A Married Woman’s Struggle to Secure Her Citizenship In Assam

Married at a young age with no formal education, it is tough for women in Assam to prove their citizenship with the right documents.

Maybe this was just written in my fate,” said Safina*, who not only lost the battle for citizenship but also lost her family fighting for it. Like many married women in Assam, Safina was declared a foreigner because she was unable to prove that she is the daughter of her father. 

When the Foreigner Tribunal’s notice came for Safina, she immediately started gathering documents. She was fairly confident of securing her citizenship after her brother and sister were declared Indian citizens.

Safina, who has never gone to school, did not know the nature of documents required for her case. She produced whatever she had, which included the voter lists of 1966 and 1970 with her parents’ names in them to prove legacy, a certificate from the head of her father’s village and the village Panchayat, a land document with her brother’s name on it and a copy of Foreigners Tribunal No. 2 in Morigaon district that declared her sister, Safura Khatun as Indian.On the day of her hearing, she was questioned by the Tribunal on various details like the name of her mother, father and grandfather etc.

I was a bit nervous while answering the questions but I managed to respond to all of them accurately,” she said.

The case’s undoing came when Safina couldn’t produce a link to her brother and sister, thereby unable to prove her link to her paternal family. As per the Foreigners Tribunal order, she was declared a foreigner because her name didn’t appear on the voter lists along with her father and brother before she got married. 

“If my brother and sister are Indian. How can I be a foreigner?” a confused Safina told Amnesty India. “

The Crime of Being a Woman in India

The Tribunal’s order in Safina’s case ignores the status of women in India who often have little or no documentation before they are married. News reports show that the draft National Register of Citizens released in December 2017, had left out 2.7 million married women who were unable to prove a blood link to their parents. A majority of them were married Muslim women. 

Married women produce all kinds of documents in their possession to prove this link –  their marriage certificates, a letter by the village head, even PAN card and more. However, they need documents like a birth certificate, land deeds, school certificates etc. to establish that link. 

For women, whose births were often not registered, or who often lose documentation in the transition from their father’s house to their husband’s or who largely aren’t sent to school or who don’t get a share of their father’s land, producing these documents is onerous. Most women who get married before or at 18, the minimum age to vote in India, also don’t have their names linked to their father’s on the voting list. 

All this makes it almost impossible for married women to save their citizenship.

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Despite having documents, Safina struggles to prove her citizenship. Credit: Devraj Cha

Speaking to Amnesty International India, Sanjay Hegde, a Senior Supreme Court lawyer said, 

“When a woman is married at an early age, she is often undocumented in the family of her birth. When she goes to a different village after marriage, she has no documentary life. Then when she approaches the Foreigners Tribunal she is declared an illegal immigrant. So now leaders are appealing to their communities to ensure there is some documentary link for women before marriage. These are the kinds of social situations which people sitting in Tribunals do not necessarily consider. The procedures and laws fail to consider the acute gender discrimination.”

The battle continues for Safina

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The fight for citizenship continues for Safina. Credit: Devraj Chaliha

Safina spent 1.5 lakh rupees appealing her case in the Tribunal as well as the Gauhati High Court, the highest court in Assam. They had to sell off their cattle and lease out their land, leaving her elder son to earn for the house. 

But the psychological trauma of his mother’s case and her being declared a foreigner, affected his mental health.

He was normal before but after the court order, he started doing things like roaming around naked or having episodes of extreme paranoia where he’d start throwing things around the house,” Safina said. 

Now, a stateless Safina, down to the last penny after her fight before the courts, abandoned by her daughter-in-law, with a son suffering from mental illness has to find a way to gather 1 lakh rupees for his treatment. 

Read: Fatima proved her Indian Citizenship, and yet was put on trial again.

Read Amnesty International India’s briefing, Designed To Exclude.