By Ila Ananya
“Madam, you haven’t filled in the father’s name in your daughter’s form.”
“We are not together, she doesn’t need it.”
“Oh. You must just add his name and get his permission then.”
“She has never seen him; there’s no reason for his name to be on her passport.”
“Madam, naam hi toh hai. Father ke naam aur permission ke bina kya hoga? Kuch nahin. (Madam, it’s just a name. What can happen without the father’s name and permission?)”
My aunt’s friend had this conversation with a man at the passport office in Bangalore. She got married when she was 20, and now she’s 33 years old and works in advertising. When her daughter turned three, they decided to go to London. But the trip never happened because passport officers demanded that her daughter have her father’s name on her passport — after they got his permission to issue it to her in the first place — a man she had never seen or heard from. My aunt’s friend hadn’t known the man very well when married him. Everyone had told her parents he was a nice guy — good business, so he will be a good husband, they said — and the first few times they met, he seemed alright. But when she got pregnant a year into the marriage, he told her he was in love with another woman and left. He never returned.
Now, 10 years after she tried to get her daughter a passport without her father’s name (she still doesn’t have a passport), the Ministry of External Affairs has finally passed new rules meant to ease the process of application. The new rules state that the name of only one parent is enough, especially if the applicant requests that only one name be used. When I told her about it, my aunt’s friend only mumbled, “That took a while.”
These new passport rules come seven months after the Delhi High Court ruled in May that single mothers can apply for passports for their children without the father’s signature. There’s no such demand of the mother’s signature from single fathers — it’s only for the ladies.
Ever since the court’s ruling, I’ve received two petition emails from Change.org — both from single mothers trying to get their children passports without their father’s name on it. Priyanka Gupta’s petition came in October: her ex-husband had abandoned them when she had a baby girl. The second petition came earlier this month: Juveria Patni writes that she is the single mother of a 10-year-old boy. She’d been married to an abusive man whom she managed to leave three months into her pregnancy — the same man who then filed for the custody of her son in a long-drawn court case that lasted six years. When she applied for a passport for her son, the officers demanded that she first get permission from this same man.
In each of these cases, there has been no standard demand from passport offices. Some women are asked to get permission from their ex-husbands, others are simply asked to fill in their names when they don’t want to. Some have been told that the system just won’t accept forms without the so-important father’s name. Either way, they are expected to establish contact with men who have abused them, men who have disappeared, or just men they have divorced — to get ‘permission’ as though, so far, they haven’t been responsible for themselves or their children.
This isn’t even as surprising as it is ridiculous. When I was headed to Hong Kong last year, I was asked by the officer at Bangalore Airport Immigration about travelling alone. “Akeli ladki? (A girl alone?)” he asked me. In my head I saw Kareena Kapoor’s face from Jab We Met when the station officer tells her, “Akeli ladki khuli tijori ki tarah hoti hai (A girl alone is like an open vault)”— and this was followed by a statement that I didn’t pay much attention to then, “Father ko toh pata hai na? (You father knows about this, right?)”
My colleague tells me about a woman she knew who didn’t get a visa to Chile because she needed a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from her husband. Of course, this isn’t an official demand and isn’t written on any website, but travel agents ask for NOCs because, apparently, men are responsible for their wives just like my father must know exactly where I, even as an adult, am travelling to. “No, it’s only for the ladies,” the women say they are told when they question this.
It isn’t only visas and passports. In Asghar Farhadi’s Iranian film A Separation, Razieh comes to work at Nader’s house, telling him that her husband, who has just lost his job and is in a lot of debt, doesn’t know she is working there. I thought of this moment when I read an extremely disturbing piece of news — an unnamed app that helps provide domestic workers with jobs and sends a text message to their husbands every time they go to work in another house, so that they know where they are at every moment. It’s like brothers, fathers, boyfriends always want to know where the women they know are. Because “Safety ke liye important hota hai (It’s important for safety),” as my friend’s boyfriend tells her. How hard is that to understand?
The passport officer had told my aunt’s friend, “What can happen without the father’s name and permission? Nothing.” What, then, does it mean that single mothers can now easily apply for passports for their children without being forced to bring permission letters? Women are constantly told that they need permission to do things, to go someplace, to work somewhere – never mind that they’ve been raising a child on their own or that they’re earning their own money (a thought that’s just so unbelievable for visa agents, apparently).
It wasn’t enough when women said they should make these decisions, it wasn’t even enough when the Delhi High Court ruled in their favour. Now, after all this time, perhaps this will be enough.
Co-published with Firstpost.