India’s New Laws Hurt Women Most of All

New Delhi wants people to prove their citizenship. But Indian women are the demographic least likely to possess paperwork.

Muslim women hold placards during a protest rally held against India's new citizenship law.
Muslim women hold placards during a protest rally held against India's new citizenship law in Bangalore, India, on Feb. 4, 2020. Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images

On the evening of Dec. 16, 2019, a group of conservative, middle-aged Muslim women in hijabs and burqas began a peaceful sit-in at Shaheen Bagh—a Muslim-majority, working-class neighborhood in South Delhi—blocking a major road that connects the Indian capital to its suburbs.

A few days earlier, on Dec. 12, the Indian government had passed a law that fast-tracked citizenship for non-Muslim refugees from Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Pakistan who moved to India before 2015. The new law, which essentially made it more difficult for Muslim refugees to claim citizenship, was just the latest move by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to determine who was or wasn’t Indian. And it came just months after the Narendra Modi-led government renewed a National Register of Citizens (NRC) to identify immigrants living illegally in the state of Assam, promising to soon implement it across the country.

Students in universities and colleges had protested against the NRC for several months, but their demonstrations gathered momentum after the new Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was approved by the parliament. On the night of Dec. 15, there were brutal crackdowns by the police in two elite, Muslim-majority universities. The Delhi police, which answer to the central BJP government, stormed Jamia Millia Islamia, while police in neighboring BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh cracked down on Aligarh Muslim University.

The police brutality gave further impetus to national protests, and quietly, the women of Shaheen Bagh joined in. Today, those women have become the face of the resistance. They are also the face of the uncertainty that women across India have felt since the Modi government began updating the NRC. Their fears are not unfounded. After the implementation of the NRC in Assam, 1.9 million people were found to be lacking papers for citizenship and, according to activists, 69 percent of them were women.

“I have no idea where my birth certificate is or where my degrees are,” said Nusrat Ara, one of the conveners of the protest at Shaheen Bagh. “Most women don’t even have these documents.”

Ara has broken from years of conservative upbringing to stand shoulder to shoulder with men on the streets because she knows instinctively what the NRC would mean for women like her across the country. In India, a woman’s life is defined not by papers and documents but by dispossessions. Under the NRC process, people are required to submit documents proving their ownership of land, their lineage, and their education. Most women in India do not have their names on those kinds of documents.

“Women in this country have the vaguest ideas about when they were born or where they were born,” said Kavita Krishnan, a gender activist and secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association. “And documents are, of course, totally nonexistent.”

That, however, is to be expected in a country where only 66 percent of women are literate as compared with 82 percent of men. And among the women who begin an education, most are unable to finish because of the prevalence of child marriages. According to UNICEF, one in every three of the world’s child brides lives in India. Of the 223 million child brides in the country, 102 million were married before the age of 15.

India failed almost all the indicators of gender equality in the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Gender Gap Report, showcasing how the condition of women is precarious in the country especially when it comes to inheritance rights for daughters and women’s access to land use, control, and ownership.

The NRC makes things worse. Women have been historically “excluded from entitlements to land and access to education and have almost no documentation to prove their existence as citizens,” according to a statement by Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression, a countrywide group of women activists who conducted a fact-finding mission in Assam after the NRC.

Suchitra Vijayan, a lawyer and founder of the Polis Project, a New York-based research and journalism organization, traveled to Assam just before the NRC was implemented. A majority of the women she spoke with had no documentation or educational certificates or, if they ever had them at all, had lost them while migrating from their place of birth—often because of domestic violence or climate change. According to reports in the Indian media, after the Assam NRC was implemented the documents of around 150,000 married women were sent to West Bengal from Assam, out of which only 15,000 were verified.

Following the uproar over the NRC, the Modi government quietly backtracked and shifted its focus to a National Population Register (NPR) that can become an easy weapon in the hands of men in a society that continues to be deeply misogynistic and patriarchal.

The NPR was first introduced by the opposition Indian National Congress when it was in power in 2010 as a local register of residents in line with United Nations guidelines. Congress leaders had pointed out that the BJP government added at least seven more questions to the exercise, including the date and place of birth of both parents, and alleged that the NPR was being used to collect data for NRC. The NPR will also identify so-called “doubtful voters,” who will then be stripped of their right to vote and own property until they can prove citizenship under the NRC. Under the NPR, anyone can complain about a citizen, and it will be left to the discretion of officials to demand certain types of paperwork before relegating people to the list of doubtful voters.

The NPR will be a permanent fear hanging over women’s heads, according to Krishnan. Even if a woman clears the stipulations in the NRC, it will take just one unverified complaint for her to be relegated to the doubtful voters list, stripped of the rights to own property or vote.

“Men will of course abuse this power. They will threaten women into submission to stay quiet in the face of abuse,” Krishnan said. “Now, imagine the consequences for single women? What chance do they stand against this larger witch hunt?”

For Muslim women, if the NRC and NPR can strip them of their rights, the CAA will ensure they never regain it because the CAA is not open to Muslim refugees.Once stripped of their rights … hundreds of thousands of women from across social classes, religions, and communities could be held in detention camps.

Once stripped of their rights under these exercises, hundreds of thousands of women from across social classes, religions, and communities could be held in detention camps. And that worries Vijayan, who has worked with the U.N. war crimes tribunal for Yugoslavia and Rwanda as an attorney. Nowhere in the world, Vijayan said, are camps safe spaces for women.

“We know exactly what happens in detention camps. There’s no reason for us to believe our state will be any more benign to these women,” Vijayan said.

“The constitution is in danger, and all of us—especially the women—are on thin ice. All our rights and freedoms are endangered. It’s a catastrophe. We are looking ahead at a gender crisis like no other,” Krishnan said.

And Indian women know that instinctively. Which is why the women of Shaheen Bagh have not budged from their sit-in after nearly two months. Inspired by them, hundreds of thousands of women have been occupying roads and streets all across the country.

“Over the last two years, there has been a lot of fear among women,” Krishnan said. “But now there’s a remarkable possibility of us coming together and fighting this—and that’s what we are doing.”

Nilanjana Bhowmick is an independent journalist based in New Delhi, India. She writes on politics, gender, and development. Twitter: @nilanjanab