How identity systems influence complex gender realities

Episode 6 - Article 1

In ‘The Social Justice Advocate’s Handbook: A Guide to Gender’, author Sam Killermann notes

“Gender is like a Rubik’s Cube with one hundred squares per side, and every time you twist it to take a look at another angle, you make it that much harder a puzzle to solve.”

It was important to us from the beginning of this project that we considered as many as possible, if not all, important factors at play in the discussion of identity. Gender is key amongst them, even if it is a many-dimensional element. It conditions relationships and interactions that people may have with others in a society, often to an extreme degree.

With our research, we wanted to especially focus on two questions with regard to gender: do women face different challenges to men in obtaining and formalizing their identity? And secondly, once they do have access to “an identity” – does it empower them in some way to ameliorate unequal gender dynamics?

When it came to obtaining identity credentials, all women we interviewed were aware of the need for these.

Several mentioned the men in their lives as playing key roles. Jamima, a widowed street-cart vendor of bangles and other accessories in Kesarpur near Delhi said her father-in-law helped obtain her voter card. In rural Assam, Alvira mentioned “my father, brother-in-law and husband take care of these things”. Another Assamese interviewee was very uncomfortable being asked about identity and kept calling her fourteen-year old nephew in to answer questions because “he knows more about this than I do”. Similarly, when Shailaja, a domestic help, moved to Bengaluru from her village, it was her brother who helped her rent a room using his ID. And in Delhi, Kaajol, a kiosk and tea stall vendor who moved to the city from Kolkata, got the help of her brother to get her documents.

However, it is important to note that this help may be for different reasons – either feeling uncomfortable in government spaces, thinking that men understand these processes more, feeling the need or being taken under protection by male relatives, or it may even be a clear strategy on the part of women to outsource this to the men in the family.

Sometimes, women mentioned that the steps they needed to complete (like filling in application forms or specifying a job within a form) sometimes made them felt inadequate because it reminded them they weren’t in possession of certain skills.

When we observed Parvati, a home help, opening a bank account, she was denied an ATM card because she could not sign (though her thumbprint was accepted on all forms). She said, “each time I have to go the bank and fill that form, it reminded me that I must at least know how to sign my name even if I cannot read and write”. Not coincidentally, she fought to get an Aadhaar card for her children so that they could “achieve a status that I never will get … I never climbed the stairs of a school” (this with regard to Aadhaar numbers now being required for school admission in Delhi). We found the mothers in our sample as acutely aware of obtaining identity credentials for their children.

Delays and uncertainty in bureaucratic procedures are another factor that impacted on womens’ time away from home, and the responsibilities they had towards family members, especially in-laws and children. Many of our female respondents also faced challenges because of the time cost of gathering supporting documents to prove identity, especially when they worked outside the house. As Gudia, a factory worker in Delhi’s Kesarpur noted, a day’s running around to collect documents for credentials means the equivalent in lost wages.

Another key concern which arose much more for female interviewees than male at the point of enrollment was around privacy, particularly physical privacy.

Ganga, a Rajasthani puppet seller wearing the ghungat (or veil) in Delhi emphasized the importance of her husband being with her during the Aadhaar registration process, to the extent of holding her hand down during finger-printing. She added: “see even here on my card (business card), which I have given you… it has my son’s mobile number and contact. And on this side, it has my husband’s contact details. Nowhere is my mobile number mentioned. No. My mobile number (showing a feature phone) is only for my children. For them to contact me, or for me to contact them. My phone is just for the family. My number is not for public.”

Do women find value in the enrollment and use of identity credentials? It depends. For some women – particularly workers in unorganized sectors such as street cleaners and the garment factory workers of Kesarpur – an identity (including Aadhaar, a company ID, voter ID and ration card) was critical. After obtaining these, they felt they could not only access benefits but access work, which gave them a sense of empowerment. Sumitra Didi, a Madhubani artist, felt her most important ID artefact was actually her artist’s guild card because it made her proud. But others, like Anjali, a home-maker in Kesarpur, felt an Aadhaar card was no use to her, as what she really wanted to do was work outside the house and her husband would not allow her.

Tempering this individual desire to be identified and be visible is the networked web of dependencies and hierarchies women are deeply embedded in. Digital identities (i.e. being on Facebook and WhatsApp) were closely guarded both by women themselves and their families in this demographic. Many of our female interviewees mentioned mobile privacy – being careful of what they shared on a mobile. Imama in Delhi, while acknowledging the importance of mobiles, was wary of the dangers involved if her mobile fell into the wrong hands. Privacy – at least amongst those we interviewed – was seen as very much a woman’s own responsibility; the onus of not behaving “badly” or “wrongly” (“galat” was the word used) was on them. This was especially the case for younger women. When we spoke to one father, he said “my daughter does not indulge in any wrong practices. They are good children”. But brothers also appeared as online identity gatekeepers, either stating that they didn’t want their sisters online or helping them navigate their identities online (e.g. by telling them to put a “nice”, approved picture on their WhatsApp profile). Younger teenage girls often stated they did not use mobiles, though later they told us they used their brothers’ or older friends’.

Another twist is that while many women obtain identity credentials such as ration cards (in the name of the oldest woman in the family, as opposed to the typical situation where the oldest male is the named beneficiary), open zero balance accounts (accounts with no minimum balance requirements, part of the financial inclusion effort of the Indian Government in 2014), and apply for the increasing number of government schemes being launched for women, many of these are in reality used by men. On more than one occasion we found women’s names being used for loans that were in reality going to benefit their husband’s businesses (link to the transaction story for this episode), despite the relevant loan scheme being set up to benefit women. Hence, while the intention may be for women to progress by proving their identity so they can avail of certain benefits, it may not necessarily truly add value to their lives.

Gender is also not binary. This is not often acknowledged in programmes that impact huge swathes of people. A noticeable exception is the UK government’s 2021 Census topic consultation held in 2015, which asked for the public’s views on what questions the 2021 census should cover. The concluding report specifically noted that gender identity should be looked at as a new topic, reflecting the fact that the trans community, trans identities and gender identity matters are becoming more visible in the mainstream media.

India has a long way to go in this department, a fact we mentioned in Episode 5.

If access to identity is meant to empower women and progress towards SDG 5, we need to to address the broader context that women are entrenched in. “Women” are neither homogenous, nor passive, nor victims, but they are embedded – to greater or lesser extents – in complex relationships. Small changes are happening but depend on the agency of individual women and those who support them. It was the constant harassment by her in-laws and husband which finally led Shailaja to relocate to the city (whether or not she had all the necessary credentials to get her by) for the sake of maintaining her dignity.

She pushed herself to learn to sign for an ATM card and lives independently as the sole provider for her daughter but also depends on her brother’s family, who initially helped her get accommodation and with her daughter’s admission to school as well as other simple but important things like getting a bus pass. It may be argued that women such as Shailaja have not gained absolute agency and empowerment. Nonetheless, they have sought to navigate and express themselves within the specific power-ridden contexts they belong to, and identity credentials have been key in opening this door.


Read Article Two: Do identity systems work for women? How social relations trump technological systems.