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Defining American Identity at Crux of Today’s Politics

New UC faculty member Rina Williams analyzes the influence of the state on gender and identity politics.

Date: 5/17/2012
By: Tom Robinette
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Photos By: Christina Holtkamp
Rina Williams thinks for years now America has been struggling with an identity crisis.

The assistant professor in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies and Political Science says recent electoral cycles have brought the notion of an evolving American identity to the forefront of the public consciousness alongside political mainstays such as taxes, jobs and the economy.

But what is the 21st century American identity? As the nation’s demographics change, a conclusive identity gets harder to define.

“At some level I think there’s a battle for how we are going to define American identity,” Williams says.
Rina Williams is writing a book on the role of women and gender in religious nationalism in India and other nations.

Williams has discussed the issue in her “Nationalism and Identity Politics” class in the McMicken College of Arts & Sciences. She says there’s a faction in American politics that sees our national identity as driven by a Judeo-Christian, Anglo set of values, and this group wants to hold on to that for fear of losing the core of what it means to be American. However, there are other emerging political perspectives on the national identity.

“There’s another faction that thinks even if that set of values is the core of our identity, that core has shifted a lot,” Williams says. “It’s the ‘politics of others,’ in a sense. We’re going to see to what extent the others are going to become more central, and which political parties are going to be able to adapt to that reality. And not just adapt, but help create that reality and push it forward.”

Meanwhile, Williams has been carving out her own identity here at the University of Cincinnati since she joined the faculty in September. The India-born mother of one was raised in sunny California and moved across the country to earn her Harvard PhD in snowy Massachusetts – where her education included learning the difference between mittens and gloves. Most recently she’d been teaching at the University of Virginia the past seven years.

She joined UC not long after her husband, William Williams, was hired as the director of the School of Architecture and Interior Design at the College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning. UC’s prestigious architecture program and urban campus were part of the draw for the Williams family, but so was the career opportunity for Rina.

“It was a good move for me because the configuration of departments at UC lines up well with what I do,” Williams says. “My work is balanced between women’s studies and political science. That’s a good fit for my research on gender, the state and identity politics in South Asia, primarily India.”

Williams’ first book, “Postcolonial Politics and Personal Laws: Colonial Legal Legacies and the Indian State” (2006), was based off her dissertation and focuses on the Indian legal system’s interpretation of family law according to a person’s religion. She’s working on another book that explores the role of women and gender in religious nationalism in India and beyond.

It’s an important topic in light of today’s geopolitical climate, where widespread civil uprisings beginning with the Arab Spring in December 2010 have spread the fire of revolution across the Middle East. Williams wants to examine whether this potential hotbed of religious nationalism will do better developing with the boundaries of democracy, as it had in India.

“If political groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt have to come to power through democratic means, then does that cause them to say, ‘We may want to confine women to the home, but we need their votes’?” Williams says. “Maybe that gives them an incentive to pull women into the public sphere.”

Ultimately, Williams hopes her research contributes to the understanding of women and gender in identity politics, and the state’s role in shaping women’s lives and all other forms of identity. She wants to help the public make well-informed, independent conclusions on issues surrounding identity and to keep people from being caught in a political tug of war.

“My fundamental, core belief is politics affects each and every one of us,” Williams says. “And we can’t understand the back and forth of politics unless we have ways of thinking about and understanding how identity feeds into that. We don’t just want to depend on the claims of the ads and political consultants and politicians. We want to be able to think and analyze for ourselves.”

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