Monica Shahi made history today as Nepal’s first citizen to carry a passport that allows its bearer to select a gender other than male or female. This acknowledgement of her gender identity follows years of activism that pushed the legal system to recognize gender on the basis of self-identification.
Nepal moved toward recognizing a third gender when the Supreme Court in 2007 ruled that individuals should have their gender legally recognized based on “self-feeling” and that they should not have to limit themselves to “female” or “male.” Since then, activists have fought successfully to have a third category added to citizenship documents, public bathrooms, and even the federal census. For Shahi, this means her passport is marked “O” for “other” rather than the traditional “F” for “female” or “M” for “male.”
Only a limited number of countries recognize more than “male” and “female” on travel documents, which could pose challenges for people like Shahi as they travel. However an increasing number of governments are beginning to acknowledge that legal recognition – including of identities outside the male-female binary – can be, and should be, acknowledged on documents.
Why does allowing people to record their gender identity on their own terms matter? Experience has shown that carrying documents that list people’s gender identity, as opposed to sex assigned at birth, can help them avoid humiliating and harmful scrutiny while traveling, as well helping them access health care, enroll in school, vote, and participate in other basic aspects of civic life.
The United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism argued that “measures that involve increased travel document security, such as stricter procedures for issuing, changing and verifying identity documents, risk unduly penalizing transgender persons whose personal appearance and data are subject to change.”
At least seven countries – Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Malta, New Zealand, and Australia – now legally recognize more than two genders in some way. Activists in the Netherlands have argued that eliminating the ubiquitous gender boxes on documents could be an effective and respectful step toward accommodating diversity.
And while it may not be common practice yet, it’s important to remember that international regulations on passports require holders to identify their gender, but even on these highly scrutinized documents, gender can be legally listed as “X” for unspecified.
Monica Shahi’s new passport signals a long-overdue respect for the 37-year-old’s gender identity. Governments around the world should learn from Nepal’s move toward acknowledging its citizens as they self-identify.