Identity, Citizenship and Gender

As a woman, I have no country
As a woman I want no country
As a woman my country is the whole world

(Virginia Wolf, The Three Guineas ,1938)

Women’s gender was enough reason for exclusion from suffrage, despite being denied the franchise, women waged successful campaigns in most states for legislation. After the vote was won, the extent to which equality of rights has been achieved varies. And in all forms of political activity save voting, women participate at a lesser extent than men.

Does this only have to do with social rights or the state? What of an examination of political rights and participation, an analysis of social rights to include family law, legal frameworks, social programms, access to civil and political rights and how differently men and women struggle as citizens, to claim benefit from the state.

Sexual division of labor within families, markets and state goes unnoticed, women’s unpaid work at home ignored. Women are left choosing between ‘work’ and the ‘household’, with work possible only if the state so provides with its services. Nowhere in the west can married women and mothers choose not to engage in caring and domestic labor (unless rich enough to afford labor services of others). Women perform most domestic work whether or not they work for pay while men do very little domestic work. Many women work part- time as this arrangement suits them to attend to their domestic work, to the extent this work is undervalued in terms of political respect and benefits women suffer disproportionately.

Men as a Gender have power however it is not named so. It is not even related to sources of gender power such as the division of household work or men’s control of women’s bodies. Of course, women are not powerless in a family , any more than a worker on a job. In marriages in which power relations are based largely on economic dependence, access to paid work and to services that make employment a viable option for mothers and wives.

Economic dependence is associated with less power within the family because decision-making in marriages is largely based on the spouse’s contribution to the family income. The extent to which different groups and the mechanism that would guarantee job to women and the extent to which women can claim this right reveals the states effects on gender relations.

Even if the state provides women to leave oppressive situations – does it embody a true social right. If women do not participate in policy making , are their concerns likely to be reflected in social programmes. Is the citizenship status Ungendered? Why are women relegated to the margins of polity even though their centrality to the “nation” is constantly being reaffirmed?

The nation is itself represented as a women, although the status of a women in the nationalist movements as mothers, educators, workers and fighters is complex. The Constitution of India has a division between secular law and a will to create a uniform civil code. This will, in a climate of communal strife, might not get fulfilled.

In 1985, the Shah Bano case created furour among the Indian Muslims as Shah Bano had asked for maintenance rights from her husband. The Indian state through the new legislation of the Muslim’s Women Act in 1986 ended up blocking the muslim women’s recourse to secular law. State policy being moulded by norms and values and lifestyles of the dominant religious collectivity in the case of Shah Bano or in the case of Sati (widow immolation) in Deorla in 1987 or the case of Shayara Bano of 2016 to the triad of instantaneous triple talaq, all of them have similar undertones.

Unlike nationalism which grounds itself in past myths of “common origin”and culture – citizenship raises its eyes to the future. Women as women, have been placed outside the political community. Female education, Eugenic population policies, biopolitics all make women reproducers of ethnic collectivities or signifiers of ethnic differences. The emergence of women as full fledged citizens, would be in jeopardy if they were to continue as signifiers of ethnic differences and reproducers of ethnic collectivities. Social rights achieved at a stage of nation building get lost at the altar of identity politics, which have direct consequences for women’s rights.

The liberal definition of citizenship constructs as basically the same, all differences of class, ethnicity and gender are irrelevant as far as their status as citizens is concerned. However, women are seen to suffer from acceptance by the state in matters of education, marriage, divorce and other issues. In fact it might surprise many to know that in Britian women lost their citizenship during the Victorian days after they got married, or if they were to marry foreigners until 1948 and it was in 1981 that they received the right to transfer their citizenship to their children.

To abandon the public/private distinction and to add the family domain to that of the state and the market when examining the ways societies organize in the welfare state, and locate political power and organization is the need of the day. Civil rights of a citizen could often depend on ones familial position, and often women have few or no citizenship rights. Paradoxically familial relations are seen to become very important in the politics of the Indian sub-continent.

Citizenship, I would believe should include  an examination of the autonomy granted to an individual (whether of different genders, class, or ethinicity) a study of the families, civil society and the agencies of the state.

(Dr. Etee Bahadur teaches Development Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia)

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