Monica Shahi made history yesterday, as Nepal’s first citizen to carry a passport bearing a third gender. This acknowledgement of her gender identity follows years of activism that pushed the legal system to recognise gender on the basis of self-identification.

Nepal moved toward recognising a third gender when the Supreme Court in 2007 ruled that individuals should have their gender legally recognised 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 or M.

Although Shahi was assigned male at birth, she now presents as a transgender female. However, the new law does not allow a gender to be changed on a passport; instead the person must be assigned O.

Why does it 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 as helping them access health care, enrol 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 penalising 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 recognise 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 scrutinised documents, gender can be legally listed as X for unspecified.