Against The Nation?

As far as I am aware, most queer and gender-progressive activism occurs within the context of a nation-state. With the exception of some groups, such as the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA), feminist and queer activists usually lead lonely campaigns within a single country. It is thus necessary to ask what effect nation-states (particularly ones that are “ethnically-defined”) have on these movements. How does ethnic nationalism (a powerful ideology that seeks to advance the perceived interests of a particular ethnie) impact gender and sexuality? How does it affect the work of activists seeking to alter dominant patriarchal and homophobic/heterosexist norms?

The principal theorist of the links between nationalism, gender and sexuality is Nira Yuval-Davis. The “big names” in social science thought about nationalism, such as Hobsbawm and Anderson, generally ignore the gendered dimensions of this phenomenon. Yuval-Davis fills this gap in the academic discourse by emphasizing the gender ideologies that proliferate in nationalist thought and action. In Racialized Boundaries, she outlines how a desire to control reproduction is inherent in ethnic nationalism. Membership in an ethnic group is almost exclusively based on being born into it – having the “right” ethnic blood. Reproduction is vital in this case as it ensures the future survival of the ethnie and the replication of its physical and cultural content.

Much of ethnic culture, therefore, is organized around rules relating to sexuality, marriage and the family, and since nationalism does not just create a common past for ethnic community – but also a common future – maintaining an appropriate level of reproduction (whether through anti-natalist, eugenicist or pronatalist policies) is conceived as paramount to the ethnie’s long-term survival. These ideas are echoed by Verdery (1994: 207): “‘nation’ parallels ‘gender’ in linking the physical ‘body’ of the state to a set of meanings and affects, thus rendering physical space socio-political… the standard rhetoric of nation-states effectively ties together control over the subject bodies and over territory.” Similarly, Gal and Kligman (2000: 23) point out that, at least in the case of Eastern Europe, citizens are constantly compelled to present a legally approved, reproductive” sexuality, because the “very concept of nationhood relies crucially on reproductive discourses and practices to make and remake the ‘nation’ and its boundaries.” Indeed, the deep, inextricable connection between nation, gender and sexuality is perhaps best exemplified by the etymology of the word “nation”: it comes from the Latin word, “natus,” which means, “to be born.”

Overall, nation-states, particularly those that are heavily influenced by ethnic nationalism, have an inherent desire to control sexuality and to demand a certain “proper level” of reproduction (which is dependent on the maintenance of patriarchal gender norms). Ethnic nationalism, thus, is very likely to be unfavorable to queer advancement and gender-progressive politics, as it would endanger the imperative of gender and sexual control that is inherent to it. How should activists respond to this challenge, then? Should they actively work “against the nation,” seeking to abolish its validity and advocate a radical politics that would eventually see the state “wither away” (a la Marx)? Should they attempt to accommodate themselves to ethno-nationalist norms and requirements? Or should they perhaps attempt to change the meaning of “the nation,” to move the semantic framework away from discourses about control of gender and sexuality?

Of these suggested tactics, the “abolition of the state” perspective has considerable “radical appeal,” (indeed, states and the international state-system do promote various other injustices, such as war, conflict, economic exploitation etc…). However, it is unlikely to be practical given the fact that people overwhelmingly identify with the nation or state that they were assigned at birth – altering this identification could only be a very long-term goal. Attempting to accommodate to the patriarchal and gender-conservative norms of the ethnic nation-state would be an uncomfortable process, at best – as it would involve arguing that emancipated women and “sexually free” individuals somehow support the social control over gender and sexuality that nationalism mandates. That would, in fact, be impossible.

The idea of reconfiguring nationalism away from an ethnic basis certainly holds the most promise. Promoting a kind of “civic nationalism,” where the nation is identified more with fostering a diverse social order and human rights for all its citizens, rather than the survival of a particular ethnie, would be a promising tactic for gender-progressive and queer organizations seeking to improve the gender and sexual order within their nation-states. This has, in fact, happened in South Africa. Although racial and ethnic tensions are still ever-present, the post-1994 South African state has identified itself considerably with a discourse of human rights – the “nation-state” has been reconfigured as the primary promoter of these rights, rather than the power-vehicle of a particular ethnic group. This discursive alteration has enabled policies such as same-sex legal unions and has fostered the creation of vibrant queer communities in some of the larger towns. Thus, reconfiguring the basis for nationalism, rather than abolishing it, would seem to be the best tactic for dealing with queer and feminist politics within nation-states.

***For More Information***
Nira Yuval-Davis’ work is absolutely pivotal for this subject. If you would like a “short-and-sweet” summary of her main ideas, the article “Women and the Biological Reproduction of the Nation” (in Women’s Studies International Forum. Vol. 19. 1-2, pp. 17-24) is a good place to start. She has also written several fascinating and very accessible books with Flora Anthias, in particular Woman-Nation-State and Racialized Boundaries. For a full bibliography, take a look here.

Other important thinkers on this subject write mostly about particular regions. For example, Deniz Kandiyoti focuses primarily on gender, nationalism and sexuality in the Middle East – her classic text is Gendering the Middle East: Emerging Perspectives. I have mostly studied this subject in the context of Eastern Europe, for which the work of Susan Gal and Gail Kligman is indispensable: Reproducing Gender is the key text – a shorter and more readable alternative is The Politics of Gender After Socialism (2000). Kathryn Verdery’s work is also important – check out her article “From Parent-State to Family Patriarchs: Gender and Nation in Contemporary Eastern Europe” (in East European Politics and Societies, Vol. 8.2, 1994).

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