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A Nation-State of Mind

Shahnaz Rouse, Sociology

When asked to talk about the “fluidity” of national identity, Shahnaz Rouse laughs. “I’m sorry,” she says good-naturedly, “I’m laughing because I’m not a big believer in national identifications.” Rouse is Pakistani by birth; she left in 1968 during a time of massive national unrest, and later watched as the United States took a vital interest in Pakistan as a staging ground for war in Afghanistan, labeling Pakistan an “Islamic Nation” in the process. “But growing up,” Rouse says, “Pakistan never felt that way to me.”

What Rouse is interested in, more than trying to define a nation’s essence, is exploring the question: How do national identities get produced?

“There is always some ideal, when we talk about identity. In my classes, we try to look at who gets idealized, and who gets marginalized, by our social distinctions.” In the United States, for instance, we see a country of immigrants that is, paradoxically, highly xenophobic. “Look at the language we use for immigrants,” Rouse says. “You are an ‘alien.’ You are ‘illegal.’” Our ideological melting pot tells one story of American identity (“everyone is welcome”), but our border policies tell another. “And this gets much more complicated in countries with military juntas,” Rouse says. “In an authoritarian state, national identity is even harder to articulate.”

Rouse, who is currently teaching “Gender and Nationalism(s),” also sees national identifications—imposed from above by the state, and from below by actors and activists—as deploying gender actively and in contested ways. As an example, she points to her own identity as a woman from Pakistan. “I’m not a veiled woman,” she says, “and so I am ‘otherized’ by some folks when I return there, just as I am here. In both cases there’s an assumption that I’m not an authentic ‘Pakistani Woman,’ whatever that may mean.

“You get forced into boxes that you resist,” Rouse continues. “For me, identifications aren’t with nations, but with smells, sights, sounds, and interactions. After all,” she adds, “the idea of the nation-state is pretty new, just a few centuries old. We tend to forget that.”

Shanaz Rouse

Illustration by Joseph Adolphe

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