THERE are so many red herrings, and scare mongering tactics being used to scuttle the June 7th constitutional referendum that confusion could end it in calamitous defeat.
To hear some of the comments and read some of the quips on our web site one would get the impression that foreign men are just panting at the ramparts for Bill One to get the “yes” vote so that they can crash through, claim their Bahamian brides, become Bahamian citizens and snatch jobs from Bahamian men. Such a marriage of convenience to a Bahamian woman would secure for the foreign man the automatic right to Bahamian citizenship, or so the story goes.
However, in all of our eighty-odd years on this planet – and being in this profession in which one hears most things –we have only once heard of a marriage of convenience. And in that case it was not a man, but a woman trying to escape a life of poverty in Greece.
We first learned of such a state of affairs when as a teenager we flew home from boarding school shortly after World War I I. In those days and in those old post-war aircraft several refuelling stops and at least one place to overnight was needed. It took three days to get from London to Nassau.
On that occasion, a peasant woman from Greece boarded the plane at London. She was obviously terrified of flying. She sobbed all the way from London to Nassau. No one on the plane could speak her language. However, when we stopped in Lisbon for the night, the officials found an interpreter who could understand her dialect. It was then that it was discovered that the photograph she clutched was of the Greek Bahamian she intended to marry on arrival in Nassau. She had never seen him before.
Apparently, this marriage was her only escape from the poverty that was her lot in her homeland. A look at the photograph of what she was going to was sufficient evidence for us to conclude that her lot in Greece must have been desperate.
When we arrived home, we discovered that America was then investigating a racket involving Greek women leaving their homeland, marrying on this side of the Atlantic and eventually making it across the Gulf to the Greek community in the US. We often wondered if this desperate, frightened woman was a part of that programme.
Under British common law on marriage a woman, if foreign, automatically takes the nationality of her husband - it was the law of the family. There was no question of him or his children taking her nationality.
However, at the Constitutional conference in London in 1972 the question of female equality came up, but was rejected out of hand by the PLP delegation.
Sir Arthur Foulkes, who was with the opposition FNM at the talks, later wrote that “the FNM’s delegation opposed discrimination against women in the citizenship provisions and advocated the total equality of Bahamian women with the Bahamian men. The PLP argued that it was international practice that ‘the woman follows the man!’ The British government sided with the PLP and so the FNM lost the point.”
Today, the proposal to be voted on June 7, would give a Bahamian woman the same rights as a Bahamian man on marrying a foreign spouse.
Now there are safeguards to discourage marriages of convenience.
The safeguard to discourage marriages of convenience was the introduction of the spousal permit. Before marriage, a Bahamian woman can now get a spousal permit for her husband. This was introduced by the Ingraham government to soften the strict rules of the PLP that a foreign man married to a Bahamian woman had no rights and had to sit at home washing the dishes while his wife supported the family. Either that or they had to leave The Bahamas to survive. With a spousal permit the foreign husband could work for five years and support his family without a work permit. At the end of those five years, he could apply to be a permanent resident or become a citizen. We understand that there has been a further change under the Christie government. Since 2012, another five years has been added before a foreign male spouse can apply for citizenship or be considered for permanent residence. We were told that at this time a “small stipend” has to be paid. So instead of a wait of five years, it is now 10 years before a family can settle with any assurance.
If Bahamians vote “yes” to the first bill women will be given the same rights as their male counterparts to bestow Bahamian nationality on their foreign husbands.
As long as this is denied her, she will be subject to the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Such an unfairness continues to leave her and her family unprotected from the ruthlessness of cruel politicians and indifferent civil servants. The granting of the permit might never happen - and no explanation has to be given.
Before the June 7 vote, we shall tell many of these women’s stories so that Bahamians will be fully aware of the cruelty of the system. And although putting Bahamian men and women on a level playing field might not mean anything to Bahamians already settled in marriage with a fellow Bahamian, it could mean a great deal to their daughters or granddaughters who might decide to bring a foreign partner home, marry and want to settle and continue the family line in her homeland. She should have this right without bureaucratic interference.