Madam Nepali

Women have always been punished for sexual infidelity even when it is their husbands committing it. The discriminatory provisions on citizenship are just an extension of this inequality

Every time Surili (name changed) talks about her husband’s second wife, she laughs. She had no idea her husband, a policeman with whom she has two children, had married again until after he retired and came home with the second family. Surili now lives alone in a village in Gorkha. Her son just left for a Gulf country, while her daughter stays with her husband and his second wife in a small bazaar close by.

Surili laughs because she thinks there is nothing she can do about how things turned out in her marital life. And she is not wrong to think like that. Extramarital affairs have always been hard on women in this country, no matter who commits it. If a man commits it, he is simply a polygamist who can be jailed, but is rarely, and the wives will have to somehow find a way to accommodate each other. But if a woman commits it, her husband will, in most cases, be compensated by the man she sleeps with. In esse-nce, a woman is a man’s right, his property, and is given the power to control her sexuality. And laws, instead of rising above, encourage this inequality. The Muluki Ain, currently in force, in fact, ensures this inequality while the provisions on citizenship in the draft of the constitution reflect it.

The Muluki Ain even defines adultery as a crime committed on a married man (not woman) by the person who sleeps with his wife. If brought to court, the cheating wife and her lover are punished with imprisonment of one to two months and a fine of Rs 1,000-2,000. The only times the husband can’t sue for ‘justice’ are when the cheating wife is one of his many wives or when he was once her lover with whom she cheated on her previous husband. It sounds very complicated, but it basically means that a woman cannot cheat on her husband while the husband can with impunity. The cuckolded husband is a poor, ‘aggri-eved’ man who needs to be consoled by law while his cheating wife is a whore.

Belatedly, but finally, the Muluki Ain is about to be replaced by the Civil Code and Criminal Code, where adultery, no matter who commits it, is no longer an offence, but a ground for divorce. Sadly, though, the biased lens through which society has long viewed female sexuality remains intact in many other provisions in the two Codes and, more importantly, in the provisions on citizenship in the draft constitution.

The infamous ‘and’ provision (12.4 in the revised draft), which requires a person to provide citizenship of both their parents to get Nepali citizenship, is just another excuse to control women’s sexuality. It basically demands that the woman stay with her Nepali husband forever because she is his property. If she doesn’t, the provision, which requires her (and not the state) to prove that her husband is not a foreigner, will be used to punish her by denying her children citizenship. Or she will be forced to say that the father’s identity is unknown and allow the state to write that down in the child’s citizenship, essentially calling the mother a whore.

The ‘and’ provision will not affect Nepali men at all because the ‘or’ provision (12.2.2 in the revised draft)—which states that a person can be Nepali if one of his parents was Nepali during the time of his/her birth—protects them. This ‘or’ provision is a general clause, and although it doesn’t say that only men can benefit from it, in a patriarchal society, only men benefit from such general laws. Women are bound by specific clauses such as the restrictive ones that ask her to provide the identity of her husband. Women can neither leave their Nepali husbands nor marry foreigners. Nepali men still think that their territorial rights extend to the bodies of women.

After we left Surili’s village and descended to Gorkha Bazaar, we met a reporter who volunteered at the Earthquake Information Desk run by Gorkha District Women Development Office (WDO). The reporter said that the number of women finding out about their husbands’ second marriage because of the earthquake has increased.

The WDO could not verify this claim but admitted that the number of disputes over relief material between the first wives and their husbands have grown after the earthquake. Most women complained that their husbands, who usually lived with their second wives, claimed the cash (Rs 15,000) distributed by the government without sharing it with the wives they no longer live with. The WDO, instead of urging women to file for divorce and file a case of polygamy against their husbands, treated men’s sexual infidelity as a regular occurrence that can be shrugged off and asked the fighting couples to make up and divide the cash equally among each other.

But we weren’t surprised. If only we could blink inequality away.

Published on 2015-08-15, The Kathmandu Post, From the ashes