Mother India

Mama Nation

Mother, sister, daughter, nationalist. Hyper-nationalists the world over — those who believe in the superiority of their countries regardless of what these countries do– love gendering the nation while telling women how to be patriotic. And yes, it’s bullshit.

Marilyn Monroe as the Statue of Liberty with a smoking gun

Objectification of women, celebration of guns, and a statue representing a historical alliance with the French — very American.

In lots of countries, the figure of the nation is personified, and it is gendered. In Nazi Germany, for example, jingoistic nationalists appealed to the notion of the Fatherland. For Americans, we can look at figures like Lady Liberty — ideally the Marilyn Monroe version — and Uncle Sam as gendered personifications of nationalist attributes.

In India, it’s Bharat Mata, or “Mother India,” a figure of idealized Indian femininity invoked by nationalists, and often by Hindu supremacists, to express a conservative vision of national pride — inevitably equating national honor with proper female behaviour.


Film poster from the iconic Hindi film Mother India, in which a virtuous and honorable woman serves as the personified nation. Mother India obviously carries a great burden — probably gender stereotypes.

Why is the nation so often a woman? What can this metaphorical figure tell us more generally about the use of women, the use of the idea of women, within regimes wherein women are far from liberated?

Struggles over the meaning of national identity often entail struggles over the role of women. We can look, for example, at the concept of republican motherhood, popular around the time of the American War for Independence, that named women vital to the formation of the young country because they were responsible for rearing young (male) citizens. Or we can look to some suffragette rhetoric that argued that women ought to get the vote because our *natural* characteristics of nurture, kindness, and care taking meant we could properly caretake the nation. And what is contemporary anti-reproductive rights rhetoric but a moralizing discourse about what the proper American woman should be?

As those from the right mix patriotism with an appeal to “proper” female behavior, we end up with a vision of a nation that depends on the abstract idea of women, and thrives on the labor of women, but has no real space for women as, you know, actual human beings.

In India, we can look to post-colonial theoretical work on woman and nation to understand why the Mother India formation might have such a hold. In Partha Chatterjee’s essay “The Nationalist Resolution to the Women’s Question,” an important piece of post-colonial theory, Chatterjee argues that the Indian independence movement navigated colonization by understanding life as composed of two spheres: the outer, material, masculine world of British domination, and the inner, spiritual, domestic and feminine world of Indian identity and freedom. Thus, women came to be equated with tradition, spirituality, and the Indian nation writ large.

Of course, there are lots of problems with this idea — not least of all the fact that women are not ethereal homebound mother goddesses embodying a cultural essence but, you know, rights-bearing people.

And as students in India today have been labelled “anti-national” for protesting for the right to dissent and the rights of minority students, for speaking up for justice and speaking their minds, rhetoric about Mother India has haunted the protests like a ghost. Right-wing groups who rail against students often do so in the name of “Bharat Mata,” invoking the mother figure even as protesting women students have been threatened with rape.

Ashoka University professor Madhavi Menon recently came out with a great essay over at Scroll  about exactly this figure of the nation as mother, telling us what is so sexist about it. She writes:

If we need to do anything to mark Women’s Day this year, then, let us reject the very idea of Bharat Mata [Mother India]. No more self-sacrificing and servile mothers waiting hand and foot on millions of sons who treat them badly, and never more so than while designating them as mothers. In such a rhetoric, the Mother never speaks but is always spoken for and in the name of. Let us shun the patriarchal cast of maternity that deems a woman incomplete until she has children, and then shuts her up within the myth of the single-mindedly devoted mother.

When we actually start paying attention to women — the living, breathing beings — rather than just paying lip service, we have to confront head on the actual, material injustices against women all around us — not just our abstract conception of them.

“Your wretched borders and boundaries will not stop the international solidarity and collectivisation of women,” write the organizers of Pinjra Tod, or “Break the Cages,” a movement against women’s dormitory restrictions, harassment, and moral policing on Indian university campuses.  “Our imaginations dance wild like stardust, like the magic spells of witches.”


Poster designed by Pinjra Tod for International Women’s Day.

Working to make the world better for actual women is much harder than paying lip-service to an ultimately sexist notion of women as keepers of virtue, or honor, or national pride. But when we let go of sexist notions of nation and proper female behavior, we can begin to achieve actual liberation for women — and actual liberation from the jingoism and violence that characterize many nationalisms. Our solidarity must be bigger than our sexism, and it must be bigger than our national borders. As Marx said (yup, I’m citing Marx; deal with it), we’ve got the world to win.

Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing her masters.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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