The Complex Nature of Citizenship

4 mins read

By Alexandra N. Grantham

Citizenship can be regarded as a legal status that comes with political rights such as voting in elections, and carry a passport, but from a sociological perspective we must understand the social basis and implications of the notion of citizenship – however limited citizenship is defined in judicial and political terms. I want to look at the wider implications of what citizenship actually means when looking at society; How the social implications of citizenship affect individuals’ lived experiences, such as my personal experiences in relation to the cultural and emotional aspects, but also the topic of marriage across borders within the cultural understanding of citizenship. 

One can be a citizen of a country but still experience being an outsider as a foreigner. Both in Sweden and other European countries this has caused huge dilemmas related to segregation and violence, gang warfare and mass-shootings. The notion of citizenship often excludes aspects such as ethnicity and religion, which often people have a stronger loyalty towards rather than to citizenship. One could argue that ethnicity and religion should be taken into account when talking about the social aspects of belonging to a country as a citizen. Some might intuitively feel that the notion of citizenship should not only include voting rights and participation but should also include an emotional sense of belonging, where citizenship should equal with inclusion. It appears that society and authorities are poorly prepared to counteract exclusion, and are therefore held in account for not minimizing the socioeconomic gap and segregation. Young students from these segregated areas are disadvantaged when it comes to education, there are limited choices of housing in cities in not so attractive suburbs, as well as restricted employment opportunities with a limited choice of jobs. Society, its administrations and institutions are often responsible for creating these limitations. 

An expression that caught my attention is Ayva. A friend of mine described this as a feeling that occurs when he finds himself in the Stockholm archipelago or deep forests in the Swedish nature; scenes that could have been taken from the Swedish artist John Bauer’s paintings. The feeling of Ayva can be defined as a sense of belonging to the place where one’s ancestors once lived; the feeling of finding a place in the universe giving a sense of belonging which cannot be compared to any other place than the land you belong to. My mother lived in Russia for a couple of years as a child and recalls how the Russians would fondly refer to their country as “Mother Russia”.

As for myself, I was brought up in a “cosmopolitan” family where different countries have equalled as home. I noticed that a feeling of unsettlement has had an effect on most of my family members, which makes the expression Ayva a very tempting thought; But sometimes Ayva can’t be located in one certain place, or maybe not found at all

I was born in the USA, without any ethnical connection to the States and yet I have not found any emotional connection to my birthplace. Later in life I’ve gained citizenships in Sweden and Kenya. Throughout the years I received particular questions running through immigration offices/gauntlets, having to explain the connection with my birth country in The States, passport in Kenya but living in Sweden, as well as endless conversations with taxi-drivers wondering where I consider my home. It may be confusing at times, but it is a privilege; Having a sense of belonging through places I’ve made meaningful connections to. I have sensed a belonging running through busy streets of Stockholm with my friends; I have felt attachment to my childhood town in the countryside of Dalarna. And yet, I am equally comfortable in the slightly chaotic world of inner-city life in Nairobi. I have always had a different place to rely on, as a shoulder to cry on, when a relationship has not turned out the way I expected, or when everyday life gets conflicted with boredom in one place. 

However, the social and cultural construction of citizenship also comes with a price; Not belonging, displacement, segregation; but there is also another aspect of the negative implication of citizenship: exploitation in relationships. There are different perspectives on this particular dilemma which are not fully taken into account within the social and political theories of citizenship. Theories in feminism and the political philosopher Susanne Moller Otkins argue that the division in the public life such as reproduction, relationships and marriage are in fact politicized matters. In today’s globalized world, services and goods move between borders, but people as well. They fall in love, and as a result apply for residency in the countries where their partners come from. In Sweden for example the residence permit is only temporary to begin with, but if the relationship lasts, the permit can become permanent, and eventually the “foreigner” can apply for citizenship. 

There has also been much attention given to the Southern Asian global marriage market, where men seek new partners from Asia, usually through online-dating, whereas many of these women see this as an opportunity for a better future in a new country. An article in Dagens Nyheter from 2011 with the theme “Marriage over borders” covered some of these women’s stories together with reports from the immigration office in Sweden and Women’s Help Centre. 

Many of these marriages have over time shown particular tendencies; at first the husband or wife is serious with great expectations from the marriage. However, this can change, resulting in the marriage breaking down. Many reports from the Women’s Help Center indicate that women have been thrown out of their marital homes, after men in particular have shown violent tendencies and reports of domestic violence have been made. These reports regarding marriages over borders show that Russian, Baltic, Thai and Nigerian women that seek help at Women’s Help Centres after being “dumped” by their spouses often lack a social network to turn to. However, there are many other aspects that should be considered as well, and patterns start to emerge; love is not the only reason for many of these marriages. There are often underlying motives as well, such as the search for security, status and freedom that a new citizenship can provide. 

For some, citizenship is just a document, for some it is coupled with the feelings of civic inclusion, Ayva, patriotism and love for one’s country. For many it has become a passport to a better way of life with social and economic benefits such as opportunities to jobs, education, better housing, and health care. However, this goody bag that citizenship provides is no guarantee that it brings along emotional “involvement”, security and inclusion. 

By Alexandra N. Grantham

Illustration: Paulina Cederskär

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