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Did you ever have to fill up a form that only asked for your father's name and not your mother's name? Have you ever been asked why you did not adopt your husband's surname after marriage? Have you had to listen to probing questions by schools' admission offices because the father of your child could not come along for the interview?
You have probably experienced at least one of these situations or the one of countless other situations that equate the name of a person's father with their identity. Whether it is a legal/administrative scenario or a religious ritual, the father's name of a child is the most important piece of information in society.
Why Is Birth Registration A Gender Issue?
It starts at the birth of the child when the name of the father is needed to register the birth. This makes birth registration a gender in inequality issue. According to the UNICEF, "In many parts of the world, women do not have the same rights or ability to register their child's birth as men [do]...A mother may face gender discrimination when she tries to register her child, for something as simple as not having an ID or marriage certificate, or if the father was not present or named on the birth form. Women may be unable to register their children if the father is unknown, or if he refuses to acknowledge paternity - such as in cases of survivors of rape or incest."
The Recent Case Of Nusrat Jahan
Recently, Nusrat Jahan, a popular actress in Bengali cinema and an MP from Bengal's ruling party Trinamool Congress, gave birth to a baby boy on 26 August 2021. She refused to divulge the name of the baby's father stating that it was her child and she intended to raise the child alone. This gave rise to a lot of speculation and a social media storm. Single mothers all over India spoke out in Nusrat's favour while Twitter trolls tried to dig up all kinds of dirt on her.
Let's take a few steps back to how and when this started. The controversy began earlier this year when Jahan claimed that her 2019 wedding to her businessman husband Nikhil Jain was invalid in the eyes of the Indian law. They got married in a private ceremony in Turkey. She said in a statement, "Being on foreign land, as per Turkish marriage regulation, the ceremony is invalid. Moreover, since it was an interfaith marriage, it requires validation under the Special Marriage Act in India, which did not happen. As per the court of law, it is not a marriage, but a relationship or a live-in relationship. Thus, the question of divorce does not arise."
On the other hand, Jahan's husband Nikhil Jain alleged that she never heeded his repeated requests to get the marriage registered. When reports of Jahan's pregnancy surfaced, Jain remarked to the Bengali media that Jahan left his place with her belongings on November 5, 2020. He said that he was not the father of her child, since Nusrat and he had been living separately for the past six months. And thus began the controversy and the conjecture surrounding the paternity of Nusrat Jahan's baby.
After the delivery of the baby boy, netizens exploded in controversy when pictures of Jahan leaving the hospital appeared in the media. She was accompanied by her rumoured boyfriend and actor-politician, Yash Dasgupta.
Dasgupta was seen carrying the new born to the car in the videos that appeared online. It is reported that since her separation from her husband, Jahan has been in a relationship with Dasgupta who is a well-known face of the Bengali film industry. So if Jain has denied paternity of the baby, is Dasgupta the baby's father? As this new conjecture started to take shape, it became fodder for online tolls.
What Does Jahan's Case Mean For Single Mothers In India?
There are examples of other women from West Bengal and other regions of India who have chosen to raise their children themselves, without the name or identity of their fathers. They have faced problems while standing by their decision, especially since many schools require the father's name for admission even today.
Many single or unmarried women who adopted a child faced this issue. Take the case of director Anindita Sarbadhikari who embraced motherhood through IVF eight years ago and is currently a single mother. Sarbadhikari said that a mother has the right to not disclose the name of the father of her child if she so chooses. She cited the example of Sawan Sen, Associate Professor of Engineering College who became a single mother in 2015.
"Being in the media limelight, living life as a single mother is not so difficult for us. Being an MP, it should be easy for Nusrat to ignore the criticisms coming her way," she said. However, she added that for ordinary women making such a decision is far more challenging.
In a society bound by traditions, where legal systems hardly recognise a woman's right on her child's name, where Bollywood romanticises monogamous and heterosexual relationships, Nusrat's is a bold step. Historians will tell you that marriage for romantic love is a fairly new phenomenon.
Earlier, marriages were solemnised for political reasons, property reasons and socio-economic reasons. Marriages have continued well into the modern world because they serve the purpose of distinguishing between a man's legal children and illegitimate (in the eyes of the law) children. It makes it easy for the father to hand down property rights to a child born within wedlock and one that carries his family name.
But is this really a relevant practice in today's world where successful mothers are capable of bringing up there children alone? It's time to think and time to change.
On the bright side, there are certain schools and institutions in India that allow for admission of the pupil with the mother's name. We hope this becomes a norm rather than an exception.