This post is by Doreen Vitoria Gaura.
While completing the business visa application form for India recently, I was highly disturbed by one of the questions and the implications that come with it. The first question was basic enough, as one would expect. It asked for your names – first, last, and middle. It is the question that followed that got me. It read “Father’s name”. Unless one takes the time out to unpack its implication and the issues that come along with a seemingly simple enough question like “who sired you?” it remains a simple & “reasonable” question on an official document. So let’s starting unpacking shall we?
This question highlights the extremely oppressive patriarchal culture that persists in India. Despite laws on gender equality and women assuming positions of power, patriarchy is everywhere, even blatantly displayed on international documents for all to see. It is difficult to understand how a government can, at least appear to, endorse the belief that the father is the primary parent in a child’s life completely excluding the mother. India is unfortunately not the only state to hold this view or engage in this practice.
Traditionally, in most places around the world, a person begets their father’s family name, however, we are now seeing on occasion, albeit often times in single generation cases, matriliny. We also have traditional practices where when a girl/ woman weds, she is given away by her father or in the event a father is not available, a male sibling or relative. It’s these same brothers, sons and uncles who inherit the family’s wealth or possessions when the father dies. Women are not allowed to own land in some parts of the world. As if that is not bad enough, we are now required to provide our father’s name when we apply for a business visa to certain countries, including India, and yet it is the woman who carries the life of the child in her body for 9 months, births and raises the children until they can take care of themselves.
My thing is, not everyone knows who fathered them but almost everyone knows who their mother is so surely logic must dictate that it should be her name that is required. Perhaps, one can argue that it is for that exact reason that this is the case. That patriarchy in our societies, including that of India, stems from a desperate need to not only be included in the establishment of a society’s progeny but to take over completely socially where they can never do so physically.
According to some historians, this way of thinking i.e. the father supersedes the mother, finds its roots in a time centuries, possibly millennia, ago when a lot of communities are said to have been matriarchal, or as some historians will argue, matrilineal which according to them does not necessarily amount to matriarchy. In this time women were revered and were in charge and this may be attributed to the widespread Goddess worship at that time. This may have been, in part, due to the fact the people back then had no real understanding of conception and they believed that women conceived on their own and were, with the help of the god/esses, responsible for life on Earth. It was only until later when people realised that men had as much a role to play in the conception of a child as women that a paradigm shift began to occur. Of course other factors played a role but I shall not get into them here. In ancient India, women and men were equal but the status of women began to decline around 500BC with the Smritis and the advent of Islam and Christianity.
Regardless, whatever the motivation for attempting to completely sideline women when it comes to genealogical identity, if the point of that question being on the form is to distinguish between the two and to deem one parent less important than the other, it should be seen for what it is: a serious violation of human rights. It robs women of their sexual and reproductive rights not to mention it discriminates against the children of women who have survived sexual violence.
When all’s said and done, we must rightly acknowledge that women and men play an equal role in the conception of a child therefore both parents should be recognised. In an ideal world both parents have an equal right to the child and an equal say, however, this is not a perfect world we live in and in instances such as these where a hierarchy must exist one would assume that the mother would take precedence over the father and not the other way around.
Something as seemingly miniscule to some, mostly men if anything is to be gotten from comments made by men with whom I have engaged on the issue, as a question of who the applicant’s father is on a state document, in my view bespeaks the nature of that state’s value system. Such questions give a thumbs up, as it were, to harmful cultural practices. Governments need to ensure that they exhibit zero tolerance of harmful cultural practices.
Doreen Victoria Gaura is a human rigths activist whose main areas of focus are gender equality, children’s rights and LGBTI rights.