By Ila Ananya
“From now onwards, women will not have to changes their names in the passport after their marriage,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced yesterday at a gathering of the Indian Merchants Chambers’ ladies wing. He was talking about development schemes for women when he made this mystifying statement, and ever since, it’s been doing the rounds for different reasons.
We weren’t sure why it was touted as news because it isn’t really new — such a name change has never been a requirement for your Indian passport. According to the passport rules, a person’s name will have to be changed only if an applicant has changed their name, or a woman has herself decided to change her name or surname after marriage. Many women pointed out the same on Twitter, asking or challenging media houses like NDTV and Times Now reporting Modi’s comment, who didn’t respond.
What’s worth pausing to note, however, is that officials often don’t follow such rules of flexibility – after all, who would women be without their husbands and fathers? Many institutions, whether banks or travel agents, seem to push this requirement informally and ask women hazaar questions about why they didn’t change their name after marriage.
For instance, one piece last year discussed how a woman from Bhopal had found it difficult to get her passport renewed because she was divorced. She hadn’t changed her name when she got married and neither had she added his name to her passport, but hers was considered a “complicated case”, and passport officers thought it important to question her about why she was divorced, and just what had happened.
We also remember how, when the Ministry of External Affairs finally passed new rules in December 2016 to ease the process of applying for a passport, they stated that the name of only one parent was enough in the passport, especially if the applicant had requested that a single name be used. Back then, we had spoken to a woman who remembered how hard it was for her to get her daughter a passport—officials had asked her to add her daughter’s father’s name in the form, and get his permission, even though the daughter had never met him.
“Madam, it’s just a name. What can happen without the father’s name and permission?” she had been asked.
It seems like everybody – from visa agents who want No Objection Certificates from husbands when women want to travel abroad, to passport officers and bankers who want the father’s name everywhere – is eager to know and dictate the minutest details of women’s names. Women are always told they need permission to do things, and they’re always seen in relation to the men they know, rather than on their own.
So when Modi states an already existing rule as if it’s a new concession from him, he’s not fooling anyone about his attempt to ‘empower’ women.