Gender and Nation (1997) by Nira Yuval-Davis

Review by Sanjukta Basu, PhD Scholar

Gender and Nation (1997) is a comprehensive easy to read book which opened up the field of studying women’s relation with the nationalist narrative and politics. It is a must read in the current political scenario globally when there is a rise in right wing nationalist politics to understand how nationalism is theorized and how it impacts women’s lives, their place in the society, individual rights and so on.

Gender and Nation (1997) opened up the field of studying women’s relation with the nationalism. A must read amidst the global rise of right wing nationalist politics which impacts women’s lives and individual rights. Book review:

Author Nira Yuval-Davis is the Director of the Centre for Research on Migration, Refugees and Belonging (CMRB), University of East London. She has written “widely on intersected gendered nationalisms, racisms, fundamentalisms, citizenships, identities, belonging/sand everyday bordering as well as on situated intersectionality and dialogical epistemology. Among her books are Woman-Nation-State, 1989, Racialized Boundaries, 1992, Unsettling Settler Societies, 1995, Gender and Nation, 1997, The Warning Signs of Fundamentalism,2004, The Politics of Belonging: Intersectional Contestations, 2011, Women Against Fundamentalism, 2014 and forthcoming Bordering.

The first chapter of the book titled ‘Theorizing Gender and Nation’ opens with a two quotes

If the woman does not want to be mother the nation is on its way to die

The mothers of the nation, the womenfolk as a whole, are the titans of our struggle.

The above quotes in a nutshell sets the tone of the book which argues that without women the idea of nation and nationalism will die, because it is through women that identities are created and destroyed, and by extension nationalism depends largely on women. But women’s role have been ignore by the early theorizing of nation argues Davis. Nationalism have been  traditionally theorized based on primordialism, which believes that nations are ancient, but it is women and not intelligentsia or bureaucracy that produce and reproduce nation biologically culturally and symbolically yet women’s role have been ignored in literature.

The few scholars who have made women’s entry possible into the nationalism discourse are Carol Pateman, Rebecca Grant, Partha Chaterjee, Cynthia Enloe, Kumari Jayawardena and Davies. The book is also relevant in the current far right Hindu nationalism in India with a a Hindu hegemonic government ruling most parts of the country. Davies rejects post modernism and identity politics and views women as a heterogenous category but still united and oppressed by the system of sex, gender, patriarchy. Davis argues that we have not yet crossed the modern era, in the wake of religious fundamentalism it is clear that grand narratives have not yet ended so we cannot say we are in post-modern era. Book has its epistemological basis in situated knowledge propounded by Donna Haraway, and sets a framework for gender and nation discourse. In this Review, I shall present some of the core concepts explained by the book while contextualizing it with the current Indian women and national politics.

Before exploring the relation between women and nationalism, Davis analyses the category of women itself from various theoretical perspective, and addressed questions like why and how are women oppressed; what are the organizing principles behind power differences, sex and gender debate, material feminism; Ontological basis of the difference between men and women; black and dalit feminism, ethnocentrism, westocentrism, nature culture debate. In each of the chapter, one of the aspect of the nation is taken up and women’s role within that field is discussed. For eg what is a nation (Ch 1), biological reproduction of the nation (Ch 2) cultural reproduction of the nation (Ch 3) citizenship of the nation (Ch 4) military and warfare (Ch 5). In it’s concluding chapter the book discusses the issue of feminism, nationalism, ethnicity and identity politics.

Theorizing nation and state:

The idea of nation is built upon notions of inclusivity and exclusivity. Who legitimately belongs to the nation and who does not. The criteria of belonging is based upon various factors such as consanguinity including common race, ethnicity, tribe, religion, language, tradition, culture, a common history of colonialism, struggle, survival etc. Nations are situated in specific historical moment and are constructed by shifting nationalist discourse by different groups contesting for hegemony. Nation is a fiction, it has to be created with rituals and performance and mythical notions like common origin (volkanation), common culture (Kulturenation), equal citizenship (Statnation). State is understood as separate from nation with refence to various theories from the Greek philosophers to the present scholarships. Carol Pateman have argued that state emerges and gains its binding authority not just from a social contract but that there is also a sexual contract – that is the power that men exercise over women and how that affects citizenships. A sense of fraternity that creates a public-private dichotomy in which the men agreed to be equal citizens in the public sphere but retained their right to control women within the private sphere, where the state do not interfere. Levis Strauss have espoused that exchange of women between men is what maintains the social cohesion and Davis argues that it is not so much the exchange of women but sexual control of women that forms the basis of social order.

Whether state is independent from society, whether state is purely a coercive instrument are never-ending debate and the answer to these determine the gender relation within the state. State is not a homogenous entity, it is multi-faceted which are even contradictory to each other. For example at one hand States have anti-racism laws which purports people of all colour, creed, race as equal but at the same time they have anti-immigration laws. According to Foucault there are horizontal power grids on all levels and come into action when resisted. Davis suggests three units to understand citizenship, the state, civil society and family/kinship.

Nation is theorized as an ‘imagined community’ by Ben Anderson (1983) which feels that members of the community have a common origin, common culture. The hegemony of one collective is naturalized over others, these imagine communities maybe created by the state or ethnic groups. The imagined community need not always be located in the same geography but be connected via some commonality, for example, diasporic community, migrant community and political exiles. The community feels connected via common destiny (Otto Bauer). There are also the concept of good nationalism and bad nationalism, engaging in civic identity maybe good nationalism but ethnic nationalism is considered bad, however this is problematic when a group of ethnic minority see themselves as a nation separate from the dominant group and start a separatist movement as is the case of Catalonia in Spain or Kashmir in India.

Women and the biological reproduction of nation

Nationalism to stay relevant will have to depend upon women’s reproductive potential to keep reproducing the chosen identity. Women’s body then become the state’s property, and women must bear children who can become good citizens of the nation. Women’s sexual relations are strictly policed and controlled in a bid to maintain the purity of blood. In the Nazi regime the ‘pure blood’ was considered to be ‘contaminated’ even if one eights or one sixteenth of the blood was of others. James Davies have theorized the ‘one drop rule’ in his book Who Is Black? One Nation’s Definition (1993) which elaborates the blackness in USA. Sexual relations between certain communities example Jews and Arabs is forbidden not just culturally but by establishing laws. Women’s right to abortion, contraception are also controlled and it is the community or the state which decides how many children women should or should not produce or which type of progeny. Reproductive technologies are experimented on women to create the perfect gene. In India far right Hindu group Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh and affiliated groups routinely hold motherhood camp where they claim that by certain Yogas and rituals they can give birth to the perfect baby (Bhardwaj).

There are mainly three hegemonic discourses that affects women’s right:

People as power:

Discourse purports that the population of the nation’s identity should keep increasing so more the women bear children better. If the nation’s population goes down there will be lack of labour force, sluggish economy etc. As such the State rewards citizens for producing children. In recent past far right Hindu fundamentalist political leaders have given statement “All Hindu women must produce 4 children to protect the religion” (All Hindu women must produce 4 children to protect the religion: Sakshi Maharaj).

Malthusian Discourse

Propounded by Thomas Malthus in the 1800s gave a dystopian prediction that population would increase uncontrollably in the third world countries and that would increase burden on the first world. So in that context State may force women to go through birth control and sterilization. Organizations like USAID, World Bank have created policies to encourage or sometimes aggressively push population control methods. In India during the period of Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi family planning was intended as a technocratic fix for the problem of poverty and women were made to go through forced sterilization (Williams). But in these policy decisions women’s agency is ignored whether she is capable of bearing children or not and her priorities are not valued. Feminist movements have always rallied for women’s reproductive rights, but it gets problematized when that movement is co-opted by dominant international agency who want to stunt the growth of ethnic or black community.

The Eugenics Discourse:

Pseudo-science which was used in the Nazi Germany to perpetuate violence in pursuant of pure race. Eugenics is concerned with not the size of the nation but quality of the nation, so women are referred to as “pure stock” and pure Aryan men were encouraged to ‘breed’ with them and non-Aryans forced to go through sterilization.

Nations are built upon a common identity the continuity of that identity is important for the nation to remain relevant. Protection and expansion of the population belonging to certain religion, race or similar identities is therefore an integral part of the nationalist discourse. Further, it is not enough to merely produce and reproduce the chosen identity but it is also important to impose restrictions upon intermingling of various identities and protect the ‘purity’ of the chosen identity. This is achieved by controlling the sexuality of the women belonging to various communities.

Indian Contex, Case of Hadiya, Love Jihad

A recent case of 23 year old Hadiya Jahana’s marriage to Shafin Jahan is an example of how the nation and several other institutions claimed a stake over Hadiya’s body. Indian Hindu nationalism discourse is built upon the ancient Vedic civilization and it is claimed by nationalists that India is a nation for and of Hindus. Everybody who ever lived in this land is a Hindu or once has been a Hindu, forcefully converted to other religion by foreign invaders or colonialists. Far right groups in India have been attacking inter-faith marriages where the woman is Hindu and chose to marry a Muslim, and embrace Islam. Unfound allegations of ‘Love Jihad’ is imposed upon Muslim men who are in relationship with Hindu women and no less than the National Investigative Agency, a body meant to specifically investigate terrorism in India, have been engaged in investigating whether such inter-faith marriages have any ulterior motive or terror angle. In May 2017 adjudicating upon a writ petition before it, the Kerala High Court declared 24 year old Hadiya’s (born as Akhila) marriage to one Shafin Jahan as invalid and ordered her to be placed in her father’s guardianship. Even though Hadiya had previously said on record that she doesn’t wish to stay in her father’s home, the court ordered, “The petitioner is granted custody of his daughter Ms. Akhila…”, the court ordered that a “Police Officer in the rank of Sub Inspector…in the presence of a Woman Police Constable/Constables shall escort Ms. Akhila from the Hostel to the house of the petitioner (emphasis added).”

The writ petition was filed by Hadiya’s father KM Asokan seeking a nullification of her marriage on allegations that it was a case of “Love Jihad” and corporeal control over Hadiya, an adult woman with no mental infirmity. By deciding in favour of the father the judiciary gave an unprecedented effectively taking away an adult woman’s individual choice. The Court stripped Hadiya of agency, independence and self-determination, and reduced her to mere gendered body, incapable of making decisions.” (Basu) From here on Hadiya fought a long battle all the way to the Supreme Court and eventually won her individual rights in March 2018. Hadiya’s ordeal with Court, police, investigative agencies, illegal detention against her will, and mental trauma which began somewhere around 2015 and ended only in 2018 was caused due to the fact that from the judiciary to executive to Hadiya’s father to Hindu groups, everybody tried to have a claim over Hadiya’s gendered body and were determined to control her sexual freedom just because the religion and man she chose did not fit the nationalist ideas.

Cultural Reproduction and Gender Relations

Gendered body and sexuality play pivotal role as territories, markers and reproducers of national identity and othering. Davies theorizes culture by referring to Raymond Williams, Anthony Giddens, Gramsci and Foucault. Women are the embodiment of nation not only because they reproduce the national identity but also because they are crucial for the ideological reproduction of the identity as they inculcate ideas and values during a child’s initial days of growing up. The image of ‘bharat mata’ who appears to be Hindu upper caste, upper class, domestic, northern woman, with superior moral character, akin to a Goddess is problematic because it is a way to dehumanize women by reducing them to nation and its culture. Every aspect of their personal life is subjected to scrutiny and she has to constantly live up to a perceived notion of the ‘ideal Bhartiya naari’. Perceived requirement of national identity controls the gender roles of the women of the nation. For example the Nazi ideal of feminity was that she should be fertile and not intellectual, she should stay at home” (Loroff, 2012)

The nation’s citizen are represented as masculine warriors who must defend the mother land’s honour. In the discourse of war and invasion by other countries we always hear that it is an attack on our mother or daughters. In the nationalist discourse women are recognized and valued in relational terms, they are either mothers or daughters of the nation and they need protection from perceived ‘others’ that is people of other religions. Such ‘protection’ is performed for a spectator using masculine power and violence.

Indian context, Dimapur, Assam mob lynching of a Muslim man on suspicion of rape

In March 2015, Dimapur, Assam a mob of seven to eight thousand people (presumably men) lynched a Muslim man to death on the suspicion that he has raped a Hindu girl. Pictures of the bloodied battered body of the victim were then circulated through social media with some members of the mob even taking Selfies with the body. Such violence is often condoned in the name of protecting national honour, values, culture, and so on.

Cultural discourse is different from identity narrative. Nationalism creates an imagined community and creates fear and hate for an imagined “other”. Woman often are the other both within their own community and in inter community. This othering make women vulnerable to control and violence. Men of the subaltern community tend to have a fear and jealousy of the dominant stranger. At the same time the colonial white man have a fear of the more virile sexual native man. Both men then try to control the sexual choices of their own community women but want to violence and inflict harm upon the “other” women as she is seen as legitimate target. Here Cynthia Enloe’s work on industries of sex tourism, exoticization of Asian or ethnic women is relevant. Questions in cultural studies have been dealt with theories of ‘assimilation and separation but assimilation also have its own problem as it renders the boundaries invisible and obliterates diversity and imposes an dominant identity on everybody. The Western nations’ ban on burqa or hijab is an example where the message is that minorities can assimilate in the mainstream so that they do not appear different.

Identity politics also have its own problems from the female perspective as it tends to skirt away the in-community issues in a bid to show a united proud identity. Minority women, black women are forced to stay silent about the violence they face within their household or community. Attempts to bring reforms in patriarchal religious laws are often met with road blocks because of such community’s fear of persecution.

Partha Chatterjee and Ashish Nandy theorized the colonial man, modernity and how that led to Indian nationalism in 19th century. The native men tried to be hyper masculine in order to compete with the colonial men and this again pushed women back to the secondary position in the nationalist movement. The upper caste upper class Bengali men in 19th century West Bengal took to modernization as a response to the colonial gaze and how native cultural practices were being viewed. The idea was to go back to a “true sense of identity” which both pushes women to embrace modernity and yet hold on to tradition. If the women fails in upholding the burden of her identity she is castigated.

Fundamentalism and Modernity go hand in hand as both capitalism and communism seem to have failed and societies are going back to a “golden past”. This puts pressure on women to stick to traditional role and remain indoors because if women have pursuits outside home how would nation survive.

Citizenship and Differences

Having theorized nation and how women’s lives are affected by various aspects of nation state, in this chapter Davies analyses the various theories of how citizenship is granted and whether women and men have the same citizens. Women’s citizenship of the nation is affected by public-private dichotomy, active/passive axes. When women are relegated to the private sphere they are not able to be full citizens of the nation, enjoying complete rights. It has been viewed that the State have no control over the private sphere of the household where women are located and therefore it is debated whether they can be called full citizens. Ethnicity and other forms of marginalization affects women’s citizenship. Mumbai-based feminist scholars Shilpa Phadka, Shilpa Ranade and Samira Khan in their book Why Loiter? (2011), which investigates how women from all classes engage with the public space in India have argued that in order to maximize their access to public space, women do not need “greater surveillance or protectionism,” but rather “the right to engage in risk.” Only by claiming the “right to risk,” they argue, can women truly claim citizenship.” (Phadke, Khan and Ranade). Citizenship can be to the collective that forms the nation or to the state. Individual citizens may or may not belong to the collective. It is therefore debated whether there should be multi-tier citizenship, one takes part in the nation building and other who only enjoys equal social, economic and political rights. With citizenship comes the ideas of good citizens, bad citizens, those who pay their taxes, join the military and die for the nation. Inclusion of women into the modern warfare and military are problematized by the unique conditions in military where women are not allowed to take up combat roles. Whether women are at all interested in going to war to kill humans or die for nation is an open debate which further problematizes women’s military role and thus their status as a full active duty bound citizen. Moreover, the army is not free form sexual harassment and other misogynists practices that women have found it hard to deal with.

Backlash and Transversalism

In the final chapter Nira Yuval Davies introduces a new concept transversalism which is aimed to be an alternative to the universalism / relativism dichotomy that is at the heart of post-modern feminism. Davies elaborates ‘backlash’ and ‘co-option’ faced by feminists in the current phase of feminism. Capitalism and free market have at one hand encouraged modernism and consumerism but at the same time they focus on the patriarchal family unit as it provides the labour force, women’s traditional role have been idealized. Men have become insecure that women have taken or will soon take all their place. This fear is also among the religious fundamentalists that women have began to find their voice and agency so they will no longer follow customs and traditions. Comparing the participation in the Bejing UN Conference (1995) with Nairobi (1985) Davies shows a worrying trend, that is the prevalence of organization of fundamentalists and other traditional groups who are trying to co-opt women’s issues. Groups who were earlier threatened and asked their women to hush up about oppression have become their mouthpieces now. For example questioning the positionality of black women’s self-identified groups like Southall Black Sisters these fundamentalists groups claim they (SBS) don’t know their culture enough so they cannot represent. Such groups then are engaged in counselling of women giving patriarchal traditional values. Same way in India, Muslim women have been ghettoized and any attempt to reform their laws or to work with them are opposed by AIMPLB (All India Muslim Personal Law Board). This is worrying in so far as identity politics tends to keep us tied to fragmented category and inward looking.

Davies provides transversalism as an alternative to the above which aims to unite women as one category in spite of their differences, universalism in difference. Davies relies upon Stuart Hall’s observation that “all identities are constructed across difference (Hall)”


Basu, Sanjukta. The Kerala High Court Thinks Love Jihad Is Real, But Women’s Independence Is Not. 31 May 2017. <;.

Bhardwaj, Ashutosh. RSS wing has prescription for fair, tall ‘customised’ babies. 7 May 2017. 26 November 2018. <;.

Hall, Stuart. “Minimal Selves in Identity The Real Me .” ICA Documents 6 (1987): 44.

Phadke, Shilpa, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade. Why Loiter – Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets. Mumbai: Penguin Books India, 2011.

Today, India. All Hindu women must produce 4 children to protect the religion: Sakshi Maharaj. 7 January 2015. November 2018.

Williams, Rebecca Jane. “Storming the Citadels of Poverty: Family Planning under the Emergency in India, 1975-1977.” The Journal of Asian Studies (2014): 471-492.