86 days have passed since a group of women started their protest against CAA-NRC-NPR at Shaheen Bagh in Delhi. What might define the anti-CAA protests in the country is the widespread participation and leadership of women- young and old.
It also holds true that women can be one of the worst victims of the NRC exercise in the country. It was proven once in Assam, where millions were rendered homeless overnight.
Is the NRC threat gendered in nature?
National Register of Citizens (NRC) was re-implemented in Assam to identify immigrants who are living illegally in the state. The BJP government has vowed to implement the exercise throughout the country.
In Assam, the documents that are considered for proving one’s citizenship included- evidence to prove ancestry issued prior to 24 March 1971 – this could be- electoral rolls, land records, government-issued certificates, birth certificate or educational certificates.
Additionally, one has to submit the evidence of one’s relationship with the said ancestor. And due to varied reasons, many women of Assam bore the brunt. These included- lower literacy levels, limited knowledge of bureaucratic processes, among others.
What are the problems faced?
A fact-finding report of Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS) revealed the plight of women in Assam.
Women in India, like elsewhere in the world have historically been suffering exclusion due to patriarchal norms. They were never authorized to hold entitlements in terms of land or lineage, keeping access to “legacy documents” out of reach for them.
Here are some of the problems they faced with regard to documentation:
According to Himanta Sharma, Assam’s cabinet minister, “Around three lakh marriages take place every year in Assam but only 50,000-60,000 are registered.” This holds true for the rest of India.
To sort this issue Supreme Court had permitted Gram Panchayath’s to issue certificates that can be used by married women as a legal document. However, the officials themselves at several places refused to accept this document as valid proof.
NRC also demands to prove a relationship with paternal families.
“The inherent gender bias in the entire process is reflected in the fact that people were encouraged to state their patrilineal legacy even when their mother’s legacy met all the documentation requirements.,” says WSS. And most women change their second name post marriage. Discrepancies in names (including spellings) have led to the exclusion of many women.
A field report written by Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty published in The Wire, tells the story of a woman named Shorbanu. A mother of five grown-up children, she has never been to school, doesn’t own any property in her name, doesn’t have a bank account. She was also married off before she was 18.
As she was married before 18, she never got a chance to vote from her own home. Though her father’s legacy data is valid, she could not submit any documents that can link herself to the lineage.
As said earlier, women and particularly women from the disadvantaged sections are not entitled to land ownership. Quoting National Family Health Survey an IPCS report suggests that “in 2015-2016, only 52.3 percent of women in Assam owned a house and/or land (alone or jointly with others).”
This clearly suggests that women won’t be able to produce land ownership data to prove their citizenship either, for they don’t own one.
Documents regarding educational qualifications also have posed a challenge for women. As child marriage was prevalent, many women had to forego education and are left without any school certificates.
There are many who also could not submit birth certificates as the practice of giving birth at home was common in Assam. There are also gaps in birth registration practices. While this affects both men and women equally, women were still disproportionately affected due to their disadvantage in other documentation processes as well.
Undocumented in Voter’s list
Prior to 1971, the eligible age for voting was 21 years. And most women were married before the age of 21, and most of them had not cast votes in their home villages. Thus, many women would also remain undocumented in the voter’s list.
Treatment of women at the hearing centers
The disparity, however, is not confined to the documentation process alone. It was reported that the officials at the hearing centers “address themselves only to the males present.” This meant that single women, elderly women, women without the support of family- found it difficult to convince the officials that their case is heard.
WSS also suggest cases were often the husband and wife both were called for hearing on the same day at two different centers.
“There they were expected to use a language that is neither their own, nor one they were ever allowed to learn to read, and testify to a lineage they have been disinherited from, all to secure a place in a family ‘tree’ that cements the patriarchal family all over again,” WSS state in their press release.
And adding to the pain, the legacy is frozen. Thus there isn’t a way to rectify a mistake.
What does it take to prove citizenship if you are disowned?
Women who have married defying their parent’s will- inter-caste marriages, inter-religious marriages- are all finding it difficult to prove their legacy. WSS reports also suggested that not a single woman from outside the state who is married to someone belonging to Assam and moved there after a marriage has been included in the final list.
The pain suffered by widowers and single women weren’t any less. The gendered nature of NRC also extends to the transgender community. Having disowned by the family, renounced their actual names, they were threatened with statelessness in Assam.
The story of Assam won’t be an isolated one if NRC is extended to the rest of the country. The experiences of Assam is a lesson for the rest of the country. The very inequality that is embedded in the social system, is internalized by NRC as well. And hence, the citizenship that it provides is conditional.
NRC thus reflects the very inequality that is internalized within the nation. And thanks to patriarchy, women would be the worst affected.