Gendernationalism as a new expression of political nationalism?


Janine Dahinden, Carolin Fischer, Joanna Menet, Anne Kristol September 2018

„In Switzerland, men and women have equal rights. Women decide on their lives in the same way as men do”. This statement appears in a leaflet outlining the basic rules of living together, which the Swiss canton of Lucerne distributes among asylum seekers. Who would have thought that the idea of gender equality would come to represent a fundamental dimension of being Swiss? Today, Swissness is no longer only associated with attributes like punctuality, orderliness, hiking boots and skis. As of recently, gender equality also forms part of the catalogue of typical Swiss features. As such, gender equality is represented as setting the Swiss apart from foreign – notably non-European – others who continue to adhere to unequal gender roles. To capture this biased perception of self and others, we introduce the notion Gendernationalism.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

What is Gendernationalism?

In recent times, we often encounter the claim that we, the Swiss live and exemplify gender equality. Conversely, others, like migrants from non-European countries or Muslims, represent cultures that are characterized by unequal relations between men and women. For this reason, they are considered incompatible with genuine Swiss values. Gender equality has become a yard stick to assess who is or is not compatible with – and therefore eligible to belong – to Swiss society. For decades, feminists have been fighting for women’s rights but always represented a minority. These days, however, feminist claims resonate well with a broader public, whenever perceptions of unequal gender relations among migrants appear on the agenda of public or political debates. The above-cited leaflet, or discussions revolving around the wearing of headscarves or swimming lessons for Muslim girls exemplify such discursive constructions. They suggest that gender equality has been accomplished in Switzerland. But they ignore that the situation is more complex and that unequal pay for men and women marks an everyday reality for large parts of the country’s labour force (see here). Likewise, women remain a minority in leadership positions, in executive boards as well as in higher-ranking academic positions (see here). Following the same logic, female migrants are often represented as victims of their sexist culture or of Islam more specifically, whereas male migrants are portrayed as perpetrators. This is not to say that there wouldn’t be gender inequality among migrants. Obviously, gender inequality exists among immigrants as much as it does among native Swiss and it is up to us to act against it. This, however, is not the key subject of this blog entry. Rather, we wish to illuminate the consequences of ascribing gender inequalities exclusively to them rather than acknowledging them as a persistent problem among us.

In recent years, a significant number of scholars have engaged with such biased representation of us and them. Sara R. Farris, for example, speaks about Femonationalism, in a similar vein Eric Fassin (2012) or Paul Mepschen and Jan Willem Duyvendak (2012) coin the notion of European Sexual Nationalisms. These contributions have in common that they shed light on the instrumentalization of women’s rights in the context of anti-immigration and anti-Muslim discourses. Likewise, they exemplify discursive constructions which Edward Said referred to as Orientalism back in 1978. By this he means a “system of representations which served to consolidate the West's authority and supremacy over the East”. Expanding on these contributions, we introduce the notion of Gendernationalism, as it sheds light on some specific articulations of the identified trends. This particular articulation of political nationalism represents gender equality as a normative imperative. As a result, what is imagined as typically Swiss or Swissness is inextricably intertwined with the normative ideal of gender equality. Gender equality thus serves as a basis upon which national boundaries are drawn and informs processes of inclusion and exclusion.

How does Gendernationalism manifest itself?

Based on our research within the NCCR – on the move we will now present three articulations of Gendernationalism:

1) In recent Swiss history, gender and migration have repeatedly fueled instances of political nationalism. However, Gendernationalism is specific in the sense that female migrants move into the spotlight of political interventions
Research we conducted within the NCCR reveals that throughout Swiss history, gender has repeatedly worked as a driving force of national boundary work (see: here). An early example for the link between gender and nationalist thinking takes us back to the 1960s. At that time, the front men of political initiatives against over-foreignisation (Überfremdung) mobilised culturalised representations of gender and gender relations to support their claims. Migrants of Italian descent, for example, were accused of being sexually aggressive and therefore dangerous to native Swiss women. Such claims and gendered representations of foreign others clearly entail a nationalist element. However, what we identify as Gendernationalism implies a different entanglement of gender and nationalism. While representations of male foreigners as potential aggressors are nothing new, we now see foreign women move to the forefront of political and public attention. This new visibility of female migrants is particularly pronounced in debates and practical approaches to integration. In this context, there is a tendency to represent the female other as unemancipated and as a victim of her foreign, chauvinist culture. 

2) Gendernationalism is becoming increasingly institutionalised and serves as a template for bureaucratic practice
As part of our research within the NCCR – on the move, we also focus on naturalisation procedures. We ask according to what criteria naturalization candidates are judged as more or less compatible with Swiss society. Normative ideas of gender equality play an important role in shaping such judgments. Whilst they are not reflected in hard criteria, such as the amount of time someone has lived at his or her place of residence, normative ideas of gender equality weigh heavily on the soft criteria of political decision-making. The responsible bureaucrats are able to exercise significant discretionary power as far as the mobilization of these soft criteria is concerned. Our research findings demonstrate that normative ideas of gender equality serve as important template based on which someone’s eligibility for Swiss citizenship is evaluated. For example, one widely-held expectation is that foreign women actively participate on the Swiss labour market, whilst their husbands lend them a hand with the housework. The question, whether such division of labour is common practice in native Swiss households remains unasked. If such gendered expectations are met, the likelihood for a positive decision on someone’s naturalization application increases and vice versa.
In Lausanne, a couple was recently declined Swiss citizenship, because they were considered as “disrespecting a basic principle and important pillar of Swiss society, notably equality between men and women”.
These examples illustrate an institutionalization of Gendernationalism. It turned into a powerful guideline for public perceptions and political decision-making.

3) Gendernationalism affects perceptions, pre-conceptions and stigmatisation of migrant descendants and produces new forms of nationalist exclusion
Being perceived as different or the other frequently marks the biographical experiences of migrant descendants. Such experiences of otherness occur at different life stages, regardless whether or not the person concerned was born in Switzerland or even holds Swiss citizenship. A third strand of our research within the NCCR – on the move finds that so-called Secondos and Secondas often find themselves confronted with the normative imperative of gender equality. This applies to persons who explicitly support gender equality. Research participants say that they live with the constant suspicion of disrespecting gender equality. Such findings show that Gendernationalism as a form of political nationalism even affects Swiss citizens, who are judged as conforming or not conforming with the norm of gender equality.

What are the consequences of Gendernationalism?

As an articulation of political nationalism, Gendernationalism affects the drawing of boundaries between ‘native us’ and ‘foreign others’ and therefore has profound impacts on how we live together in Swiss society. First, Gendernationalism denies continuous gender inequalities among non-migrant groups, which form the so-called native society. Second, Gendernationalism promotes generalized perceptions and representations of ‘us’ as the only good and legitimate citizens. This way, Gendernationalism reiterates and adds new facets to a historically-rooted sense of western superiority. Third, this ideology and concomitant sense of superiority promotes national cohesion. However, at the same time it promotes stigmatization, exclusion and processes of disintegration. This is even more so, if this form of social contempt lasts over generations and if it informs the practices of bureaucrats in state administrations.

As a form of nationalist exclusion, Gendernationalism is at odds with the elementary values of liberal, modern and democratic states, which subscribe to the rule of law. We argue that societies must not only acknowledge this problem. They also need to counteract manifestations of Gendernationalism and the nationalist exclusion it produces.

A German version of this blog entry can be found on the NCCR - on the move blog.

Image: Wikimedia Commons


06. September 2018

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Janine Dahinden, Carolin Fischer, Joanna Menet, Anne Kristol