Daughters as traitorsBy doing away with the ‘or’ provision on citizenship, the state is seeking to institute gender bias as a national policy
The debate over providing citizenship through the mother has been reduced to a matter of ‘national security’. Before the 2007 Interim Consitution and the 2006 Citizenship Act, only men could pass on citizenship to their children. The Interim Constitution changed this by stating that “any person whose father or mother is a citizen of Nepal at the birth of such person” shall be deemed a citizen of Nepal by descent.
This provision, however, is on the verge of being changed to ‘father and mother’ from ‘father or mother’. Even so, lawmakers assure women’s rights campaigners that they believe in equal rights for women and that a mother has the right to provide citizenship to her child through her identity alone. The only thing they are concerned about is the threat to Nepal’s security if the ‘or’ provision is instituted.
Reasons for worry
On the face of it, the ‘and’ provision appears fair for both men and women. Children also look to benefit from this, as the identification of both parents would ensure their legal right to inherit property as per Nepali law. But in truth, it does nothing to address the plight of single mothers and their children. Forcing single women to prove the fatherhood of their children would be a direct assault on their right to privacy. Men are lucky to be spared the need to go through this demeaning experience. The provision also puts a child’s right to citizenship at risk in case one of the parents is not available or refuses to take ownership of the child.
In another instance, if one of the parents is a foreigner, a child born of a Nepali mother will have to wait for 15 years of their parents’ marriage, until the father is eligible for citizenship through naturalisation, whereas a child born of a Nepali father is able to obtain citizenship through decent as soon as the mother renounces her foreign citizenship. So the big question is, why are Nepali lawmakers denying equal rights to women in citizenship laws?
Reflecting on our social and cultural practices might provide answers. It would also help us realise how we are equally responsible for perpetuating such biases.
Always a stranger
Marriage rituals in patriarchal cultures around the world have always ‘given away’ their daughters and estranged her from her family—requiring her to give up her family name, her birthright. In the West, the father is required to give the bride away. In Hindu marriages, kanyadaan—the ritual of offering the virgin to the bridegroom—is observed elaborately so as to ensure the parents’ entry into heaven as stated in the scriptures. Rituals are carried out a day before the wedding to ‘transfer’ the daughter’s gotra, or ‘clan’, to that of the groom’s. It actually gave me shivers when I recently learnt from my mother-in-law that a part of this ritual involves procedures like those performed during death rites, indicating that the daughter is now dead to her family. The daughter now becomes paraya—a stranger.
As a nation, Nepal is formally reinforcing the same notion into its laws by alienating women and seeing them just as allies of their husbands—a potential threat to national security if they happen to marry a non-Nepali. This is a gross underestimation of women’s intelligence and discretion and an attack on their autonomy and existence as complete beings. It is sad to note that our leaders see social constructs—made by human beings to meet certain ends at some point in history—as ultimate truths. It is a matter of great shame that the new constitution seeks to reinforce everyday sexism and gender bias as a national policy instead of eliminating them.
Women activists campaigning for equal citizenship rights are being blamed for their inability to comprehend the ‘deeper issues’ of national security and the political agendas at stake. Political parties lobbying for citizenship through the mother might have a hidden agenda of increasing their vote bank. But isn’t it the government’s responsibility to check possible instances of fraud, especially in the border areas? However, if the cases are genuine, it is simply unacceptable that the government crush the fundamental rights of women and the natural rights of mothers in the name of national security and political interest.
A new force
It has been a while since the Nepali political and civil society have been debating the need for a ‘naya shakti’—a new force—to rescue Nepal from its deteriorating political condition and stagnation. One of the critical issues at this point is gender equality—guaranteeing equal rights and inclusion of women—in the new constitution for sustainable development and protecting the right of every child to obtain identity. This new force should be committed to helping every Nepali woman realise her full potential. It should demand real action from all individuals and the state to mainstream women and make parents part of its endeavor to stop treating their daughters as outsiders by acknowledging the intelligence, capability, and autonomy of every woman and reestablishing the fact that women are as much the nation’s daughters as men are the nation’s sons.
Parajuli is associated with the Nepal Youth Foundation (email@example.com)