).

This proper place for women is usually understood as being located in the private rather than the public sphere since women are relegated to passive, minor roles whereas men hold control.

3.4 Public vs. private

Civil society is, in general, divided into the public and the private sphere. The latter indicates the home, the family, whereas the public represents the politics. Women are generally located in the private domain which makes them politically irrelevant (cf. Yuval-Davis 1997: 2). “Women are […] identified with the ‘apolitical’ institution of the family rather than with the national polity” (Cusack 2000: 546). This allocation makes visible the fact that women are not being part of any decision making or that women have at least only limited access to decision making institutions. Whereas women were not allowed to even vote for a very long time, they are, of course, granted this right nowadays. But still, women are often expected to be home, to bear children and to be confined to the household. By an exclusion from the public sphere women are typically subordinated to men who dominate the public domain (cf. Walby 2000: 528). Nevertheless, this strict distinction between the private and the public has been changing over the last decades. It is important to know that “[t]his process of transformation from a domestic to a public gender regime is uneven, between countries and between regions, over both space and time” (ibid.: 529). So, again, a generalization should be avoided. In the following chapter the role of reproduction of women will be discussed in more detail.


1 Which also became obvious in the discussion that followed my presentation – the students did not immediately see a connection between gender and nation.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
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Institution / Hochschule
Hochschule Merseburg
Gender Nation Race Postcolonial Studies Cultural Studies Womenhood Gender Studies Sylvia Walby Sam Pryke María Lugones Nationalism Nationhood Nira Yuval-Davis Gender & Nation

Titel: Nira Yuval Davis' "Gender & Nation". An analysis of the interconnection of gender and nation