Traditional constructs of nationalism are being revived around the globe with negative impacts on women. In the United States, Europe, and Turkey, this dangerous trend aims to limit women’s autonomy in hope of preserving national identity.
The re-nationalization movement stems from threats – both real and perceived – against a country’s national identity and culture. Foremost among these is shifting demographics and the perceived cultural distortion that accompanies it. Triggered by globalization, immigration, and low birth rates, change in demographics has stoked fear among dominant national groups that has been encouraged and harvested by right-wing political parties. The result is a tide of populism that frequently appears as if it’s trying to turn back the clocks.
Though enjoying great popularity among majority groups, the traditional national identities pursued by these parties – the Republican Party in the U.S., Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), France’s Front National, and many others – are inherently restrictive for minorities and women alike. Gender roles have historically been institutionalized in nationalist discourse and the current re-nationalization movement has too positioned women primarily as mothers of the nation. In this context, women’s societal role and autonomy over their bodies is constructed as subject to the needs of state nationalism.
In the U.S., the current presidential election has reignited discussion and revealed widely held beliefs concerning women’s position and worth. Serving as a foil to Hillary Clinton’s historic candidacy, Donald Trump and his supporters seek to secure a white masculine national identity by appealing to a perceived loss of privilege. For example, when FiveThirtyEight reported that if only women voted Mrs. Clinton would win the election 458 electoral votes to 80, a Twitter campaign launched to repeal the 19th amendment. This is just one example of a campaign that has become a referendum on gender norms and national identity. Debates concerning women’s autonomy over their bodies have come into focus with stances on abortion: Trump thinks women should be punished; sexual assault: Trump says locker room talk; women’s role as primary caregivers: Trump supplies the funds, but doesn’t change diapers; and more, drawing lines between Mr. Trump’s 1950s style masculinity and Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy, which can be seen as a culmination of women’s progress in the U.S.
Throughout Europe the refugee crisis has reignited debate on what it means to be a member of any specific nation, leading to a resurgence of nationalism at the expense of women’s autonomy. In France, where Marianne, a woman, has long symbolized the nation, the focus has been on clothing and symbols, an obsession with what being French looks like. This was at the core of the summer’s burkini ban and previous policies against ‘conspicuous’ religious symbols in schools. In Poland, abortion has taken center stage as the rise of right-wing nationalism focuses on an expanded role for the Catholic Church and return to traditional family values that limit women to being wives and mothers. Germany’s Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) party similarly promotes Christianity to mobilize voters. Key to the party’s platform is the conventional family structure and a commitment to traditional gender roles. In Austria, the Freedom Party (FPÖ) released a video telling migrant men to “stay away from our women.” This dual framing of women as property of the ruling males and objects in need of constant masculine protection has been replicated throughout Europe.
In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP have focused not on protecting against immigration, but reestablishing Turkish dominance and pushing against Western secular influences. Through actions and rhetoric he has revived religious conservatism in the once secular nation, resulting in negative consequences and expectations for women. Femicide has increased. Although official statistics are incomplete, it’s estimated that 35 women were killed in September and 237 this year. Additionally, women are often attacked for wearing ‘inappropriate clothing.’
The increase in physical abuses against women stems, in part, from Mr. Erdoğan’s declaration that equality is unnatural; “you cannot make men and women equal, that is against creation.” By stating that men are naturally superior, it has legitimized treatment of women as objects and secondary citizens. Additionally, Mr. Erdoğan’s rhetoric assigns a distinct role for women within the nation – motherhood. The President argues “a woman who refuses maternity and gives up on housekeeping faces the threats of losing her freedom,” rails against the evils of birth control and abortion, and encourages all families to have at least three children. State interference in reproductive rights has gone past rhetoric as 34 of 37 state-run hospitals in Istanbul have refused to perform abortions despite its legality. Women’s rights activists have met the shift to a more conservative society with resistance, but President Erdoğan continues the push, arguing that they protect the Turkish bloodline and nation.
While context differs by nation, the trend is clear – re-nationalization is bad for gender equality. Women are the mothers of the nation both biologically and symbolically. This dual role has led right-wing nationalist parties to subscribe to traditional gender norms that prioritize women’s functions as mothers and attempt to restrict autonomy over their own bodies. The American, European, and Turkish examples highlight this dangerous phenomenon and raise the question of how to best incorporate commitments to women’s equality within nationalist discourse.