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The Gender Politics of Development: Essays in Hope and Despair

The Gender Politics of Development: Essays in Hope and Despair

by Shirin M. Rai

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In The Gender Politics of Development Shirin Rai provides a comprehensive assessment of how gender politics has emerged and developed in post-colonial states. 

In chapters on key issues of nationalism and nation-building, the third wave of democratization and globalization and governance, Rai argues that the gendered way in which nationalist statebuilding


In The Gender Politics of Development Shirin Rai provides a comprehensive assessment of how gender politics has emerged and developed in post-colonial states. 

In chapters on key issues of nationalism and nation-building, the third wave of democratization and globalization and governance, Rai argues that the gendered way in which nationalist statebuilding occured created deep fissures and pressures for development. She goes on to show how women have engaged with institutions of governance in developing countries, looking in particular at political participation, deliberative democracy, representation, leadership and state feminism. Through this engagement, Rai claims, vital new political spaces have been created. Though Rai focuses in-depth on how these debates have played out in India, the book's argument is highly relevant for politics across the developing world. 

This is a unique and compelling synthesis of gender politics with ideas about development from an authoritative figure in the field. 

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Zed Books
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The Gender Politics of Development

Essays in Hope and Despair

By Shinn M. Rai

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2008 Shirin M. Rai
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84813-237-5


Gender, nationalism and 'nation-building'

Development has historically been a nationalist project. The edifice of eighteenth-century anti-colonial nationalism, which was a gendered ideology of resistance as well as power, included 'development' as progress and civilization sustained by religion, culture and tradition, as well as by science and technology, capital and markets. The creation of the nation-state, of 'its world of meanings' – in other words, nation-building – has been the starting point of what has been called the developmental state. In this chapter I examine how nationalism and nationalist struggles have framed discourses and strategies of development. I argue that nationalism circumscribed development priorities in post-colonial contexts, gave them a hierarchy – of gender, class and ethnicity, among others – created some new spaces and closed off others. Ideology, religion and imaging of the nation-state played a crucial part in setting the development agendas in post-colonial nations. In the process of nation-building, just as the 'economic man' was the critical player in the development discourse, so the 'political man' was the citizen. 'The citizen's' interests were articulated in a universalist language that allowed only certain issues of economic development to be addressed. Both women and 'subaltern' men – of lower classes, castes and weaker ethnic groups – were co-opted into the elite nationalist programme despite the local struggles waged by them in their own interests (see Guha 1982: 1–7). While nationalism provided new spaces for women to mobilize in – and even to use and endorse the universal construction of 'the citizen' in particular contexts – at the same time it framed those spaces, landscaped them through rhetoric and language in particular ways. Many women, however, themselves part of the national elites, participated in the construction of nationalist imaginings and programmes, even though the process itself led to their simultaneous cooptation and/or exclusion from these constructions (see Bereswill and Wagner 1998: 233). I argue, therefore, that the place of women within the discourse of development cannot be understood without reference to the struggles around economic and political agenda-setting by nationalist elites, and women's movements in their various forms.

Gender and nationalism

Feminist scholars have made an important contribution to the study of nationalism (Jayawardene 1987; Enloe 1989; Anthias and Yuval-Davis 1989; Sangari and Vaid 1990; Kandiyoti 1991; Hall 1992; McClintock 1993). They have suggested that women are central to the construction of nationalist discourses as biological reproducers of members of ethnic collectivities, as reproducers of the boundaries of ethnic/national groups, as central participants in the ideological reproduction of the collectivity and as transmitters of its culture. They are also important to nationalism as signifiers of ethnic/national differences – as a focus and symbol in ideological discourses used in the construction, reproduction and transmission of ethnic/national categories, and finally as participants in national, economic, political and military struggles (see below). These different roles that women play mean that '[l]iving as a nationalist feminist is one of the most difficult political projects in today's world' (Enloe 1989: 46).

Gender relations are thus important as a frame for nationalist practices, and nationalism as an ideology is important for the configurations of gender relations within the national space. Biology and culture are key elements in the construction of new political spaces and of new discourses of empowerment. As Walby has commented, however, more work needs to be done on nationalism's economic consequences for women's lives such that the division of labour is not simply 'subsumed under biology or culture' but is made visible in the public domains of national development (1997: 182–3). Moving on from Walby, I argue that the gendered ideologies of nationalism framed the ways in which women's labour was configured, counted, assessed and rewarded. Masculine pride and humiliation in the context of colonialism had fashioned 'the (colonized) woman' as a victim to be rescued – first by the colonizers and then by the colonized male elites – and as the centre of the household to be protected and cherished. Thus, she served many purposes – to provide a node of self-awareness of a particular kind for men, and hence to be made visible in the public arenas in particular ways. As I will make clear below, in decolonized nation-states, policy-making acknowledged some of these complexities only by denying them.

Women's labour and women's citizenship are markers of this confusion that we see repeatedly in liberal nationalist discourses as well as in Marxist ones. Whether it is population policies, human rights, conditions of employment or endorsement of monogamous family structures, nation-states have used the discourses of both nationalism and development to circumscribe women's lives. And because of the history of colonialism, the pain of struggling against the idea of the community, culture and family, women have found it at times hard to oppose the boundaries being drawn around them, sometimes in their own names, by others – largely nationalist, masculine elites. In this way, the power of discourse was systematically used to frame women's role in development – whether as reproducers of the nation and markers of its cultural boundaries, or as participants in its economic life.

Nationalism is a much theorized concept; as is development. While feminist scholarship provided a gendered critique of the concept of nationalism, interventions in the post-structuralist mode have opened up new spaces within development studies which allow us to examine the discursive power of nationalism in the economic agenda-setting of the nation-state (Escobar 1995; Crush 1995; Marchand and Parpart 1995; Sylvester 1999). Building on both these sets of literature, I illustrate the importance of the language of nationalism for the construction of the agenda of development, and suggest that women's particular positionings within the family and society were central to both these projects. I argue that nationalism allowed conversations to take place about development between colonial and nationalist male elites. Women were largely excluded from these conversations, which took place in very different contexts of power. I emphasize, however, that these conversations, while exclusionary, were by no means discrete; on the contrary, they were untidy, contradictory and allowed spaces for contestation that were utilized by women. The partiality of these conversations and exclusions was also reflected in the unfolding story of development in decolonized states. Nationalism and development then were 'Janus-faced' (Nairn 1981) creatures at once mobilizing and excluding women from the project of 'nation-building'. After examining the dominant yet unstable discourses of gender of the colonial and nationalist elites, I explore the contributions of women activists to national movements and the articulated projects of nation-building, the spaces that women were able to create both within the nationalist movement and within the nationalist discourse, and also the dilemmas that they faced in participating in nationalist movements and discourses of nation-building. I suggest that the trajectory of women's participation within different types of nationalist movements and different political systems had a profound impact on the kinds of citizenships that they were offered, and their ability to be active in the public sphere. Here, it is important to keep in mind the evolving nature of nationalism, of the nation, and of its development. The particularity of political and economic contexts led to 'rounds of restructuring' of the nation-state (Walby 1997: 190) and posed different issues of evolving social relations for women and men.

I conclude from this discussion that nationalism and nation-states born of nationalist struggles posed particular challenges for women. While remaining central to the project of 'nation-building', women were made 'invisible' through universalized discourses of citizenship and economic development. While the new citizenships allowed women to take their place within the political space of the nation as individuals, the ambivalence that surrounded the new citizenships meant that this individuation remained fragile; the social symbolism of 'woman' continued to threaten the civic rights of women. Nation-states as products of nationalist struggles remain fractured and fraught terrains for women. Upon this terrain development was crafted – as the means and goal of progressive society and economy, and as emblematic of legitimacy of the new nation-state. I argue that while women remained central to the continuing construction of national identity, they were peripheralized in the new discourse of development.

The discourses of nationalism did not disappear with the decolonization of the 1940s to the 1960s. They are again with us in complex and contemporaneous forms in the post-cold-war period – through the seeking of nationhood on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion and economy. The processes of 'othering' communities, populations and groups continues to affect the drawing up of development agendas in eastern and central Europe, in parts of Africa, and Asia. Women have had to pay a high price for this new wave of nationalism, and have confronted issues that are very similar to those faced by women during anti-colonial struggles – rape, war, homelessness, insecurity, and being constructed without their consent as threats to, and symbols of, the new nations and national identities.

The chapter is divided into four sections. The first explores issues arising from the 'imaging of the nation' by political and economic elites. The second and third focus on the ways in which this imaging was employed in the service of colonialism and nationalism, and the final section explores how feminist and women's groups interacted with nationalism and with what results.

Imaging a nation

Remembering and forgetting 'All nationalisms are gendered, all are invented and all are dangerous ... in the sense of representing relations to political power and the technologies of violence' (McClintock 1993: 61; see also Hobsbawm 1990). This quotation raises several important issues. In a substantial amount of literature on nationalism the gendered nature of the concept is neither acknowledged nor analysed. So when Ernest Gellner wrote his now classic text on nationalism (1983) he constituted the nation as follows: 'Men are of the same nation if and only if they recognise each other as being from the same nation.' By using 'men' to mean 'men and women' he eliminates the possibility of discussing gender, since he is eliding the very difference (between women and men) that gender-based analysis studies. The gendered nation thus remains unacknowledged while at the same time important to the construction of nation. It is, for example, in the public space that men encounter each other and need recognizable markers for the nation to be imagined as home for them all (access to the public space is not automatic for women and this fact affects the nature of nationalism itself). It is also the public space in which they encounter men who are not recognizable, or are a threat to the recognizable self. This is because to the nation as an invention danger is an important motif – by naturalizing the nation as a recognizable togetherness, the threat to this togetherness can become central to the concept itself.

This threat can be either of physical violence against the national borders, or psychological violence represented by challenging the normative values recognized by the dominant male elites of the nation as important to all, or social and political violence against the institutions of the nation-state. The danger that lurks becomes the cement that binds men of a nation together in its defence. Danger is central also because it is often invented in order to raise national consciousness, which might be thought to be incipient and in need of mobilization. Political rhetoric becomes important in articulating this danger – to mores, customs, religion, which can find safety only within the political borders of a separate nation. Political rhetoric is at its most effective when it is able to harness the power of historical evidence. As the Greek historian Konstantinos Paparrigopoulos commented: 'History is not only a science. It is at once the Gospel of the present and the future of the fatherland' (Ben-Amos 1997: 129). As gospel, history provides as well as legitimizes accounts of 'the common possession of a rich legacy of memories' (Renan, in ibid.). Surendranath Banerjea, one of the founding members of the Indian National Congress in 1885, put it this way: 'The study of the history of our own country furnishes the strongest incentive to the loftiest patriotism ... For ours was a most glorious past' (Kedourie 1970: 235).

In this context, another history can become a threat to the unity of the nation; 'forgetting, and even historical error are essential for the creation of a nation' (Renan, in Ben-Amos 1997: 129). Memory and nationalism are thus intimately connected, and history is crucial to the documentation and erasure of collective memory, to the remembering and forgetting of recognizable commonalities. It is through the writing in or editing out of history that the invention of the nation takes place, and is placed under threat. In the need for creating a commonly (male) accepted history are also the roots of patriarchal compromise between different male elites in order to determine the spaces occupied by women (see below). Political self-determination thus becomes important to the articulation of the self. The growth of republicanism in Latin America, for example, saw struggles over the meanings of the image of 'the Indian' – excavated from the past to provide legitimacy to the political aspirations of the nationalists. Once this purpose was served, however, Earle suggests, by 1850 '"the heroic Indian ... had been converted into a wild beast lacking any capacity for civilization" ... virtually obliterating the brief period when all political factions had fought for the right to present the Indian as their own' (2001). This gendered nationalist self, in its remembering and forgetting, in the articulations of danger and of nationalisms, remains tied to the notions of purity and authenticity, which in turn are critically attached to the shadowy figure of the woman in the home. Nationalism in its psychological and political formulations thus posed significant problems for women.

Colonial, nationalist and feminist tropes There are three different discourses through which the figure of the national woman has been defined. The first was that of colonialism, the second of nationalism, and the third of feminism or the women's rights movement. In many ways these three were not discrete; they were overlaid with the intellectual baggage and historical knowledge of the others. The context of power within which they took shape and were played out meant, however, that the colonial discourse remained powerful even in the resistance to colonialism. This was because of the lack of confidence of nationalist elites in their own cultural histories, and their desire to find acceptance within the dominant structures of power and ideologies (Fanon 1967; Said 1979; Nandy 1983). The historical and the political economy contexts and international politics were important to the development of these discourses, in all of which I find a selective engagement with the 'other'. In the process of drawing new parameters, challenging existing and emerging political forces and creating visions of future development, nationalism emerges as the dominant discourse in the period of decolonization.

As Hoogvelt points out, 'Not only was the need for ... colonies argued in economic terms [increased trade leading to jobs at home], it was indeed often expressed as a vital national interest' (1997: 19). The competition between European colonial powers was a competition among nations. Threat to national survival was seen as the consequence of losing the conquest race, which would lead to the opening up and development of colonies as estates that must become the markers of economic progress. As in any process of state legitimization of huge economic investment, the economic rationale was insufficient. The threat to the national integrity of Great Britain, for example, was made the basis for the ever-expanding colonial boundaries by both political figures like Chamberlain and colonialists like Rhodes: 'In their speeches and writings they argued that half the population of Britain would starve if . ever the British Empire narrowed down to a "mere" United Kingdom dimension' (ibid.: 19). Another aspect of the colonial discourse was that of the threat posed by the barbarity of the colonized. As Benjamin Kidd, a sociologist at the turn of the eighteenth century, wrote: 'The task of governing from a distance the inferior races of mankind will be one of great difficulty. But it is one that must be faced and overcome if the civilised world is not to abandon all hope of its continuing economic conquest of the natural resources of the globe' (in ibid.: 20). Thus, the 'task of governing from a distance' the barbarian nations, though an economic necessity, was cast as 'the civilising mission' of the Christian nations – a cultural trope of colonial expansion. So religion and nationalism came together in legitimizing the economic interests of the colonial states.


Excerpted from The Gender Politics of Development by Shinn M. Rai. Copyright © 2008 Shirin M. Rai. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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Meet the Author

Shirin Rai is Professor in the department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick.

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