At Passport Office, Women Encounter Discriminatory, Humiliating Procedures

Married women are required to submit a marriage certificate or affidavit at the time of passport creation or renewal, and divorced women a 'divorce deed' even when husband's name is not entered in passport

New Delhi: Despite senior BJP leader Sushma Swaraj being at the helm in the Ministry of External Affairs, women passport applicants continue to face discrimination and harassment at regional passport offices and seva kendras across the country.

Women applying for passports are finding that even after the introduction of Aadhaar cards – which establish an individual’s identity – getting a passport made, renewed or re-issued often involves them being asked to provide documents establishing their spouse’s or parents’ identity, or to submit additional documents if there is a change in their marital status – even when the name of their husband was never mentioned in their passport to begin with.

Much of this harassment, trauma and delay has to do with the demand for unnecessary documentation built into the system of creating new passports and renewing old ones.

In the case of women, passport offices usually demand that once they get married they have to get the names of their husbands added to their passports – even though there is no real need for this. The system, it seems, continues to see a woman as someone dependent on either her father or husband.

In a recent case, an unmarried resident of Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh whose passport was first issued as a single woman, learnt to her surprise that after getting married she was required to submit a marriage certificate or an affidavit proving her status even though she merely wanted to get her old passport renewed.

“This is a clear case of discrimination against women. By the same logic, even men should be asked for these marriage certificates or affidavits when they go for renewals of their passports after marriage, but that is not the case,” she said, adding that when her husband got his new passport made a couple of years ago, he was not asked for these certificates.

In fact, an Internet search produces many examples of women – especially those going through a separation or those who have been deserted by their spouse – who found it extremely difficult to apply for a passport because of their marital status. Their spouses are either non-cooperative in getting affidavits made or are simply not present to accompany them to the passport office for verification.

That the passport authorities and the external affairs ministry need to be more aware and forthcoming in dealing with the problems faced by applicants also becomes evident when one sees the nature of queries people people put on social counselling sites, and the staid questions which find a place in the FAQs column on the government’s passportindia website.

Various lawyers’ forum are continuously advising people on how to overcome problems linked to passport applications, for both men and women. So be it the case of a man who got divorced and wanted to have his wife’s name removed from his passport or the query posed by a man about his mother facing difficulty in getting her passport because her husband had deserted her 30 years ago and she was unable to produce him at the passport office for proof, problems are aplenty.

Though courts have often passed orders in favour of women, these orders are seldom reflected on government websites or in the answers passport officials give to queries. Decisions like the order of a Kerala court that a deserted woman does not need her husband’s consent for getting child’s passport made and the recent Delhi high court ruling that a single mother can apply for her child’s passport need to be given wider publicity, lawyers say.

The passport office’s gender discrimination and harassment becomes more painful and obvious in the case of divorcees. Even if there is no need for change of name in their passports, divorcees seeking passport renewals or a new passport are required to produce original court orders – referred to as “divorce deeds” by passport officials.

The story of Shruti

One such instance of harassment has come to light in Bhopal, where Shruti  (who only wanted to be identified by her first name) was made to do multiple rounds of the passport office and repeatedly meet the assistant passport officer just to get her passport renewal application submitted. She was subjected to humiliating personal questioning by some of the passport officers and patronising talk by others, and due to her obvious resentment to this behaviour, her application has still not been processed.

Writing to The Wire about the ill-treatment meted out to her, Shruti blamed the apathy at the regional passport office (RPO), Bhopal to “deep-rooted patriarchy and male chauvinism”.

Putting her experience into perspective, she said, “There is no escape, if you have to get your work done, surrender your existence, ‘respectfully’ (demonstration of this respect is very important) submit to their authority, as if you are at their mercy, helpless and clueless… you will have to show them that you don’t know anything and without their “concern” for you, it would be so difficult getting your work done, in my case, getting my passport renewed.”

Shruti said her passport had expired in September 2015 and she had applied for its renewal. There was no change in address or name involved, since she hadn’t changed her name after getting married. She was granted a divorce by a court in December 2015, so Shruti truthfully declared this in her application, marking her marital status as “divorced”.

Since she had not changed her name at the time of marriage or added her husband’s name to her passport, the renewal should have been a simple affair.

It was, however, anything but that.

Her travails began the day she visited the RPO on May 10 with all the requisite documents she had been asked to bring as per her application. “I was shocked to know that the passport office needs the ‘original court order’, which almost each officer verifying the documents referred as the ‘divorced deed’… The court does not pass a ‘divorce deed’, it passes orders,” she reasoned.

What followed was her going through eight different queues at four different levels during two days just to get her passport application accepted.

On the first day, she said, the first officer to check her documents referred her to a senior officer, who is referred to in “complicated cases”. The handwritten note on her application receipt read: “Divorce Case, Please See”.

The senior officer told her that unless she would submit the “original order”, her papers will not be processed and would be put on “hold”. He also advised her to reschedule her appointment and return with the original order, which Shruti decided would be the wise thing to do.

So she took a fresh appointment for May 27 and reached the passport office with the original court order. This time the first officer checked her documents and the original court order and asked her to see the senior officer after having written “Please see, Divorce Deed” on a note which was put on her file.

The senior officer, after going through all her papers, wrote another note on the receipt,  “Refer APO, please see, Divorce Case” and directed her to the assistant passport officer without giving any reason for doing so.

Shruti then had to wait a long time to meet the APO, who also attends to a number of VIP/special guests. The lady officer, she said, asked her if the court order was original and then affixed a hand written note on her receipt: “Please check and accept. Refer to Policy”.

It was now time for Shruti to repeat her queues at A, B and C counters after getting a token. At counter A she got her biometrics, photograph and address checked. Then at counter B, Shruti said the officer asked “some weird questions”, most of which she did not deem fit for answering as they were personal and had no relation to her application.

Arrey, yeh kya ho gaya? Kya hua? Shaadi kab hui? Kya baat ho gayi? Ladai, jhagda? Aur koi baat ho gayi?” (Hey, what happened here. What happened. When did you get married? Did you have a fight? Was it something else?) were some of the questions he posed, as Shruti told him that she got married in 2011 and chose to ignore most of the others.

When he insisted on answers, she asked him if this personal information was relevant to verifying her documents. If not, she urged him to just check the documents and let her go.

The officer in turn just keyed in some remarks online and asked her to meet the APO again. The APO made a final noting and asked her to leave, saying that the job was done.

Shruti then submitted her documents at the exit gate and was issued an acknowledgment receipt, which stated that her file has been referred to “POLICY” .

Though a month has passed since, she told The Wire that she has not received any updates on her application. Her queries on the inquiry numbers, the RPO and her fax messages have mostly gone unanswered. However, one day an official manning the inquiry number told her that she would be required to visit the RPO again as hers was a “divorce case” and the matter had been referred to the policy section.

Pained at the way she was made to run around and humiliated for no fault of hers, Shruti said she wants to ask just two questions. “Firstly, aren’t most of our policies/processes reflections of irrational/illogical judgements? How will we rid public spaces/office(s) of socio-cultural biases/prejudices?” And second, why are men not been screened for signs of male chauvinism and other biases at the time of appointment so that their personal traits do not affect the functioning of government offices?

While the issue of “What documents are required for deletion of spouse’s name on account of divorce?” is dealt with by question 60 on the passport India web page, self-attestation of divorce documents is deemed an acceptable alternative to a court deed and nowhere is there any provision for raising questions of a personal nature.

The answer to the question only states:

“Following additional documents have to be submitted:-

Court certified copy of Divorce decree or self attested copy of Divorce certificate.

Deed Poll or Sworn Affidavit as per Annexure “E” given in the Passport Instruction booklet.”

Considering the problems faced by the applicants, The Wire sent a questionnaire to the joint secretary, XP division in the Ministry of External Affairs on Friday. Here are the responses received:

Is it true that if a man, who got his passport made when unmarried, gets it renewed after marriage, he is asked for a marriage certificate or an affidavit? What are the rules pertaining to this?

Yes, if the applicant is applying for reissue of passport, after marriage, he is required to submit proof of marriage – either the Marriage Certificate or a notarized joint photo affidavit (Annexure ‘D’ available in passportindia.gov.in)

Why do we insist on a woman presenting a marriage certificate or an affidavit in lieu of it if she has to apply for a renewal of an old passport which was made when she was unmarried?

Reasons are the same as stated in 1 above.

Is the ministry considering removing some of these clauses, which cause a lot of inconvenience to the applicants, especially women, where the marriages are not dissolved or where they have been deserted?

The Ministry has already made provisions for such applicants to obtain fresh or reissue passports with or without spouse name by submitting an affidavit in the form of Annexure ‘K’ available in passportindia.gov.in

In the case of divorced women, are the passport officers justified in asking the applicant the reason for divorce? Is this a part of the verification process? Does it help in verification? If so, how?

As per extant guidelines, divorced women applicants are not required to furnish the reasons for divorce.

This may be the official position. But as the experience of Shruti and countless other women shows, the patriarchal mindset of many officials in RPOs around the country can make the task of getting a passport an ordeal.

This article was edited to add the ministry’s response.