Since nationalism is generally constructed from a masculine perspective, women&’s roles are often limited to supporting nation-building efforts through symbolic, moral and biological reproduction. Several scholars have pointed out that in nationalist movements there is a distinct division of labor in which women reproduce the nation physically and symbolically while men protect and defend the nation. Scholars have also demonstrated that nationalist identity discourse frequently celebrates motherhood and mothers as the bastion of the nation&’s traditions and values.
At the outbreak of the war with Yugoslavia, President Tudjman of Croatia blamed the tragedy facing the Croatian nation on women who chose to have abortions. These women were regarded as enemies of the state. Mothers in the former Yugoslavia were put on a pedestal and celebrated as biological reproducers of the nation while women who chose to get abortions were publicly scolded for abdicating their reproductive tendencies. The Serbian popular press even offered its profound appreciation of motherhood in Serbia&’s nationalist movement by stating that Serbia should provide medals to women for bearing children.
Eminent scholar Partha Chatterjee has explained how in Indian nationalist discourse women have played a significant role in which the Indian woman&’s body has acted as a symbolic representation of the motherland. In such representations Hindu middle-class women served as pure/virtuous within the Hindu nationalist ideology, which clearly distinguished between the inner/outer worlds and between the home/private/material and public worlds. In such a demarcation between the private versus the public domain, Hindu women were located in the private domain of the home, serving as the symbols of the pure, unpolluted inner life, which was a critical element of the Hindu nationalist discourse. The following quote from India&’s Rashtriya Sevika Samity, the women&’s wing of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) illustrates how Indian women are expected to serve as the preserver of the nation&’s cultural tradition and values by being ideal homemakers:
“Every home is like a fortress. Admitting or refusing entrance there is left to the sole discretion of the commander of the fortress…. Eradication of malpractices and promotion of morality requires a lot of strength, mental as well as physical….It is quite natural to get wounded during a battle but it requires boldness, steadfastness, bravery and tenacity to sustain injuries. These qualities are to be acquired by a Hindu woman to deal efficiently with problems of all sorts. She must be bold enough to stand for what is right and condemn what is wrong, with reference to national interests.”
In keeping with the patriarchal ideology of RSS, M.S. Golwalkar exalted motherhood in the following manner:
“Our mothers have a special responsibility of rearing up the budding generations of our society….the essential aspect is to inculcate in them the right type of samskars such as devotion to duty, spirit of personal endeavour, love of the motherland and readiness for service to society. Our mothers have to attend to this aspect of character formation as their first duty….”
One finds similar kinds of glorification in the Palestinian nationalist rhetoric. For example, Yassir Arafat of the PLO described the Palestinian woman as the “guardian of our survival and our lives, the guardian of our perennial flame.” In a communiqué from the PLO, the Palestinian authorities saluted “the mother of the martyr and her celebratory ululations, for she has ululated twice, the day her son went to fight and was martyred, and the day the State was declared.” In another communiqué Palestinian mothers, sisters and daughters were described as “ ‘manabit,’ or the soil on which manhood, respect and dignity grow.”
In addition to serving as mothers and reproducers of tradition and culture for the nation, women&’s bodies also function as territorial markers. Palestinian nationalist rhetoric perceived Israel&’s occupation of Palestine as a “rape of the land,” where Palestinians are viewed as the “children of Palestine,” which is portrayed as a mother. The Israeli military action against Palestine is seen metaphorically to be of a violent sexual nature. Likewise, the systematic rape and brutalizing of women by Pakistani soldiers during Bangladesh&’s struggle for liberation in 1971 was characterized by Western observers as the "Rape of Bangladesh,” which not only drew the attention of the whole world but also prompted India to join the struggle. Similarly, the U.S. media consistently characterised Iraq&’s invasion of Kuwait as the “rape of Kuwait” even though media reports revealed very few incidents of rape of women.
Feminist scholar Susan Jeffords has argued that the rhetoric of “rape” has “little room for discussion of rapes except as they can be metaphorized to stand for a threat to a community at large.” In the context of the Persian Gulf War, Jeffords pointed out that Kuwait was “quickly and efficiently positioned as a victim in a captivity and rape scenario that was overlaid with a U.S. history of alliances between captivity narratives, protection, and national identity.”
Women, mothers and daughters not only designate the territorial space but they often serve as the property of the nation. In times of nationalist conflicts, rhetoric frequently exhorts men to defend the honor of their motherland. Bankimchandra, for example, created the image of Bharat Mata, who is the supreme goddess and mother for all to inspire Indian men to fight British colonialists.
In contemporary times, Bal Thackeray&’s Hindu nationalist rhetoric often addressed the need to sacrifice lives for the cause of the motherland, which was justified because through martyrdom the nation could be resurrected. For Thackeray, “sons who are loyal to Mother India have to sacrifice their lives for the good of the motherland.” He told his supporters that in this holy war, “Hindus will die, but they will not die in vain. They will die by killing the enemies of Mother India.”
Akin to Bankimchandra and Thackeray who invoked Bharat Mata in their rhetoric to rally Hindu men to protect their motherland, nationalist movement in the late twentieth century in Ireland called upon Irish men to fight for “Mother Ireland,” or “Virgin Mary, Queen of Ireland.” One finds nationalist rhetoric in the former Yugoslavia inviting brave men to join the war to fight for their motherland. Even in the past, women&’s bodies have served as the symbols of nations to exhort men to fight for their motherland. For example, Marseilles invited brave soldiers to protect the French, which was symbolized by the beautiful young Marianne. Similarly, both Germania, representing the victory of the Germans against the Roman Legions, and Britannia, symbolizing the wars against the French, served as an embodiment of continuity and immutability of the two nations.
From this discussion it follows that in nationalist identity movements women are often relegated to symbolic roles either serving as iconic representations of nationhood to be protected or as spoils of war to be humiliated and disgraced by men. However, feminist scholars in recent times have challenged the claim that Indian women are passive subjects in Indian nationalist movements.
While these scholars concur with historiographies that highlight the masculine underpinnings of Hinduism, they have demonstrated that militarism is not necessarily a masculine trait. For example, Hindu goddesses who embody violence, militarism, and anger have inspired some 19th and 20th century nationalist movements.
One of the ways women have negotiated a space for themselves within a masculine Hindu nationalism is by occupying roles as “citizen-warriors.” Founded in 1936, the women&’s wing of the RSS, called the Rashtriya Sevika Samiti advocates that women act as warriors who will defend India through self defense. In the Samiti, young women practice wrestling and learn how to use daggers and more. The adoption of this militaristic approach is not a direct challenge to the image of India as woman in Hindu thought, since the reason the Samiti provides to justify women&’s need to protect themselves is the threat of rape. This martial training of women indicates that women must also embody traits of masculine martial prowess and physical hardiness not only to protect Mother India but also to prevent the sons of Mother India from sexually assaulting her daughters.
Like the Samiti, other Hindu organizations express admiration for feminine representations of martial prowess by valorising divine figures such as Durga and historical icons such as the Rani of Jhansi who rode to battle against the British as role models for female behavior, performing rituals celebrating warrior goddesses and prominently displaying statues and portraits of these female figures in their offices. The fact that women were some of the “most aggressive participants” in the 1992/1993 Hindu-Muslim riots, as several local newspapers put it, serves as evidence that Indian women&’s role as citizen-warrior is not merely symbolic.
While the Samiti may advocate women&’s physical training, the founding of the organization is described in one of its official publications as a rhetorical victory of female speech. This founding narrative highlights the talented verbal sparring of its first leader, Lakshmibai Kelkar. Kelkar is said to have persuaded the founder of RSS that “women needed to be a part of nation building because men and women are both wings of society. Unless both were strong, the society will not progress properly.”
The writer is professor of communication studies, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles.