Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

On social media sites, one occasionally comes across Pakistanis using the term ‘motherland’ for their country. Interestingly though, this term is not used as frequently in Pakistan as it is in, for example, India or Russia. It does not figure in Pakistan’s national anthem either.

The usage of the term ‘motherland’ is infrequent outside the patriotic literature and rhetoric emerging from the country’s armed forces. The masculine flip of this term is ‘fatherland’, which is largely used in European countries.

Both the terms are often associated with the institutionalisation of the idea of nationalism and the forms of patriotism that it encourages. This should mean that motherland and fatherland began to appear from the 18th century onwards, when groups of people started to define themselves as nations that shared cultural histories and geography. But according to an 1882 book, Notes and Queries, the word ‘fatherland’ first appeared as an English term in the early 13th century.

According to Clay Thompson in the February 10, 2015 issue of The Arizona Republic, the English term is derived from the Latin word, patria. Its English translation is ‘father.’ The word ‘patriotism’ also comes from patria. So, even though originally fatherland simply meant a region of birth of one’s father, it eventually became an expression of patriotism towards one’s nation-state.

Why do some nations refer to their countries as their fatherland and some as their motherland? And does it make a difference in their patriotism?

The origins of the term motherland are even more obscure. The American scholar Charles Anthon writes in his 1867 book Aeneid of Virgil, that ancient Romans saw Italy, the seat of the Roman Empire, as ‘motherland.’ In a January 2010 article, the American author Maeve Maddox writes that terms such as ‘mother country’ were in use in the 16th century, but ‘motherland’ was most prominent in Russian fairy tales. It quickly came to mean love for the mother country, Russia (Matushka Rossiya or Mother Russia). It was adopted as is by the communists even after they overthrew the Russian monarchy in 1917.

In the 19th century, the term Bharat Mata (Mother India) emerged in India. According to the historian D.N. Jha in an April 5, 2016 essay, the term Bharat Mata started to appear from the late 19th century, but wasn’t fully established until 1906. It soon became associated with anti-colonial movements spearheaded by the Indian National Congress. The term also became part of the rhetoric of Hindu nationalists, who began to imagine India as a Hindu goddess.

In Europe, using the terms motherland and fatherland to express one’s patriotism towards one’s country has gradually receded. But these terms are still part of the national anthems of some European countries, and are often used by right-wing nationalist groups. On the other hand, Americans mostly refer to their country as ‘homeland’, even though motherland and fatherland first appeared in the American Dictionary of the English Language in 1847. The term homeland gained more currency after the 9/11 episode, which triggered the creation of the national security term, ‘Homeland Security.’

However, Peggy Noonan, in the June 14, 2002 issue of the Wall Street Journal, writes that the term had a fascistic ring to it and that Americans hardly ever used the word ‘homeland’ to describe their country of birth. To Clay Thompson, however, compared to motherland and fatherland, homeland was ‘gender-neutral.’ He also informs us that it was entered in the US edition of Webster’s Eighth Collegiate Dictionary in 1973.

So what’s the difference between fatherland and motherland? Apparently none. Both are regions where one’s parents or ancestors were born. But the manner in which the idea of nationalism has evolved in the last 200 years or so, both the terms have gained a lot of ideological weight. However, it is also true that their usage has gradually eroded in most Western countries.

According to Maeve Maddox, “Fatherland suggests government and order. Motherland connotes birth and nurturing.” When German nationalism began to assert itself, from the early 19th century onwards, and especially when it came into full fruition — rather mutation — during the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, the idea of Germany as a fatherland firmly rooted itself in the German national psyche.

In this context, fatherland came to be associated with a state that behaves like a stern, authoritative and disciplinary father, but one that is also ‘benevolent.’ On the other hand, motherland is associated with a state that is nurturing and organic, yet fiercely protective.

In India, Russia and the Philippines, for example, the state is imagined as a mother. Curiously, recently this idea of a mother-state has been given masculine characteristics in India and Russia, so that it can fit the paradigm of the more assertive nature of nationalism emerging in both countries.

In most countries in Europe, the state is imagined as a father, even though, as mentioned earlier, this idea has largely eroded in many European nations, especially after the horrors of the World War II. But a right-wing resurgence in some of these countries is rekindling and romanticising it.

The founders of Pakistan did not use any of the two terms. However, when Rahmat Ali, one of the earliest Indian Muslims to demand a separate Muslim country in the region, detailed his idea of such a country in a 1933 book, he called it fatherland. The title of the book was Pakistan: The Fatherland of Pak Nation.

One of the overriding reasons for this was that the Congress Party and Hindu nationalists were explaining India as a motherland. So Ali had to go the other way. Secondly, Arabs had traditionally described their regions as the ‘lands of our fathers and forefathers’, even though Ali was South Asian and the Arabs had done so even before they adopted Islam.

Nevertheless, in a January 19, 1940 article for the British magazine Time and Tide, the future founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, explains India as a ‘common motherland of Hindus and Muslims.’ But he never referred to Pakistan as a motherland or fatherland. The reason some Pakistanis use the term motherland is mainly because the state in Pakistan is imagined as a mother figure. One can therefore often come across statements such as “riyasat tau maan ki tarha hoti hai [the state is like a mother].”

Yet, there are now also those who, just like many in Europe, believe that not only have the terms motherland and fatherland run their course, but the kind of nationalism that they evoke can be narrow, chauvinistic and non-inclusive (instead of being civic).

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 28th, 2021

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