The Follies of Nationalism
“I try to make myself small so they leave me alone,
Sometimes, I get depressed and I stay at home.
Some say that we’re making too big of a deal.
But come live a day as a woman,
You’ll see if we’re making it up or if it’s real.”
Today, many of us on the African continent need to rethink what it means to survive in the demanding world in which we currently live. If we did, we might perhaps see the need to be advised to seriously reconsider the nation-state as an ideal structure for fair and just governance for us all. Doing so, is of fundamental importance because, as our Akan elders say, “Yetu wo fo na wanntie a, woko Anteade (If you do not heed advice, you go to Anteade—a town for those who don’t listen to advice)". And if we were to stop and think about our present political affairs, we might ask ourselves how is it that our nationhood is so taken-for-granted?
You see, presently, we find ourselves living in societies that are organized around a system of governance enshrined in the almost sacred and irrefutable concept called the nation-state. Additionally, we find that we are all jostling for world recognition, as we seek to be first in some kind of unique-but-emulative position within a competitive single-file pathway to development. As digitalized information technology shows more and more of us how very few of the-other-half lives, we tussle to be a part of the now global-race toward civilizational progress; that is, to become chief contenders in a world in which each nation is assessed against the other (by so-called leaders of ‘the free world’) to see whether we are all measuring up to the ideal of "democracy"—even if it be an often ill-defined and contested concept.
So, you find that countries like Ghana are given brownie points for their good performance in this race for an “Africa rising”, by global financial organizations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, as well as by other key actors in the international community. In contrast, other countries that are tagged as non-performers and/or marked as non-compliant, receive mild to heavy reprimands (think Zimbabwe), if lucky, or else they are subjected to major destabilizing interventions (case in point Libya). And all of this ideologically inclined policing—be it sanctions or out-and-out military invasion—occurs as the result of a nation’s refusal or inability to mimic certain prescribed democratic and capitalistic behaviors that are geared toward shoring a world economic system and a particular growth-oriented way of being in the world.
And so, we see that as much as things have changed on this post-colonial road to progress, simultaneously things also remain the very same (and in some cases may even have worsened), as we continue to witness uneven development and rising social inequality in and around the globe. Unfortunately, we still live in a world in which men earn more than women, even in so-called developed countries; hence, the almost ecstatic responses on Facebook to the recent news that Iceland has made it illegal for women to be paid less than men. Additionally, we also live in a world in which many families still try to subsist on less than $1.25 per day, at the same time as there is a steadily growing number of filthy rich, including on the African continent, with individual net-worth in excess of many a country’s GDP.
In other words, in spite of our multiple jostling and posturing from within the grips of modernization, westernization, and more recently a chinalization of the African continent, we are still unable to ensure that each and every one of us does not miss out on the benefits of much technological advancement and infrastructural development, which we have obtained at the expense of other species and a planet that has already reached its boundaries—and so is at the edge of its capacity to renew itself in the face of our exploitative overuse of its natural resources for our endless advancement.
Bearing all these concerns in mind, one cannot help but to interrogate the very idea of nationhood—especially from a feminist perspective and in order to query its supposed rewards for all. When we observe national politics on the African continent (as well as anywhere else in the world, for that matter), we often find it is devoid of any real representation of and by women, as well as many other marginal groups (e.g., across linguistic or ethnic lines). This is why a place like Rwanda peaks our interest, since it serves as an almost solitary global example of a country where there is over 60% representation of women in parliament. This, however, is not without it’s challenges; in that, much of the Rwandese female political representation can be considered to be only public-skin-deep, as the authority of these women does not always translate into liberation from gendered domestic roles and duties within the privacy of their families and homes.
The status of women is not solely the concern of contemporary Algerian women like Toute Fine and Samia Manal, whose slam poem I excerpted to start this article. It has also been of global concern, and for a long time. The issue of a woman’s entitlement to a decent existence is the reason for the establishment of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action—a significant blueprint for advancing women’s rights made at the Fourth World Conference on Women in September 1995. Twenty-plus years on, we find that despite some advances, there is still much more to be achieved in terms of progress on gender equality, because inequality continues to result in the perpetuation of certain kinds of feminized poverty and the pronounced vulnerability of many women and children around the globe, and most markedly upon the African continent.
Meanwhile we now also know, with conclusive scientific evidence, that a society’s treatment of its women is a strong predictor of its nation’s security and state of conflict; in that, safe-guarding women’s security results in a peaceful state. And yet, many women are still subject to ethnic cleansing, domestic violence, rape culture, and other forms of grievous bodily harm—with rather unfortunate examples of this playing out in locations in the Sudan, South Africa, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has been labeled as “the rape capital of the world” much to the chagrin of some of its female citizens.
So then, I would say that there is still a general lack of really transformative and substantive benefits accrued for the everyday African woman in her home, work place, and/or in the nation-at-large. This is especially if she is also further burdened by discriminations that occur at the intersections of where particular aspects of her multiple identity and social relations meet, e.g., along age, income, education, ethnicity, sexuality, disability, religious affiliation, geographical, and other lines of differentiation.
Here, we fully begin to understand that contemporary nation-building (in its various iterations) has been consistently problematic in its absence of true gender equality and/or the proper addressing of the many needs, desires and political interests of the rather heterogenous groups of women, and even other minorities, within its populace.
For me, this problematic comes as a natural consequence of the concept we call the “nation-state,” which by its very historical (and colonial) nature can be said to be a racist, sexist and heteronormative idea that is inherently bound to foment and maintain social exclusion in its many manifestations. For just as gender is now clearly understood to be a concept that has been constructed by us—as always thinking human-beings—so too is the contemporary idea of the nation-state. It is for this reason that political scientist and historian Benedict Anderson describes the nation-state as an “imagined community”; that is, a fabricated collective that has been devised around a common story—be that a story about the groups’ common history, origin myth, identified territory, culture, customs, language, sense of belonging, and identity. Or else in more recent times, their shared pan-ethnic identity rooted in notions about a unified political destiny. In this sense, the nation has become a much larger community that is based on certain ideas about its coherence, unity, and shared interests, even when its members are scattered all around the globe.
So therefore, the terms nation, nationality and nationalism are all social constructs that are often difficult to define. And it is frequently through nationalism that we invent nations, where they did not already exist. As far as Anderson is concerned, this fabrication occurred towards the end of the 18th century, all as a result of the interplay between colonial expansion, capitalism, print-technology (i.e., the creation of newspapers and the novel, which was used to form a single time-frame through narrative), and the loss of linguistic diversity within the European landscape.
For us on the African continent, our experience of this westernized ideal of nation began in the 1800s, with the scramble for Africa, and became further consolidated by the independence movements that swept across the continent, after Ghana’s pioneering move toward political freedom and autonomy in 1957. Of course, it is important to also note here that Ethiopia was indeed the sole precursor to Ghana in the maintenance of its sovereignty in the face of a failed attempt of Italian colonialization from between 1936 to 1940, approximately.
Even more importantly, as feminist scholar Anne McClintock reminds us, all nationalisms are not only invented but they are also gendered and therefore dangerous, in the sense that they tend to limit and legitimize people’s access to resources, plus they also represent certain kinds of relations to political power that are often steeped in particular technologies of violence, or in what philosopher and political theorist Achille Mbembe might describe as “necropolitics”—the use of socio-political power to determine how some may live and how others must die, both literally and socially.
It follows then that nations have also been known to sanction and authorize certain forms of gender difference that are inscribed in culture-specific notions of masculinity and femininity, which are also associated with heteronormative ideas about domestic and familial spaces. This can be seen in the use of domesticated gendered terms such as motherland, fatherland, homeland and so on. Additionally, nationalism is often militarized, thus, cloaked in notions of masculinized memory imbued with either humiliation or hope. Similarly, professors Nira Yuval-Davis and Floya Anthias tell us that women have been implicated in nationalism as active participants—alongside men—in national struggles, but also as biological reproducers of the children of the nation, thus, marking the boundaries of national groupings (e.g., through restriction on their sexual or marital relations, including with implication for their citizenship). Women are also often expected to be the active transmitters and producers of national culture, so therefore they also serve as symbols, i.e., signifiers, of national (and or ethnic) difference. This is what accounts for the almost universal use of rape, as a weapon of warfare over territorial claims, in the shape of “ethnic cleansing.”
For these and many other reasons steeped in the reality that the origins of most African nations is in European colonialism, as well as in its neocolonial continuities still manifesting in our current world order (through the internationalization of western education, the continued use of westernized systems of governance, and the increased adoption of Americanesque consumptive lifestyles), we find that the nation-state—as a lived construct—may never fulfill its promise of catering equally for all of its citizens, most especially its female population.
For as the Akan elders say, “Ɔkɔtɔ nwo anoma (a crab does not give birth to a bird).” So then, how is it that we expect the liberty of all to be derived out of a system that was devised to enslave many? Basically, we should not expect our African nation-state apples to fall far from the tree that hosts their colonial roots and neocolonial leaves and branches. And yet it seems as if we here on the continent intend to miss this significant point, in our eagerness to please someone else’s idea of governance and progress. In this way, I fear we are steadily making our way toward many forms of Anteade—a place for those who do not heed advice, even when it has been thoroughly demonstrated through their own past experiences.