Print Edition - 2014-11-02  |  Free the Words

Born of woman

  • A refusal to allow citizenship through the mother implies a fundamental mistrust in the women of this country
- Pranaya SJB Rana
Born of woman

Oct 11, 2014-

Having been raised by a single parent, I was always confused by the rituals that accompanied my mother and my trips to government offices to collect legal documents. When it was time for me to get my citizenship card, my mother had to rummage through her belongings and produce my long-dead father’s citizenship card. I wondered at this, given that it was my mother who had essentially raised me, since my father had died very early in my childhood. Still, his spectre haunted us like a bad dream, with Nepal’s medieval bureaucracy refusing to acknowledge that my mother, for all intents and purposes, should be able to pass citizenship to me through her own citizenship, without having to take recourse to my absent father.

Fortunately, my mother and I were lucky enough to possess my father’s citizenship. Thousands of others are not so lucky and they will be unluckier still, should a draft citizenship provision, currently with the Political Dialogue and Consensus Committee (PDCC) of the Constituent Assembly (CA) pass unhindered.

A labyrinthine process

It was a great time for gender parity when the Citizenship Act 2006 and the Interim Constitution 2007 both asserted that citizenship would be passed on through either the father ‘or’ the mother. This operative word ‘or’, which replaced ‘and’, had made all the difference, allowing mothers to pass on citizenship by descent (jus sanguinis) in the absence of fathers. This progressive provision so enshrined was hailed as one step in the right direction.

However, the bureaucracy, which is always the body most resistant to change in any country, refused to budge. It took a Supreme Court ruling in February 2011 to set a landmark precedent in the case of Suntali Dhami, who was refused citizenship through her mother. The court ruled unequivocally that citizenship would be provided to Suntali on the basis of descent from her mother.

All of these gains are now threatened. A labyrinthine process has led to a draft citizenship provision for the new constitution being passed with the regressive ‘and’ operative. This draft, passed by the all-male High Level Political Committee of the last CA, was marked as a resolved issue by the records committee of the new CA and handed over to the drafting committee for incorporation into the draft constitution. Fortunately, sharp-eyed drafting committee members forwarded the draft provision to the PDCC with a note saying that the PDCC might like to reconsider this issue. This unleashed a barrage of editorials and opinions in the media, culminating in the PDCC finally taking up the issue on the recommendation of one of its sub-committees.

As of now, the PDCC has tabled the provision for discussion but any debate has yet to take place. Given the composition and recent activities of the new CA, it would not be paranoid to fear an unsavoury outcome. But to any discerning individual, the right thing to do should be obvious.

Archaic attitudes

To deny women the right to pass on citizenship to their children implies a fundamental mistrust of women. The overwhelmingly male power elites of this country do not seem to have much faith in the nation’s women, despite the fact that women comprise the majority. When the power structure does take an interest in women’s issues, it does so in a patronising and parochial manner. The assertion is always that women are weaker and need to be protected. This was manifest most glaringly in the government’s ban on women migrating to the Gulf for domestic employment, which came after a series of incidents of abuse. Instead of taking any real measures to address the abuse, the government sought to limit women’s freedom of movement by asserting that Nepali women needed to be protected. The focus, it seems, is not so much on providing women with an equal playing field but instead, placing them in gilded cages.

The citizenship provision, then, is just a reflection of Nepali society’s inherent attitude towards women. Either women are weak and fragile or they are devious and cunning, willing to use their bodies to achieve any ends, like the allegation by a high-profile journalist/editor last year that women CA members were ‘bed-warmers’. Conservative elements claim that giving women the right to pass on citizenship will result in an influx of men from across the border, who will go on to impregnate all of our women. This argument is specious at best and sexist at worst. It pays little heed to women’s autonomy and assumes that they will be willing receptacles for Indian men. And maybe I am just dense, but I fail to see the big problem with Indian men marrying Nepali women and having children.

Misplaced priorities

And amidst all of this, there is news of the provision of a ‘special’ citizenship for Non-Resident Nepalis and ex-Gurkhas. It is infuriating that while more than half of the country’s population cannot pass on citizenship to their

children, those who don’t even live in the country and those who have willingly fought under foreign flags will be receiving a ‘special’ citizenship. While this citizenship does not come with political rights, it does send the message

that the power brokers are willing to go to any lengths to please some quarters, especially those with economic clout. Nepali women, especially single Nepali women, do not seem to have the requisite means.  

If Nepal is to truly progress, it needs to put stock in its own people. All of its people, not just males, not just Bahun-Chettri-Newar. Women have never been equal citizens in this country; their strengths and qualities long undermined by males. But any child, especially those raised by single mothers, can assert the resilience, capability, and wisdom of their mothers. Why do males conveniently forget this when they grow up? It is astounding that we have to even debate giving rights to women. Citizenship through the mother should be a no-brainer. The arguments against it are weak and fallacious and the arguments for it are rooted in the noble pursuit of equality. Is this so hard to see?

Rana is with the op-ed desk at the Post


Published: 02-11-2014 14:31

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