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In India, you're always daddy's girl PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Amrita Singh   

Your identity follows a standard format in India: son or daughter of Mr X. That is how you know one Sunita or Ram is different from another. But what if you don't want to put in your father's name or be identified solely by your family name? Should you be denied all official documents? Shouldn't your mother's name be sufficient to establish your identity?

Unfortunately, that is not the case, as illustrated by the recent case of a 19-year-old Mumbai girl, who was denied a passport because she refused to write her biological father's name on the application form. The man had not communicated with his daughter since the day she was born and the girl thought it justified to leave his name out. Read More Even though her mother raised her and the girl still lives with her, the courts have said she can be granted a passport if she lists her foster father as her father and fills in the application form accordingly.

Mothers in India clearly have a long way to go to achieve legal gender equality.

But that's hardly surprising in a patriarchal society, says Nirja Gopal, professor of women studies at Delhi University.

She says the importance of the father's name is well-established. "It is a form of identification. How else do you know one Sunita Kumari from another? But that's certainly not a justification for making father's name mandatory for an identity document; why not the mother's name?"

Gopal believes the change will come about in time.

But the Mumbai girl's passport application drama may underline a deeper unwillingness to recognize a woman's role in raising children. Many believe that it is wrong to render the mother almost invisible, even if she is actually the legal guardian and the biological father absent from his child's life.

Student Rajiv Chowdhury was raised by a single mother and insists that "it makes no sense to put in my father's name and have the family as the only identifier even when he is practically absent from my life for all purposes".

But it is not just passport application forms that make the father's name mandatory. You need it for practically everything, including applying for a PAN card (to pay one's tax), a mutual fund, a bank account or even admission to professional bodies such as the Indian Institute of Chartered accountants or the Indian Actuaries Institute. All those forms show complete disinterest in the mother's name.

It does not have to be this way. In 1999, the Supreme Court ruled that a mother can act as natural guardian of a minor child even if its father were alive.

The remarkable judgement was handed down in response to writer Geeta Hariharan's plea for justice because the Reserve Bank of India had refused to accept her signature on an application to open relief bonds for her minor son.

With hindsight, Hariharan admits "it was a landmark judgment, which led to certain changes in the Guardianship Act", even as she bemoans the fact that "but people are not aware of it". She says it is unfortunate that most Indians "don't know that a mother has the same rights as the father with respect to a minor child".

Since the judgement, not much changed has changed on the ground. Recently though, the Central Board of Secondary Education made it optional for students to use father or mother's name to identify themselves; HDFC bank forms seek to ascertain only the mother's name and many school and college application forms are willing to accept either parent's name.

For many using the father's or mother's name is not about striking a blow for gender equality. Richa Bakshi, who lost her father several years ago, says "putting in my father's name and prefixing it with late is hurtful. So I would leave a blank against father's name in school and college forms and thankfully for me, people were always understanding."

Gopal says it can't be long before India marches in step with the rest of the world and gives the mother recognisably equal rights as the father. She says, "With biometric identification, I can see things moving in a different direction. It will obviate the need for family name or father's name altogether."

 



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