Societies become richer by embracing plurality
Before you are born, someone will have already made the decisions that will create your footprint in life. The name people will use to call you, the religion you will identify with and pray for, and most likely the passport you will pull out at border control. As a newborn, you will be experiencing your first fundamental human rights, and your parents will have already identified your nationality.
Yet passing down a nationality or citizenship (the two concepts are related but not quite the same) is often not as easy as being named Maryam or Abdullah, specifically when it comes to women. Around the world, 27 countries continue to have some form of law or policy prohibiting or limiting women married to non-nationals from passing their citizenship to their children. Men, on the other hand, can automatically pass on their citizenship regardless of who they are married to. The majority of these states are in the Middle East and North Africa, including the Gulf Cooperation Council nations.
In the past few years, many countries have made great strides to rectify these laws, including Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Iraq and Iran. Others have made exceptions and begun reforming their legislations. In Saudi Arabia, for example, a woman can technically apply for her child to receive citizenship, but only if the child is a male and has lived in the country. In the UAE, Emirati women married to foreigners can apply for their children’s citizenship when they turn six and have lived in the country for that period. Women had to previously wait until their children turned 18 before being able to apply.
There are an incredible amount of misconceptions regarding this contentious subject, ranging from the misogynistic to the racist, the nationalistic, security and identity. Antagonists and apologists argue that allowing women to automatically pass on their citizenship is a direct threat to their country’s social fabric, culture and traditions. These children will speak a different language, practice different habits and perhaps not understand our values and beliefs, they claim.
Others have attributed their concerns to fears that women may be taking advantage of their citizenship and the social benefits that come with it. Another inaccurate assumption is that these marriages have a higher divorce rate than traditional marriages. All the above arguments, although likely baseless, can also be made for men marrying non-nationals. However, the difference here is that it is made on the basis of gender.
One of the most dangerous fallacies though is that children with non-national fathers will be raised with different identities and loyalties. They will thus threaten national identity and, by false extension, national security.
The issue of identity penetrates a deep and existential core of human associations and representation. Nonetheless, assuming that our identity is static, or solitary, is both inaccurate and problematic. In his book “Identity and Violence,” Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen argues against the “solitarist” approach to human identity and explains: “The insistence of choiceless singularity of human identity not only diminishes us all, but also makes the world more flammable.”
This is why I refute the distress that the issue of identity causes to many. I stand particularly against those who exploit it to argue against granting automatic citizenships. There has been no scientific evidence to prove that it is a threat to our social fabric, considering the tribal and multi-ethnic historical background of most of the same societies. It also has no moral or rational standing.
Assuming that our identity is static, or solitary, is both inaccurate and problematic.
Asma I. Abdulmalik
A person’s nationality need not be his all-encompassing and exclusive identity. A person’s identity is fluid — it is forever molding and evolving. How you identify yourself depends on what is a priority to you and in what context. In fact, tolerance and harmony in today’s world lies in the plurality of our identities and our ability as human beings to accept and embrace them.
In other words, and as explained by Sen, an Arab born to a Western father is not just the love child of an Arab woman and a Western father. They could be a spiritual Muslim with Ajami-speaking grandparents. They could enjoy reading Franz Kafka and watching the occasional episode of John Oliver. They could be an economist and a vegan who listens to The Beatles.
While nationalistic identities have received much attention in recent decades, in reality there are other systems of classification in which we each find personal relevance. It is in our geographical context, our relationships and occupations, our language and politics, and our passions and causes.
Human beings are not simple. One classification is not an identity. It is not a threat, but a wealth. As such, in being aware of our multiple identities, we can help mitigate ethnic hate. We can embrace and celebrate our plurality. We are no longer wary of the consequences that follow automatic citizenships; instead we revel in how much richer our societies can become.
- Asma I. Abdulmalik is an Emirati civil servant and a writer interested in gender and development issues. Twitter: @Asmaimalik