By Aashish Mishra Kathmandu, Oct. 18: Why must a child be forced to carry a name he or she does not want? Why do successive governments find it more appropriate to let individuals be stateless than allow the mother to confer her name to her ward? Why is it that a man passing on his name to his children is seen as the norm but a woman wanting to do the same provokes harsh comments?
These are the questions Puja Chand of Kathmandu Metropolitan City–3 raises to the authorities who denied her daughter Tanisi the right to obtain a citizenship certificate in her mother’s name. Tanisi, 18, has never seen her father, who left her mother shortly before she was born. She was raised by her mother, provided for by her and her mother is the only parent she has ever known. Her parents officially divorced in 2008 and Tanisi went through primary, lower secondary and high school with her mother’s name. But when it was time to get her citizenship, the District Administration Office (DAO) denied her request to take her mother’s last name.
“The DAO explicitly told me that Tanisi mandatorily needed to take her father’s name, irrespective of her choices, if she were to get her citizenship,” Puja shared. “When we stayed firm with our decision to not use her father’s name, they accused me of arrogance and of creating unnecessary trouble for my daughter because of my own vendetta against my husband (which I have none).” It was not like Puja and Tanisi’s demands were outside the scope of the law. The Constitution of Nepal 2015 and Nepal Citizenship Act 2006 both allow a person to obtain Nepali citizenship using their mother’s name. The Supreme Court has also ruled on more than a dozen occasions that the authorities cannot deny a person citizenship for not disclosing the father or not taking their name. Moreover, Tanisi had obtained her Minor Certificate, provided by the DAO, in her mother’s name. Her school certificates duly recognised her mother as her sole parent and the ward office had also recommended Tanisi for citizenship. Yet, when it came to citizenship, the DAO refused to grant Tanisi the paper to recognise her as a full citizen of Nepal.
“She was told to give her father, a man who is effectively a stranger to her, a stake in her identity. We were made to feel that a child can only be recognised through a man. And my question is why?” Puja said. No one at the DAO had an answer for this ‘why.’ So, Puja and Tanisi went to the Supreme Court which asked this same ‘why’ to Kathmandu’s District Administration Office and the Ministry of Home Affairs. This time, the DAO produced an answer and it was, “Tanisi cannot be granted citizenship in her mother’s name because, after marriage, the woman’s surname also becomes identical with that of her husband’s.”
This answer was not enough. A bench of justices Deepak Kumar Karki and Hari Phuyal issued a mandamus on August 8 that Tanisi had the right to choose her family name and the DAO could not deny her citizenship simply because she chose the family of her mother. “This was a moment of great relief. We could finally be recognised as equal citizens of Nepal,” Tanisi and Puja shared with The Rising Nepal. And because the Supreme Court issued a mandamus, Tanisi hopes that her case will help others in similar situations to obtain citizenship too.
But Puja is wary. “There were laws in the books and Supreme Court precedents even before our case. But still, my daughter was denied her citizenship. This mandamus is a positive step but others may still have to struggle.” Asked why she felt so, Puja said that there was an inherent thinking, as reflected in the DAO’s answer submitted to the court, that a woman does not have an existence independent of her husband that she can pass on to her children. And this thinking comes from a skewed sense of nationalism, Puja believed. “Some people, including politicians, peddle the fear that mothers passing on the citizenship to their children will flood the country with foreigners. They think that a married woman is somehow less of a Nepali than a married man.”
Nepal is not the only country that does this. There are 25 countries in the world that do not allow mothers to confer their nationality on their children. But Nepal is the only non-Middle Eastern, non-African, secular country on that list. “Is a woman really so inferior that she should not have the right to pass on her citizenship? Is citizenship in mother’s name really that bad of a thing that it must be banned?” Puja asked. Puja and Tanisi did a lot of research for their case and have accumulated a lot of documents from around the world. They now plan to use that to help others who are facing the same difficulties they faced but who may not have the capabilities they have. “We want to create a fund to use our knowledge and resources for others. By denying citizenship in mother’s name, we are violating people’s right to identity and rendering them stateless. We want to start a movement against that,” they both said.
For now, though, Tanisi has obtained her citizenship and has made a passport. She will now be going to the United States to pursue her higher education. But, despite what her documents now say, she feels the authorities are still reluctant to accept her as a bona fide citizen. “The DAO warned me that because my citizenship does not mention my father, it might be considered fake,” she said. “I know I will confront questions about my choice in the days to come. But I am ready to face them,” she added.