Part II: South Asia

Chapter 4: Controlling National Borders by Controlling Reproduction

Gender, Nationalism, and Nepal’s Citizenship Laws

Dannah Dennis and Abha Lal

In this chapter the authors discuss how Nepal, a small country located between two powerful nations (China and India), struggles to maintain its sovereignty and national identity. The state’s politics of belonging exclude certain groups of women from citizenship. Caste, class, national origin, and ethnic markers like language intersect to affect women’s access to the rights granted to citizens.

Learning Objectives

  • Explain how normative concepts of gender and family have shaped Nepal’s most recent citizenship laws, resulting in many people’s exclusion from full citizenship rights.
  • Articulate the connection between controlling national borders, citizenship, and reproduction in Nepal.
  • Contextualize Nepal’s citizenship laws within broader global trends.

In many places around the world, states attempt to control the national, racial, ethnic, or other demographic characteristics of their citizen populations by adopting policies that directly or indirectly influence biological reproduction (for examples from Egypt, the United States, and China, see Bier 2010, Collins 1998, and Fong 2004, respectively). In the United States, for example, Donald Trump initially rose to political prominence by casting doubt on the birthplace and family relationships of then-president Barack Obama. This racially motivated strategy of questioning Obama’s status as a legitimate US citizen appealed to a wide swath of the US population who implicitly or explicitly link “whiteness” with “Americanness.” After being elected president in 2016, Trump continued to appeal to this base of voters by proposing to end birthright citizenship (the legal policy that every person born on US soil is a US citizen, which is guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution) and seeking to severely restrict immigration, particularly from Latin America and Muslim-majority countries. During Trump’s presidency, access to abortion and other forms of reproductive health care has been under attack in several US states. These are just a few examples of how, in the words of professor and feminist critic Laura Briggs, “All politics [have become] reproductive politics” in the contemporary United States (2017).

In this chapter, we will provide a case study that illustrates the dynamics of gender, reproduction, citizenship, and nationalism in contemporary Nepal, focusing on the years immediately before and after Nepal’s adoption of a new constitution in September 2015. We will demonstrate that the Nepali state’s efforts to influence reproduction can have serious impacts on the lives of cisgender women, who are held primarily responsible for the task of reproducing the kind of citizens that the state desires. We will also show how gender politics intersects with geopolitics in Nepal, a small country that borders two larger and more powerful countries (India and China), and explain how this intersection has affected Nepal’s citizenship laws. Even though Nepal’s border with India is technically an open border, with thousands of people moving back and forth between the two countries every day, many of Nepal’s political leaders are concerned about maintaining the distinction between the two countries in order to preserve Nepal’s sovereignty. One of the ways they have sought to maintain this distinction is by passing citizenship laws that are discriminatory both toward cisgender women and toward the people who live along the Nepal-India border. The questions of “what does it mean to be Nepali?” and “who counts as fully Nepali?” lie at the heart of public debates around the issue of citizenship. In the final section of this chapter, we will focus on how women who are doubly marginalized by virtue of their gender and ethnicity are seeking to answer these questions in their own words.

Broadly speaking, citizenship laws around the world tend to fall into two major categories: jus soli and jus sanguinis. In addition to these major categories, many countries provide other routes to obtaining naturalized citizenship, such as military service, visa lotteries, or sponsorship by citizen relatives. In countries that follow jus soli (right of soil), people are entitled to citizenship if they were born within the geographic territory of the country. In countries that follow jus sanguinis (right of blood), people are entitled to citizenship if their parents are citizens of the country in question; thus, parentage is more important than place of birth. Nepal’s citizenship laws follow the jus sanguinis principle. The most prominent public debates over citizenship and gender in contemporary Nepal are focused on the question of whether women, as mothers, are legally capable of passing on their citizenship to their children. In effect, the citizenship clauses of the constitution of 2015 say that a man’s right to pass on citizenship to his children is absolute; a woman’s right to pass on citizenship to her children is conditional. As we will show, this discriminatory statute is rooted not only in the fact that over the course of Nepal’s recent legal history, the Nepali state has linked women’s identity and legal status to that of their male kin—a pattern that Seira Tamang has described as “state patriarchy” (2000)—but also in social and geopolitical tensions with India, particularly with regard to nationalistic fears about Indian encroachment into Nepali territory and politics (Grossman-Thompson and Dennis 2017).

While we are focusing in this chapter on the debate about cisgender women’s rights to pass on citizenship to the children who are born to them, we recognize that this is only one facet of the complex relationship between gender and citizenship in Nepal. For example, although Nepal officially recognized “third gender” as a legal category in 2007, many people still struggle to get citizenship papers and other legal documents that properly reflect their gender identity. As a result, trans men and women who would prefer to have their documents reflect their identities as “male” or “female” may be inaccurately lumped into the “third gender” category, which is used as a catchall category for anyone who is not cisgender and heterosexual. Having documents that do not match one’s gender identity can lead to many forms of harassment and marginalization.

Currently, citizenship laws in Nepal and most of the public debates about those laws are based on the assumption that families are composed of cisgender heterosexual couples who reproduce through intercourse leading to pregnancy and childbirth. This assumption leaves out a wide array of people of diverse gender identities and sexual orientations. It also overlooks the fact that there are many ways for families to have children, such as assisted reproductive technologies, surrogacy, and adoption. Therefore, activists who represent Nepal’s gender and sexual minorities are fighting a difficult battle against a legal system and a broader social milieu rooted in patriarchal, cisnormative, and heteronormative ideas about gender and family (please refer to the book’s introduction to review definitions of these terms). In this chapter, we will sometimes use the term “women” to refer to people who are perceived to have the capacity to bear children, as this reflects the language that is used by the majority of our interlocutors; however, we want to highlight that cisgender women and their children are not the only people who are directly affected by the gendered framing of Nepal’s citizenship laws.

The stakes of acquiring citizenship documents are high. Without documentation of citizenship, Nepali people are denied not only their political rights, such as the right to vote or hold elected office, but also are unable to register marriages or births, pursue higher education, have bank accounts, own land, get driver’s licenses, or get passports. According to the most recent estimates, 5.4 million people in Nepal do not have citizenship; this constitutes 24 percent of the population over the age of sixteen (US Department of State 2019, 17).

Citizenship in Nepal’s Historical Context

In order to understand citizenship debates in Nepal as they have played out in recent years, it is necessary to understand the dynamics that have shaped Nepali citizenship in the past. Nepal was a monarchy led by a Hindu king since the foundation of the modern nation-state in the eighteenth century. Caste, the system of hereditary class that follows Hindu principles of purity and pollution, was an important structuring principle of the law, including laws that regulated marriage, family structure, and inheritance (Höfer 1979). Ethnocentrism was central to the Nepali nation-building project, and notions of what it meant to be a “Nepali citizen” were shaped by policies of exclusion against women, ethnic minorities, and people on the lower end of the Hindu caste hierarchy. Even though Nepal is a country of more than a hundred distinct ethnic and linguistic groups, the perspectives of high-caste Hindu men from the hills have historically been legally and socially dominant.

The Hindu monarch Mahendra Shah came into power in 1956, and in 1960, he consolidated his hold over Nepali politics and society by installing the Panchayat system. Under the Panchayat system, Nepal was declared “an independent, indivisible and sovereign monarchical Hindu State” with Nepali as its national language, and all executive, legislative, and judicial power was ultimately derived from the king. There was great state investment in creating a homogenized populace, and the slogan of the government was “one king, one country, one language, one culture.” Although Hinduism had been an important source of royal authority in Nepal since at least the 1700s, Mahendra was the first to declare Nepal a constitutionally Hindu nation in the 1960s. Nepal remained a constitutionally Hindu nation until after the Maoist civil war ended in 2006, when secularism was officially adopted and the last king, Gyanendra, was forced to abdicate. Thus, the relationship between Hinduism and the Nepali state has been a significant factor in shaping concepts of Nepali national identity.

By 1967 “partyless democracy” was added to the preamble of the constitution, and all forms of oppositional politics were effectively declared illegal. The policy of enforced homogeneity discriminated against people belonging to different ethnic groups who did not speak the language or share the cultural characteristics of those deemed “authentically Nepali” by Mahendra; namely, upper-caste Hindu Nepali-speaking people from the hilly regions of Nepal. Simultaneously, high-caste people from the hills were privileged because of their knowledge of the Nepali language and practice of norms and customs that the state deemed authentically Nepali. While these upper-caste Hill groups comprise only around 30 percent of Nepal’s population, over the course of generations, discriminatory state policies have helped upper-caste people from the hills accrue wealth, economic opportunities, education, and political power that is vastly disproportionate to the size of their population. The capitalized term “Hill” is a translation of the Nepali-language term “Pahadi” (pahad = hill). Like the term “Madhesi,” it denotes a broad cultural category as well as a geographic region. Hill culture was also patriarchal, which was reflected in state policies, including those pertaining to citizenship. These laws assumed that women’s identities derived from their male relatives—first from fathers, then from husbands—even though this kinship system was not shared among all of Nepal’s ethnic groups.

A Citizenship Act was passed in 1964, during the Panchayat period, which distinguished between naturalized citizens and citizens by descent. To acquire citizenship by descent, one’s father needed to be a Nepali citizen. To become a naturalized citizen, one needed to speak Nepali. In line with the monocultural patriarchal ethos of the Panchayat state, these provisions discriminated against women, who could not pass on citizenship to their children, and Madhesis, people belonging to the southern plains of Nepal.

Madhesis are people who originate from a broad swath of the southern plains of Nepal, bordering the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Although people of different religions and caste groups reside in the Madhes, they share strong cultural ties across the border in India. They speak Maithili, Bhojpuri, Awadhi, and Hindi, and many do not speak Nepali. The Nepali language requirement for citizenship in the 1964 Act meant that many Madhesis were effectively denied access to citizenship regardless of factors such as place of birth, place of residence, or family ties in Nepal.

Advocates for a more democratic system organized a movement against the tyranny of the Panchayat system in 1990. This “People’s Movement” resulted in protests by thousands of people in the streets of Kathmandu. After the protests of 1990 a new constitution was promulgated. The 1990 constitution retained the legal distinction between naturalized citizenship and citizenship by descent; however, it also introduced an important change by allowing that one could now speak any “national language” in order to obtain Nepali citizenship, rather than the Nepali language only. This meant that many Madhesi people who did not speak Nepali were now eligible for citizenship, although bureaucratic obstacles to acquiring citizenship remained. For example, a large majority of government officials overseeing the citizenship certification process were from the hills, and many were hesitant to give Nepali citizenship to Madhesis, whom they deemed to be potentially Indian citizens (because of cultural or linguistic factors, family ties, place of birth, and so forth). Since dual citizenship is illegal in Nepal, the actual or potential possession of Indian citizenship renders applicants ineligible for Nepali citizenship. There is also a widespread negative stereotype among Hill Nepalis that Madhesis are liars and cheats, which played into bureaucrats’ anxieties about granting them citizenship.

The 1990 People’s Movement did not lead to the democratic transformations that many hoped for. Due to this disillusionment, a Nepali Maoist insurgency began in rural areas of the midwestern hills in 1996. The Maoists’ list of demands included: the end of the monarchy, state secularism, federalism, land reform, a robust welfare state, and gender equality, particularly as it related to women’s ability to inherit property. The Maoist insurgency was long and bloody, with seventeen thousand people killed by state security forces and the rebels from 1996 to 2005. It culminated in the second People’s Movement of 2006, where the Maoists and a coalition of seven parliamentary parties reached a compromise in which the Maoists agreed to support a multiparty democracy. This agreement unified the political opposition against the monarchy. Nineteen days of continuous protests in Kathmandu and beyond forced the king, Gyanendra, to yield executive authority to a prime minister in April 2006; Gyandendra was forced to fully abdicate the monarchy in 2008. “His Majesty’s Government” now became the “Government of Nepal,” and the country was declared secular. The political parties, including the Maoists, set out to restructure the country by writing an interim constitution.

During the writing of this interim constitution in 2006, Madhesis, as well as other historically marginalized groups including Dalits (“lower caste” people) and Janajatis (indigenous peoples) demanded decentralization and ethnicity-based federalism as a system of governance that would change the hill-centered political and cultural system that had been a remnant of the Panchayat era. After the Maoists joined the political mainstream, a mass movement took place in Madhes in early 2007. Although Madhesis had been involved in political organizing against hill domination at least from the 1950s, the scale of the 2007 movement was far larger than movements from the past. The Madhesis were angered by the fact that their needs had been sacrificed by politicians who used them as a support base but did not advocate for them. These protests were motivated by the fact that since the 1950s a combination of state negligence and exploitation had left Madhesis disproportionately poor, jobless, uneducated, and are denied cultural membership in the Nepali nation.

The 2007 Madhes uprisings came as an unexpected shock to the establishment but did lead then Prime Minister G. P. Koirala of the Nepali Congress to declare that principles of inclusion would be enshrined in the constitution. The Interim Constitution was amended to include a provision that guaranteed a “democratic, federal system.” As a result of the progressive wave that came with the protests of 2006 and 2007, the citizenship clauses were also notably altered in the constitution. It now specified that one could obtain citizenship by descent through one’s mother or father. There was also a one-time distribution of citizenship by birth for permanent residents, through which many Madhesis acquired citizenship documents. While there were still some legal and bureaucratic barriers to obtaining citizenship, the changes in the 2007 interim constitution were more ostensibly egalitarian than citizenship provisions had ever been.

Campaigning for Citizenship, 2014–2015

In September 2014, newspapers reported that the lawmakers who were drafting the constitutional provisions on citizenship had included language that would require applicants to prove the citizenship of both father and mother. This was a clear step back from the provisions of the Interim Constitution of 2007, which had technically allowed for citizenship to be granted through father or mother. Galvanized by this threat to citizenship rights, activists began an escalating series of protests and demonstrations in fall 2014 that continued into 2015. These activists included a wide array of people and groups, such as the Chaukath feminist network, the Forum for Women, Law, and Development, and the community organized through a Facebook page titled “Citizenship in the Name of the Mother.”

The citizenship debate played out openly in the form of frequent street protests, speeches by politicians and public figures, discussion programs organized by civil society groups, and a flood of impassioned editorials in both Nepali and English language newspapers. Activists, policymakers, and intellectuals extensively used social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and to inform the general public and to organize protest actions targeting those directly involved in the constitution-writing process. Events were organized in Kathmandu, in other districts throughout the country, and even internationally: in January 2015, nonresident Nepalis delivered petitions to Nepali embassies in Ottawa; New York; Washington, DC; and Delhi. However, this section focuses specifically on discourses circulating in Kathmandu, as this is where Dannah Dennis was conducting fieldwork at the time.

At the heart of the citizenship debate is the question of who is fully Nepali. Are women fully Nepali? Are Madhesi people and those from other marginalized ethnic groups and geographic regions fully Nepali? In the 2014–2015 movement to demand citizenship through mothers, activists in Kathmandu framed the issue as an issue of women’s rights and gender equality. In effect, they chose to argue primarily that women are fully Nepali and to downplay the claim that Madeshis are fully Nepali. The iconography of protest reflected this focus on women’s rights. For example, a cartoon by the artist Diwakar Chettri was the featured image of the Facebook group “Citizenship in the Name of the Mother” and was often printed on signs carried at protests and circulated widely on social media (see figure 4.1). The cartoon depicts a human figure without facial features but with many other markers that signal femininity, such as jewelry, long hair with a flower, and wide hips. Moreover, the red sari, red bangles, and beaded necklace suggest the attire of a respectable, married, high-caste Hindu woman. The featureless face seems to invite viewers to imagine their own mothers, or other mothers whom they know, and the large tear emerging from the face makes a moral and affective appeal to the suffering of mothers. Activists also used the iconography of protest to emphasize the uncertain futures of children who would be unable to gain citizenship through their mothers (see figure 4.2).

Nepali people hold a large white banner with Nepali writing on it, with the design of a woman with a tear holding a sign that says "Citizenship in the name of the Mother!"
Figure 4.1. Protesters carry a banner during a Human Rights Day march. The slogans on the banner say “Children are born from their mothers’ wombs. Why can’t they get identity from their names? Give citizenship in the name of the mother, make citizenship rights secure,” and “Our children, our identity, we are also Nepali citizens.” Bhrikuti Mandap, Kathmandu, December 10, 2014. Dannah Dennis; CC BY.
A young woman holds the white-wrapped effigy of a baby covered in question marks, with protestors in front of her with signs pinned to their backs.
Figure 4.2. A young woman carries an effigy of a baby covered with question marks. The sign pinned to the back of the protester in front of her reads “Birth and karma are given by mothers. Why does citizenship have to be in the father’s name?” Tundikhel, Kathmandu, September 20, 2014. Dannah Dennis; CC BY.

Because the debate over a single conjunction, “and” versus “or,” could have appeared to be a minor detail of the intractable debates plaguing the Nepali constitution-writing process, activists worked hard to convince their audiences of the enormous impact of this provision. By framing the citizenship debate as a fundamental issue of women’s rights, supporters of citizenship through maternal descent attempted to pressure political parties that had made public commitments to the principle of gender equality. Activists sometimes attempted to shame politicians with the argument that the politicians were failing to respect their own mothers if they didn’t support the cause of citizenship through mothers.

In response to this public outcry, many political leaders paid lip service to the idea of gender equality, while emphasizing that national security interests were of paramount concern. For example, Jhalanath Khanal a leader of the United Marxist- Leninist P arty—at that time, the party with the second-highest number of elected representatives in Nepal’s Constituent Assembly—was quoted as saying, “We are always in favor of gender-equality. Issuing citizenship in the name of father and mother, if both are Nepalis, is not a problem for us. But we have to be cautious while issuing citizenship for children born in districts bordering India in Tarai (Madhes) as well as Tibet in the mountains through mothers” (Pun 2015). This type of nationalist rhetoric casts women, and particularly women who live along Nepal’s borders, as a potential threat to both the sovereignty and the cultural makeup of the Nepali state because of their ability to have children with non-Nepali men.

Some politicians went even further and denounced the entire movement for citizenship through mothers. For example, in July 2015, Bidhya Devi Bhandari (UML) stated publicly that activists on the citizenship issue and other issues of women’s rights were unduly influenced by Western feminist ideas and should accept what she deemed to be an appropriately “Eastern” perspective on the necessary subordination of women to men (Basnet 2015). A few months after these antifeminist remarks, Bhandari became Nepal’s first female president in October 2015. With unintended irony, some Western media outlets hailed this development as a step forward for women’s rights in Nepal.

Citizenship in the Constitution of 2015

Despite the determined efforts of many activists, the constitution that was adopted in September 2015 made a distinction between men and women in terms of their ability to pass on citizenship. Harking back to the Citizenship Act of 1964, this distinction was couched in terms of two categories of citizenship: citizenship by descent and naturalized citizenship. Citizenship by descent is available to people who have Nepali citizen fathers, whether or not their mothers are Nepali citizens. Naturalized citizenship, on the other hand, is available to people who have Nepali citizen mothers and foreign fathers, and it is subject to some limitations. For instance, people who apply for naturalized citizenship must be permanent residents of Nepal and must be able to prove that they do not hold citizenship in any other country. Naturalized citizens are also barred from holding the highest government offices, such as president, prime minister, and chief justice (Article 289). Furthermore, Nepali citizen men married to foreign women may bestow naturalized citizenship on their wives, but Nepali citizen women are not able to bestow naturalized citizenship on their foreign husbands. The differences between citizenship by descent and naturalized citizenship are outlined in figure 4.3. It is also important to note that as in previous iterations of Nepali citizenship law, people who hold Nepali citizenship are not allowed to hold citizenship in any other country; thus, dual citizenship is not an option.

Table 4.1. Summary of Citizenship Provisions in Nepal’s 2015 Constitution

Citizenship by descent Naturalized citizenship
  • Available to people who have Nepali father + Nepali mother OR Nepali father + foreign mother
  • Can hold high office
  • The right to determine one’s gender identity is guaranteed (Article 12)
  • Available to people who have Nepali mother + foreign father
  • Available to foreign wives of Nepali men, but not to foreign husbands of Nepali women
  • Cannot hold high office
  • Conditional (must reside in Nepal, must not hold citizenship elsewhere)
  • The right to determine one’s gender identity is not guaranteed

In effect, these constitutional provisions convey the message that a Nepali man’s citizenship can be passed on to his children unconditionally or to his wife, if he marries a non-Nepali citizen. A Nepali woman’s citizenship, on the other hand, can be passed on to her children only if certain conditions are met and cannot be passed on to her husband. Children of foreign fathers can only receive naturalized Nepali citizenship, which means that they can never be regarded as full Nepali citizens. On Twitter, public intellectuals Kedar Sharma and Manjushree Thapa dubbed this principle “sperm nationalism” (shukrakit rastriyata).

Madhesi Women and Citizenship

As is apparent from Jhalanath Khanal’s comments about needing to be “cautious while issuing citizenship for children born in districts bordering India in Tarai (Madhes) as well as Tibet in the mountains through mothers,” the controversial citizenship clauses in the 2015 constitution were not just about gender but also ethnicity and national borders. Because the Madhes is proximate to India, both geographically and culturally, and cross-border marriages are the norm, Madhesi women are especially unlikely to be able to pass on their citizenship to their children. In addition to legal discrimination, Madhesi women’s frequently binational attachments mean that their citizenship is called into question both legally and socially because they are not understood to be as “authentically Nepali” as women from the hills are. Abha Lal conducted her fieldwork in two towns in the Madhes, Birgunj and Janakpur in 2017 and 2018, where she interviewed women about how they assert themselves as Nepali citizens when the Nepali state refuses to see them as such. All names in this section are pseudonyms.

When asked about whether she saw herself as Nepali and how she understood what that meant, this is what Bibha, a woman who was born in India and married to a Madhesi Nepali man had to say:

Before I got married I was pure Indian, there is no doubt about that. But as soon as this became my sasuraal (marital home), I had to tyaag (sacrifice) my Indian citizenship, I became Nepali. It is Madhesi custom that you forget your natal home and become part of your husband’s family as soon as you get married. I understand that, but the Nepali state does not. I get naturalized citizenship and have less rights than other citizens. (Bibha, interviewed by Abha Lal)

Bibha’s understanding of citizenship being derived from male relatives—first, one’s father, then one’s husband—was not uncommon. A common refrain heard across the Madhes is that there is “beti-roti ke sambandha” between Nepal and India, which roughly translates to a “relationship of daughters and bread.” What this is referring to is the fact that India and Nepal share a way of life (bread), and the shared culture means that Indian “daughters” come to Nepal and become Nepali and vice versa.

Bibha did not take issue with the idea that a cross-border marriage meant that a woman’s national identity automatically changed. For her, the source of discontent was the fact that the Nepali state treated her, a naturalized citizen, differently than it would a citizen by descent. If citizenship based on kinship, “beti-roti sambandha,” was to hold true, would need to mean that a “daughter” of India was entitled to all the rights and privileges of Nepali citizenship after becoming a “daughter-in-law.”

The “daughter-in-law” versus “daughters” issue was a division that became evident in the fissure between women’s rights activists and Madhesi activists in the aftermath of the 2015 constitution (Pudasaini 2017). Because women’s rights activists had made the strategic choice to focus on citizenship in the name of the mother, they did not emphasize the fact that the naturalization clause gave fewer rights to women who had become citizens after marrying Nepali men. The fact that the women’s rights activists who were most vocal about the citizenship issue were from the hills—and therefore likely shared some of the same anti-Madhesi prejudices as their male counterparts—also played a part in this sidelining of the naturalization issue. Madhesi rights activists, on the other hand, were predominantly men and did not have much to say about women being able to pass on citizenship by descent. Rather, they were concerned with the fact that their “daughters-in-law” did not get immediate and full citizenship that honored the practice of cross-border marriages. The differing priorities held by women’s rights activists and Madhesi rights activists meant that the movement against the constitutional citizenship provisions was fragmented, and thus a broad alliance was not able to form.

While activists talking about the “daughters-in-law” in the national political scene were largely men, many Madhesi women, like Bibha, were primarily concerned with the naturalization clause and did not fundamentally question the patriarchal logic of deriving citizenship through kinship. This was most apparent in how they talked about national affiliation changing after marriage but also in the way children were invoked in a manner very different from how the women’s rights activists talked about children being entitled to citizenship through the mother. When asked about what she wanted from the Nepali state, here is what a young woman named Bhagyalata in Birgunj had to say:

In India, kids get bicycles to go to school, they get good lunches. Our kids, ghanta! (nothing). This harami sarkar (bastard government) gives us nothing at all. In India they have fuel, food, rations, why won’t this government give us anything? Our kids deserve to have bicycles and food and an education, to have better lives than we do. If Indians can have that, why can’t we? (Bhagyalata, interviewed by Abha Lal)

While Bhagyalata’s use of the Indian government as an example of what a good government should look like is interesting in itself, her emphasis on what the Nepali state needed to do for the children is a common way of asserting citizenship that many Madhesi women used. Regardless of their age or maternal status, many women talked about their children, or “our children” in the abstract, while expressing their political grievances. The logic for this appeared to be whether a Madhesi woman is Nepal-born or India-born, a naturalized citizen, a citizen by descent, or whether or not she holds a citizenship certificate at all; as a mother of a child with a Nepali father, she is the mother of a Nepali child. Therefore, basing claims on children is a mode of legitimating Madhesi demands in the eyes of the Nepali state.

The inversion of the logic of motherhood here is interesting: while campaigners for “citizenship in the name of mother” talked of the uncertain futures of children who would be unable to gain citizenship, Madhesi women based their claims to citizenship on the fact that they are mothers of Nepali children. It is important to note here that while the logic of motherhood to Nepali children made sense to Madhesi women who were talking about their belonging in Nepal in these terms, for elite political forces, Madhesi women’s children were not necessarily Nepali. Many politicians dismissed the demands for equitable citizenship laws by claiming that children born to Nepali women married to foreigners were “bhanja-bhanjis” (nieces and nephews by maternal descent) and thus not truly Nepali. So, for them, many Madhesi women were the mothers of “bhanja-bhanjis,” rather than “sons and daughters” of Nepal, and thus they and their children were not entitled to full Nepali citizenship. This perspective was reflected in the constitution.

Madhesi women draw on patriarchal notions of citizenship—being entitled to political belonging in the nation as a daughter, a wife, a daughter-in-law and a wife—because they have few other options for staking their claim to belonging in Nepal. The impact of the state patriarchy combined with a deep and abiding legacy of ethnic discrimination means that Madhesi women have been discouraged from seeing themselves as autonomous citizens in their own right, independent of their family attachments. However, Madhesi women’s views on this subject are not necessarily monolithic, as evidenced by the following dialogue between Mamata, who was born in India, and Sangeeta, who was born in Nepal:

Mamata: (Smiling) I am Indian. I believe in Modi-Sarkar (government). Nepal sarkar is completely useless.

Sangeeta: Hey, what a liar!

Mamata: How am I lying? I was born in India, obviously I am Indian.

Sangeeta: Well, what if you were born in India? Women have no jaat (caste). As soon as you got married to a Nepali man, you became Nepali. Your household is here, you work here, your children were born here, you are not Indian, you are Nepali. (Mamata and Sangita, interviewed by Abha Lal)

Like Sangeeta, many women rely on patriarchal notions of family membership to make their claims to belonging in Nepal, but these claims are tenuous and only available to those in certain familial and marital arrangements. Madhesi women who do not know the identity of the fathers of their children, are in same-sex relationships, have chosen to end their marriages, or have been abandoned by Nepali men may not be able to obtain citizenship documents for themselves or their children.

Conclusion: Gender and Citizenship in Nepal and Beyond

The constitution of 2015 leaves many details to be resolved through legislation. As of this writing in January 2020, a citizenship bill that will expand on the guidelines in the constitution has been under discussion in the Nepali Parliament for months. In this ongoing process, many lawmakers continue to display patriarchal attitudes. For example, lawmakers have suggested that women who claim that the identity of their children’s fathers is unknown must “provide proof” or “provide an explanation,” citing a concern that women might lie about the identity of their children’s fathers and “indulg[e] in immoral acts” (Gurung 2019). If such provisions are passed into law, women seeking citizenship for their children may be required to recount their complete sexual histories to local bureaucrats, who would still retain the authority to deny the citizenship application if they deem that sufficient “proof” has not been provided. Similarly, lawmakers have also discussed the idea that third-gender or trans people should have to submit a doctor’s recommendation in order to get citizenship documents that reflect their correct gender; in turn, activists have pointed out that this medicalization of gender identity is unnecessarily burdensome and invasive, arguing that self-declaration of gender identity should be sufficient (Panday 2019). Both of these discussions highlight the fact that applicants who do not conform to hegemonic norms of gender and family relationships may be expected to provide additional evidence to substantiate their claims to citizenship. Although the citizenship bill remains to be passed, it seems likely that access to citizenship will continue to be restricted along the lines of gender, family structure, ethnicity, and region.

In conclusion, the case study presented in this chapter illustrates three main points that are true not only in Nepal but elsewhere in the world as well. First, many states base their citizenship laws on a set of normative assumptions about gender and family; consequently, people who do not conform to these normative assumptions may not be able to gain access to their full citizenship rights. Second, nationalist anxieties about being overrun by noncitizen “others” are often used by politicians as an effective rationalization for passing laws that are blatantly discriminatory. And finally, people who experience multiple and intersecting forms of marginalization (such as Madhesi women in Nepal) are likely to have particular difficulties in obtaining citizenship, both in the legal sense and in the broader social sense of perceived belonging. Moreover, even though multiply marginalized people are likely to be most deeply impacted by discriminatory laws, their voices are often missing from public debates about the issues that affect them directly; as we have shown, Madhesi women’s perspectives and experiences of citizenship were not well represented by either the women’s activist movement or the Madhesi activist movement.

Review Questions

  • Why do governments around the world seek to regulate family relationships and reproduction? What does this have to do with citizenship?
  • What are some of the arguments that Nepali politicians have used to justify their refusal to grant full citizenship through mothers?
  • Why are Madhesi women’s perspectives and experiences particularly important for understanding the ongoing debate about Nepal’s citizenship laws?
  • Beyond the question of whether citizenship can be inherited through mothers, what are some of the other gender-related issues that shape Nepal’s citizenship laws?
  • Choose a country and read about its citizenship laws. What do these laws reveal about how the state sees gender and family relationships? Who are the laws designed to include? Who are they designed to exclude?

Key Terms

citizens by descent: in the current Nepali context, citizenship by descent is the full/first-class category of citizenship. It is available to people who can prove that their fathers are Nepali citizens.

jus sanguinis: the legal principle of granting citizenship through blood (family relationships).

jus soli: the legal principle of granting citizenship through soil (place of birth).

Madhes: the southern part of Nepal, bordering India. It is linguistically and culturally distinct in many ways from the hilly regions of Nepal. The Madhes is also called the Terai or Tarai.

naturalized citizens: In the current Nepali context, naturalized citizenship is the limited category of citizenship. It is available to people who cannot prove that their fathers were Nepali citizens but have some other family relationship with a Nepali citizen (e.g., their mothers or husbands are Nepali citizens).

Resources for Further Exploration

  • Adhikari, Aditya. 2015. The Bullet and the Ballot Box: The Story of Nepal’s Maoist Revolution. London: Verso.
  • “Birthstory” podcast from Radiolab—a story about transnational surrogacy, changing laws, and the 2015 earthquake in Nepal:
  • Facebook page of the Queer Rights Collective of Nepal:
  • Forum for Women, Law, and Development. This is a Nepali NGO that works on citizenship advocacy and other issues:
  • Jha, Kalpana. 2017. The Madhesi Upsurge and the Contested Idea of Nepal. Singapore: Springer.
  • Pant, Suman. 2019. “The Long and Arduous Journey to Winning a Supreme Court Case as a Same-Sex Married Couple.” Record.
  • Tamang, Seira. 2002. “Dis-embedding the Sexual/Social Contract: Citizenship and Gender in Nepal.” Citizenship Studies 6, no. 3: 309–324.
  • Tamang, Seira. 2009. “The Politics of Conflict and Difference or the Difference of Conflict in Politics: The Women’s Movement in Nepal.” Feminist Review 91: 61–80


The authors would like to thank all of the people who agreed to be interviewed over the course of this research. Rukshana Kapali and Niranjan Kunwar provided valuable insight into how current citizenship laws affect Nepal’s gender and sexual minorities. Dannah Dennis’s research was carried out with funding from the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the University of Virginia. Abha Lal’s research was carried out with funding from Swarthmore College.


Basnet, Basanta. 2015. “Paschimi Samskarko Prabhavma Mahila Adhikarkarmi: Bidhya Bhandari.” Kantipur, 2015.

Bier, Laura. 2010. “The Family Is a Factory: Gender, Citizenship, and the Regulation of Reproduction in Postwar Egypt.” Feminist Studies 36, no. 2 : 404–32.

Briggs, Laura. 2017. How All Politics B ecame Reproductive Politics: From Welfare Reform to Foreclosure to Trump. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Collins, Patricia Hill. 1998. “It’s All in the Family: Intersections of Gender, Race, and Nation.” Hypatia 13, no. 3: 62–82.

Fong, Vanessa. 2004. Only Hope: Coming of Age under China’s One-Child Policy. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Grossman-Thompson, Barbara, and Dannah Dennis. 2017. “Citizenship in the Name of the Mother: Nationalism, Social Exclusion, and Gender in Contemporary Nepal.” Positions: Asia Critique 25, no. 4: 795–820.

Gurung, Tsering. 2019. “Debate over Nepali Women’s Right to Pass on Citizenship to Children Reignites as House Committee Holds Discussions on Controversial Provisions.” Kathmandu Post, March 7, 2019.

Höfer, Andras. 1979. The Caste Hierarchy and the State in Nepal: A Study of the Muluki Ain of 1854. Innsbruck: Universitatsverlag Wagner.

Panday, Jagdishor. 2019. “Doc’s Recommendation Must for ‘Other Gender’ to Obtain Citizenship.” Himalayan Times, March 19, 2019.

Pudasaini, Surabhi. 2017. “Writing Citizenship: Gender, Race and Tactical Alliances in Nepal’s Constitution Drafting.” Studies in Nepali History and Society 22, no.1: 85–117.

Pun, Weena. 2015. “UML Blocks Proposal to Issue Citizenship Through Mothers.” Kathmandu Post, January 14, 2015.

US Department of State. 2019. “Nepal 2018 Human Rights Report.” Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2018. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.


About the authors

Dannah Dennis is a political and cultural anthropologist. She completed her PhD at the University of Virginia in 2017 and is currently a visiting assistant professor of anthropology at Bucknell University. In addition to her research on citizenship, she has published work on the politics of infrastructure in Kathmandu, Nepal’s claim to Buddha’s birthplace and its circulation on social media, the history of visual representation of Nepal’s first Shah king, and the obligations of care and gift-giving in transnational families. You can find her on Twitter @dannahdennis.


Abha Lal completed her bachelor’s degree in sociology and anthropology from Swarthmore College in 2018. She is working as a journalist at The Record, a Nepali digital media outlet, covering human rights, politics, and development.



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Gendered Lives Copyright © by Dannah Dennis and Abha Lal is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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