Nira Yuval-Davis, Gender And Nation

IssueDecember 2002 - February 2003
Review by Uri Davis

Nira Yuval-Davis' Gender and Nation is presented by the author as the culmination of her work in the areas of gender and ethnic studies beginning with her work in the 1980s on gender relations in Israel and the ways they have related to the Zionist settlement project and the Israeli-Arab conflict through to the Women, Citizenship and Difference conference at the University of Greenwich in 1996.

The book is organized in six chapters ("Theorising Gender and Nation"; "Women and the Biological Reproduction of the Nation"; 'Cultural Reproduction and Gender Relations"; 'Citizenship and Difference'; "Gendered Militaries, Gendered Wars"; "Women, Ethnicity and Empowerment") and represents an attempt at critically reviewing much of the theoretical and other studies relevant to the subjects of gender and nation published in the past two decades as well as aiming at making her own specific theoretical mark in the field.

Yuval Davis' critical review of the theoretical and case studies relevant to the subjects of gender and nation seems comprehensive enough. It is evident that she has put to good benefit her work as co-subject editor (with Shirin Rai) on Politics and the State for the International Encyclopaedia of Women (forthcoming Routledge, December 2000). Her critical review has, however, an ambitious sub-text, projecting an expectation that the author not only identify the contributions and the inadequacies of theoretical and case study landmarks in the fields of gender and ethnic studies in the past two decades - but supplement, if not better these with her own innovative, if not superior contribution. It is at this level that the work does not deliver.

For instance, when the author is requires to rationalise her use of the terms "ethnicity" versus "nationalism" she begins with the qualification that "there is no inherent difference between ethnic and national collectivities: they are both Andersonian 'imagined communities'". She then progresses to observe that "what is specific to the nationalist project and discourse is the claim for a separate political representation for the collective". Being aware, however, that the definition, as such, encompasses virtually all branches of political organisation including party-political organisation and representation in the State Parliament she hastens to add that "this often - but not always - takes the form of a claim for a separate state and/or territory". Yet, recognising that some states are based on bi- or multi- national principles and that "some supra-state political projects like the European Union can, at specific historical moments, develop state characteristics" (p16), the reader is treated to the following, regrettably meaningless, generalities: "Nationalist demands can also be aimed at establishing a regional autonomy rather than a separate state; or they can be irridentist, advocating joining a neighbouring state rather than establishing one of their own. Although state and territory have been closely bound together, there have been cases of nationalist movements which called for the state to be established in a different territory than that where they were active. Others have not articulated any specific territorial boundaries for their national independence." (p16-17)

After all, if the author cannot better Ernest Gellner's definition of nations and nationalism as "primarily a political principle, which holds that the political and the national unit should be congruent" (Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism, Blackwell 1983, p1) why not give Gellner due recognition rather than treat the reader to meaningless woolly generalities such as cited above.

This weakness of the Yuval-Davis' work is not occasional, rather systemic to the entire narrative.

It is against the backdrop of this weakness that the ambitious attempt of the author, until recently Professor in Gender and Ethnic Studies at the University of Greenwich, at theorising and critically reviewing the theoretical and other studies relevant to the subjects of gender and nation in the past two decades represents a disappointment and in effect does injustice to the excellence of the works she critically reviews.

Her discovery of transversal politics defined as being predicated on dialogue characterised by the movements of "rooting" and "shifting", again, does not repair, and possibly compounds the weakness of her work. The idea informing transversal dialogue is that each participant in the dialogue brings with her the rooting in her own membership and identity, but at the same time tries to shift in order to put herself in a situation of exchange with women who have different membership and identity (p130)

But as Yuval-Davis herself recognises, correct political action cannot be based on identity politics, but on shared values and discipline. It seems, however, that the best value recommendation she is able to suggest in the end note (p.133), quoting a postcard sent to her by one of her "transversal" friends, is the very appropriate Zimbabwean adage: "If you can talk, you can sing; if you can walk you can dance!".

This, however, leaves at least one value problem unanswered: the advent of the industrial revolution also means that the majority of human kind are denied the necessary conditions to talk (without intimidation) and to walk (in good health) - let alone sing and dance. And the lovers of "barefoot boogie", to whom the said end note is dedicated, would do well to remember that one can dance barefoot only where sanitation is good enough not to be infested with parasites and disease.

Topics: Women