Sunil Babu Panta ko Op-Ed, Setopati.com
Nepal has operated without a proper Constitution for some years and it is essential that it be drafted to ensure the rights of all citizens. In a draft provision in the Constituent Assembly (CA), which is writing Nepal’s new constitution, current language provides that both parents have to be Nepali for a child to be a citizen. This would prevent women from passing on their citizenship rights to their children.
Nepal's laws and policies are, so far, reflection of the values based on patriarchy, and it always has had this restrictive law. But the Citizenship Act of 2006 explicitly states that children can acquire citizenship from their mothers. The Act was ambiguous and weak and not implemented by conservative officials. Still, it was a step forward.
In 2011, the Supreme Court made a decision that Sabina Dhami, a young girl whose father was never identified, was a Nepali citizen on the basis of her mother’s citizenship. This case should have set a precedent for other such cases, but Chief District Officers, who sign citizenship ID cards, say that the Supreme Court’s decision is not good enough.
The practice is that every Nepali who wants to get citizenship ID card has to show a proof of his or her father’s citizenship. But many fathers do not want to give citizenship to all their children – for example in cases when they do not have a happy relationship with the children’s mothers or if the child is born outside of marriage or due to rape. Among others, this is due to the right to property and inheritance that the citizenship entitles these children with. This leaves some 4.3 million Nepalis in a stateless condition where they are deprived of basic state facilities such as registering birth, attending college, applying for jobs, acquire or sell land or properties, acquire passport, open bank accounts, vote or as simple as get a mobile SIM card.
The way the new (draft) constitutional provision for citizenship ID is worded, men continue to be given preferences over women’s rights. On the one hand – and positively – foreign or stateless women married to Nepali men can immediately get Nepali citizenship. Their children can be readily granted Nepali citizenship. But, for a Nepali woman married to a foreigner, or who has been deserted by her Nepali husband, or for a single mother, the option to grant her children the birthright of being a Nepali citizen does not exist. There are already over four million stateless people in Nepal, and the new constitution/law, when passed as currently proposed, will surely increase that number.
And this is just one example of how so many Nepalese are struggling to address and overcome many other similar social, cultural, political or legal disparities during this much prolonged 'transitional' period and opportunity created after popular movement in Nepal in 2006.
As Nepal struggles to compile a new Constitution, women are demanding the equal right accorded to men – right to provide citizenship under their name to their children. Yet, perversely, ‘men at high level’ are reluctant to grant such provision saying it’s not just a question of equality, but more so of national interest. Yet gender equality is in our national interest.
Some men who are in the decision making position argue that if a women alone are allowed to pass the citizenship ID to their children then all the foreign seed will sprout in Nepal and Nepal will be overwhelmed by foreigners and that “true Nepalese” will become a minority in Nepal. Yet, a man who marries a foreign national is exempt from such concerns. Profoundly hypocritical and perverse.
Not only women, but many others who believe in equality are also supporting women’s rights to pass citizenship to their children under their name. This should be a simple question about equality, not a perversely framed question about nationalism. When men enjoyed all the rights including passing citizenship ID to their children only through their name, it was never been a question of nationalism. So how does it become a question of (threat to) nationalism question of (threat to) nationalism when a woman has the same right to pass citizenship to her children? If this hypocrisy somehow preserves some notion of a “nation,” where does that leave us on the world stage?
What is nationalism? Who defines what it is to be a Nepali? Is it the men in the decision-making position with their narrow definition of nationalism based on traditions of inequality? How is this sexist view relevant to women? To third genders? Or perhaps we should adopt a Hindu’s definition of nationalism—begging the question of how that would be relevant to other religious minorities in Nepal? Or perhaps a high caste’s definition of nationalism should be embraced—yet how would that be relevant to “scheduled caste” people? Is a Kathmandu or Pahade-based people’s definition of nationalism relevant to people who belong to Madesh and Himal? Is ruling class’s definition of Nationalism relevant to people who are ruled and oppressed?
These are the critical questions Nepal needs to explore. There is, perhaps, no simple, single definition of nationalism that is relevant and acceptable to all. Nepal's constitution should be rooted in equality for all its citizens. And perhaps we need to focus on how the Constitution views the citizens, rather than the adoption of quantitative notions of nationalism.
Nepal doesn’t suffer foreign occupation. Our nationalism is best served by our objection and rejection to internal oppression rather than external domination. The nation becomes weak in a true sense when equality and civil rights are denied to its citizens. The existing system in Nepal, however, denies many of their basic human rights. Our government should respond to the will and needs of the people and heed the call for constitutional safeguards to protect the oppressed. While Nepalese society is divided by gender, caste, ethnicity, sexual orientation, language, religion, geography, the law must not fall prey to the ways those differences consist of ascending degrees of reverence and descending degrees of contempt.
Yet, despite realizing the necessity of removing some social evils, which has horrified the lives of downtrodden people, the new power dynamics (of the same previous ruling class, minus the monarch) in the form of new CA is reluctant to do so with a view that any change in the existing code of social and economic life would change the political, social, religious, gender and economical dynamics, which consequently would deprive the grip of the ruling class, caste, gender, language, geography over the power, privilege and economy of the country. What should guide lawmakers is a sense of fairness and justice for all citizens, regardless of these societal constraints.
These kinds of oppression and discrimination provokes resistance time and again in Nepal. When that happens, the ruling class has a tendency of granting some rights and resources to the oppressed. Yet over the next few years, the ruling class backtracks, which in turn provokes another resistance. Such attitudes and practices of first giving and then taking back some degree of equality and rights are making the country economically, socially, politically and spiritually weak. When a majority of people struggle for centuries for justice and basic rights, they cannot contribute to national economy, they cannot contribute to social, cultural, environmental and scientific development. This puts the country into vulnerable position in terms of its national security as well.
Nationalism for us should embrace the spirit of dignity, both for the people and the country because these two are one. The people are citizens. The argument that women with rights to pass citizenship to their children would compromise national security is unsupported, perverse and is simply a reflection of a sexist and alarming attitude –an attitude that believes men are entitled to greater reverence than women.
Sunil Babu Pant
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