GENDER and Nation

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15
August 2011
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Nira Yuval-Davis' new book, Gender and Nation offers a comprehensive treatment of key issues which relate to gender, nation, and nationalism. It is an insightful and highly readable theoretical work which incorporates the most recent literature on these issues. The author begins by making a few key points about gender and nationalism: firstly, that most of the major theoretical treatments of nationalism in the social sciences (eg. by Anderson, Gellner, Hobsbawm and Greenfeld) have not taken gender into account as part of the analysis, and have tended to emphasize hegemonic western nationalisms to the exclusion of non-western nationalisms; secondly, in light of the omission of a gender analysis in this literature, she points out that nationalisms are always gendered (although not always and everywhere in the same way). In making this point, she cites the works of Balibar, Chatterjee and Mosse as exceptions to the 'gender-blind theorizations of nationalisms' (p. 3). Finally, she states that 'nationalist projects' are sharply differentiated in her book from 'nation-states', and calls attention to the fact that different 'nations' can and do exist within, across, and above the entities of nation-states, and that they rarely have a direct correspondence with these entities.
In the introduction of the book, Yuval-Davis provides an overview of recent theoretical literature on the topics of gender, nation, states and nationalism, and follows with chapters on the biological and cultural reproduction of the nation (in which women figure prominently); the issues of citizenship, military and wars, and ethnicity. She applies a gender analysis to each topic, while taking into account the different social positions of women in terms of class, race, ethnicity, culture and country.

Indeed, the author stresses throughout the book the importance of avoiding the placement of women in an overarching category of 'woman', a practice which does not consider the significant differences among them. Moreover, in a critique of 'identity politics', Yuval-Davis also warns of the fallacy of viewing groups (gender, race, ethnic, class, and so forth) as homogenous entities which tend to produce a specific type of 'representative' of the collectivity, and has the effect of essentializing and reifying the group in a way that denies different experiences and positionings within it. One example of this is a view of the 'nation' as a de facto masculine entity, a view which does not address the differential position of women within it, or subsumes it to the interests of the (male) nation. Another example she cites relates to differences among women: the case of elite women serving as "representatives" of women's interests - not only in terms of privileged western women speaking for all women, but also, of privileged women from less-developed nations speaking for all of the women in their countries.

Having called attention to what may be taken as the insurmountable differences among women, the author devotes the last chapter to a discussion of the direction a feminist politics might take to work its way out of the 'postmodern' conundrum of particularized interests and unreconcilable differences - a situation which would seem to preclude any basis for a united women's struggle for equality. Her prescription is a call for a 'transversal' political strategy which highlights 'dialogue' among women in different social positions (including those within different 'identity blocs'). A dialogue of 'transversalism' she contends, is differentiated from both 'universalism'" and 'relativism', but is one which allows women the possibility for better understanding each other's specific oppressions. This may then lead to coalitions and political efforts around single issues about which women with different memberships and identities can agree. While cautioning that this type of political strategy may not always work where differences in interests are too great, Yuval-Davis nevertheless believes that this may be the most fruitful strategy to move beyond the pitfalls of identity politics, while providing a means to recognize some common ground for political action among differently-situated women. In this way, the author offers a strategy worth considering amidst the seemingly impassable identity boundaries of postmodern existence.

This volume would be a useful addition to either individual or combined courses on the topics of gender, nations and nationalism, race and ethnicity, and would be appropriate for upper-level undergraduate, and graduate courses alike.

Paula Frederick
Harvard University

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