ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Revisiting the Discourse on Agency

Women and National Liberation Movements

A critical evaluation of the burgeoning body of feminist scholarship on the expression of agency by women in conflict settings is undertaken in this paper, more specifically in the course of nationalist resistance movements. Patently, this strand of literature assumes significance, in that it seeks to challenge the masculinist exclusiveness of the mainstream literature on nationalism, revolution, and resistance that pushes women into political oblivion either as passive victims or as bystanders of their own history and that of their nations, rendering invisible their historical contributions. While acknowledging the need for shifting of scholarly lenses from an exclusive focus on the narratives of victimhood to the aspects of women’s agency, this paper—by way of revisiting the structure–agency binary in social theory—challenges the unqualified emphasis on agency and a comparative undervaluation of the deeply entrenched “structures” of local patriarchy, and the constraints that these prevalent structures impose on the capacity of the individual agent.

In the classical literature on nationalism, revolution, and state formation, women remain conspicuous by their abs­ence because of masculinist exclusiveness of this literature. Feminist theorists argue that “the result of this gender exclusion has been to render invisible women’s hands in the making of nations and states” (Nagel 1998: 243). Lately, there has, however, been a proliferation of theory and research on gender or more specifically women in the nation­alist politics and national liberation movements. Very often, the nation­alist struggles take the form of armed conflicts between the forces of occupation and the nationalist guerrillas; the women are portrayed as “passive victims” sandwiched between the two combating forces. It is undeniable that women tend to be the worst victims of myriad forms of violence during the course of an armed conflict, especially the deliberate war tactic of sexual aggression employed by the state. The female body being viewed as an embodiment of the community identity and honour becomes the part of “privilege of the conqueror” and therefore the primary site of sexual violence (Chenoy 2002).

The victimisation of women due to political violence and the brutality of militarisation has been documented in a burgeoning body of literature and deservingly so. However, many feminist scholars have started advocating for a move away from the victimhood paradigm towards a discourse on women’s agency. The motivation for this shift of focus may very well be attributed to the feminist concern of recognition, the significant role that women play during the struggles for national liberation. In emphasising the active agency of women, the feminist scholars are well-intentioned in their attempt of bringing women to the centre-stage of nationalist politics, lest they fall into political oblivion as “passive victims” who could not be partners in scripting the history of the national project.

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Updated On : 30th Apr, 2022
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