How am I to love my country?

A gendered perspective on forced nationalism

Art by Ranuka Tandan.

As I write this piece, I am agonized and angry. I am frustrated at the years of toxic societal conditioning and observation that has made me who I am today. 

“I sometimes wonder if I can be thirteen again, and love my country with my own heart. Not a heart that was forcibly transplanted into my body when it started transitioning to that of a woman, not the heart that does not have my beats.” 

I reflect on this angsty piece of poetry that I wrote two years ago. I probably wrote this after my mother decided that I should not wear Western clothing again, for my father had declared that it was wrong to do so. My anger knows no bounds, and I go on to argue, but it is then announced that I should no longer dress myself in clothing that does not belong to our culture. 

There are not enough experiences to tell you how many women fall prey to this forced nationalism. The romantic essence of nationalism is to behold a pride in the history, culture, traditions, and ethics of your nation. An understanding of your nation comes with the vivid processes of: 

Exposure – Learning basic facts and information about your national identity as a child. For instance national anthem, songs, flag, etc. 

Learning – The next process is that of formal education, which includes learning the national history, culture, demographics, people, basic laws, etc. 

Social learning – The learning that takes place at home and within society in general, where we are taught the proper way to conduct ourselves within the nation, respect the people, and respect different diversities. 

Forced nationalism happens at a microscopic level so that certain cultural ethics and practices (including clothing) are forced onto people, and thus a certain archetype of national identity is created. There is no objective transfer of knowledge; a constricted manual produced for the sake of following is given to us. 

My particular observation is that forced nationalism manifests itself greatly in the form of body policing, and that this body policing is highly gendered. 

“How easy is it for you to say my women should not carry any form of colonial relic in what they wear, when I see men twirling their mustache clad in crisp, white shirts and pants tucked in with the comfort of a colonial royalty. How is it that your gender lets you hug something with an ease, that we are being burnt for, stopped for, silenced for, buried for, how?” 

The act of being told to adorn myself in only a certain type of clothing is camouflaged under proud tradition and nationalism, but holds the latent presence of rape culture, misogyny, female submission, and body policing under it. Men go on to wear Western clothing without any restrictions or question of culture. Is nationalism the duty of a particular gender? 

It is like a woman’s body and choices need to be emotionally and physically policed to be respected and considered valid. Women are covertly told to cover themselves up and in several cases to cease wearing any revealing clothing after a certain age to ‘protect’ their modesty, their respect, and their familial values. The effects of such policing are both psychological and physical. 

I have observed this as I have been subject to this policing too. While becoming more aware of this, I started to grow more aversive to my nation. I hail from an Indian Muslim family residing in a metropolitan city, and being constantly surrounded by such teachings has intensified this. 

Furthermore, as someone who has grown up with a body that was considered larger than average, it was imbued that I should switch to Indian clothing for it hides my flaws, is modest, and was wrapped in the paper of ‘Indian Culture’. Seeing people around me from comparatively progressive backgrounds dressed in clothes that were deemed a part of ‘Western fashion’, imbued me with a suffocating hatred towards my country. I did not care for its historical essence, its beauty, the culture, nothing. There was hardly any space for my opinions to grow, and the lack of independence to experiment with fashion made me feel further unable to be opinionated. 

This is the case of one urban Indian girl, who had so many complex ideas revolving around her body, leaving her with nothing but shame and an unconscious need to conceal it. I look at other women like me who were told to conceal their bodies in the name culture, and know that when they see the mirror, all they think of is shame. They think of a country which is asphyxiating, orthodox, and cannot hold their love handles. These girls are like me, and I know that we have grown up not only body conscious, but wary of taking up space. Even as of now, there is no concrete and expansive research about how many women suffer from eating disorders in the Indian subcontinent. Disordered eating has been seen a predominantly Western phenomenon, while it is a known and under researched fact that women of colour are more susceptible to it. 

This forced nationalism has also led to a certain hatred towards traditional clothing among Indian youth. People who choose to dress up in traditional clothing are seen as an anomaly and backward. Imagine being taught to hate your country so much that you think what people traditionally wear is something exotic and a deviance? Those who are forced into wearing traditional clothing face a double distress of being oppressed and derided, and those who wear clothing with choice are placed into a certain mould and called derogatory names. 

The current youth exoticize Indian clothing in a plethora of ways, primarily through social media. When a particular privileged, conventionally good looking Indian woman who usually dresses in Western clothing uploads a picture in a saree, with a caption saying ‘Desi girl slaying’, her look is applauded and revered. She is seen as a Desi icon for doing so. At the same time, women who dress traditionally on a regular basis are marginalized for the normalcy. Even the posts on social media are supposed to have a sense of Western, modern aesthetic to it. A particular college background, adorned makeup, or urbanity is expected to elude from it. Or in the cases of the diaspora, where women in non-Indian countries who wear Indian clothing in a more western way are applauded, I wonder how much of this appreciation comes for women who choose to adorn themselves in an Indian clothing on a day to day basis. How is it that their normalcy is not celebrated? We have created this archetype that whenever we dress in our traditional clothing, we have to justify it, provide a hint of westernization to it, compulsorily add an explanation, or wear a full face of makeup to uphold a certain stereotype for that. 

“How easy is it for us to give a woman a dupatta to cover her heaving bosom, 

And every time she looks at it, 

She does not see the beauty of her country in it, 

She sees a well of agony and the nation is the demon, wanting to kill her, 

Catch her breathe in a deadly mutter, 

And she never looks at the nation with lovelorn eyes again.” 

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