Patriarchy of Paperwork: Who does an adult woman belong to?


by Ragamalika Karthikeyan

This Women’s Day, Prajnya focuses on ‘Patriarchy of Paperwork‘ through a series of posts on our PSW blog. In Part II of the series, we look at whether Government paperwork respects the legal autonomy of adult women. (Read Part I here)

The Preamble of our Constitution secures to all its citizens, Equality of status (and of opportunity), among other things. Article 15 prohibits the state from discriminating against citizens on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. But, while the societal reality of gender equality is far from the ideal, equally disheartening is the legal status of women in the country. Do women really have ‘equal status’, if at every turn, their identity as adults depends on their father, until it depends on their husband instead?

Are we full citizens, as the Constitution promises, or are we the ‘responsibility’ (property?) of our husbands and fathers, for all practical purposes?

Guardians for adults?

As per the Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act[1], the natural guardian of an unmarried minor girl is her father, but for a married minor girl, the natural guardian is the husband. In an age where child marriage has been legally abolished, this sounds like one of those benign leftovers from a forgotten era. But for many children in India, child marriage is a reality, and this law could still dictate who takes important life decisions regarding her education, health and life.

In the case of adult, married women on the other hand, this law for ‘married minors’ seems to have morphed into the unwritten convention for ‘guardianship’. Barring a few, Govt paperwork still expects a woman to check in ‘Husband’s name’ in the same column as a father or a guardian. As the application for the Voter ID[2] helpfully explains, “In case of an unmarried female applicant, name of Father / Mother is to be mentioned. In case of a married female applicant, name of Husband is to be mentioned. Strike out the inapplicable options in the column.”

The application for a driving license in Tamil Nadu requires you to identify whether you’re the ‘Son/Wife/Daughter’ of someone.[3] The form to get a PAN card, on the other hand says, “Even married women should give Father’s name only.”[4] What all of them imply is that for an adult women, her husband holds the same place as her father would.

Proof of Identity vs Ownership

The logic behind filling the name of any relative on Govt paperwork – or any paperwork – is to establish a proof of your identity, in the case of adults, and to fix responsibility in the case of minors.

While it makes sense for a married adult to establish their identity through their spouse, a blatantly sexist demand for ‘Father’s name’ or ‘Husband’s name’, with no similar requisition for a ‘Mother’s name’ or ‘Wife’s name’ (excepting a few cases), seems to have little to do with identity, and much more to do with ownership. (The Aadhar application seems very progressive in this regard, and has a column for the details of father/mother/guardian/husband/wife.)[5]

We all belong to our fathers, the paperwork patriarchy seems to say, except when we’re women and we’re married – in which case we belong to our husbands. It is the husband who is the decision maker in your life, irrespective of your actual distribution of income and labour, your lived reality, or any notions of equality.

Women’s Independent Identity

If it is proof of identity we’re concerned with, then, logically, it makes sense to ask for the name of the person who is currently around and closest to you. Whether that’s a mother or a father, a sister or a brother or a cousin, a husband or a wife or a child, or a roommate, partner or friend.

But when it comes to identity itself, shouldn’t women – indeed, all adults – have the freedom to decide? Whether they want to take their father’s name or a patrilineal surname as the last name, or their mother’s name instead, whether they choose to be identified by their husband’s name, or last name, or a name of their own – should Govt be in the business of pre-deciding at all? 

[1] Section 6a, The Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act, 1956

[2] Section 6, Guidelines for filling up the application form 6, Election Commission of India; accessed on December 1, 2015 at 10:00am IST

[3] Form 4, Form of Application for Licence to Drive a Motor Vehicle; accessed on December 1, 2015 at 10:00am IST

[4] Form 49a, Application for Allotment of Permanent Account Number; accessed on December 1, 2015 at 10:00am IST

[5] Aadhar Application Form, UIDAI accessed on November 18, 2015 at 11pm IST