Essay V5

There are persistent tensions around gender and identity


LEAD AUTHOR: Savita Bailur

Photo of Sumatra Didi showing her art

Sumitra Didi with her art

Interviewer: And all those years from the time that your daughter was born, to the time that she started going to school…all those years you had kept these documents safely?

Shailaja: Yes. And I have it safe even today.

Interviewer: Did you know back then itself that such and such a document would be asked later at the school?

Shailaja: They say that every child needs it, no? They say details of birth and so forth must be shown at school. So I knew it too. They had asked for details when I went to school but I did not have a birth certificate. There were no such things back then. But hereon we will need all that.

Photo of a woman filling in a form

Women at an Aadhaar enrolment centre

Shailaja is a 28-year-old single mother who works in three houses as a domestic help. She left school aged 13, is estranged from her husband who left her for another woman, and moved to Bengaluru with her teenage daughter (her son passed away age 13). When we met her, she was re-opening her dormant bank account after demonetization as employers were finding it hard to pay her with cash. During the course of the interview she also told us that her in- laws had seized her previous passbook (as well as her Aadhaar, ration and voter cards).

Shailaja’s awareness of identity documents was repeated by many of the single mothers we met— Kaajol, the kiosk and tea stall vendor who moved to Delhi from Kolkata, Sumana, the widowed ex- garment factory worker in Garudahalli, Jamima, also widowed, a street-cart vendor of bangles and other accessories in Kesarpur. A recurrent theme in our research was that by and large, the women we spoke to were very aware of the need for credentials, but many lacked the networks and resources (time, money) to obtain these easily, or were reliant on others, particularly men. Identity credentials for women are critical, particularly as increasing numbers of women enter the labor force. How can access to identity contribute to SDG 5, to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls? In this section, we focus on two questions:

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?

Women at enrollment

Most of the women we spoke to were very aware of the need for identity credentials. As Shailaja herself said without this card [the voter ID] it is like we are dead. Mothers were very aware of the need for birth certificates and Aadhaar cards for their children. Shailaja’s words illustrate this, but Jamima too recounted how her children needed a local address proof to obtain their Aadhaar and be admitted into school:

Jamima: My kids have been in that school for the past five years, but it was only recently they asked me to provide a local address proof of three years. In 2013 because I had got my gas connection, I could use that as a three year local address proof. Then again for my younger daughter they asked me to submit the three year local address proof. That time I had a bank account, so I submitted that. For two kids I submitted the gas connection documents and for the other two the bank account documents as proof. They are lagging behind by two years because the teacher kept saying that I don’t have an address proof. I fought for a whole year and then finally they were admitted.… That year I fought really hard. I overturned tables in the school saying that they had to admit my daughters into school. I was sick of hearing that they can’t be admitted because I didn’t have a local address proof.

Much of this determination to identify children is linked to wanting a better life for them—as Parvati, a home help who fought to get an Aadhaar card for her son, said: I want my children to go to school and achieve a status that I never will get…I never climbed the stairs of a school.

Male relatives tended to be key intermediaries in helping women get state identity credentials, echoing similar findings in Tanzania, Cote d’Ivoire, Pakistan,1 and Bangladesh.2 In our study, Jamima’s 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 uncomfortable being asked about identity and kept calling her 14-year-old nephew in to answer questions because he knows more about this than I do. Similarly, when she moved to Bengaluru, Shailaja’s brother helped her rent a room using his ID, while Kaajol’s brother too helped with her documents once she moved to Delhi. While 18-year-old Moromi’s father helped her fill in her PAN and voter ID forms, Moromi added: for a few of the forms like bank forms, I filled it up because my father wanted me and my sister learn how to fill up the form. We therefore heard different explanations for letting men deal with ID:—they know better; they have better networks and can get things done quickly; I don’t want to go to the enrollment space without a man; it’s not the kind of space women should be and so on.

To some extent, this speaks to reinforcing patriarchal traditions. One of our ice-breaker questions, described in the methods appendix was to ask how would you identify yourself? How would you introduce yourself to someone? Jamima responded with I give people my village identity. My husband’s name, I am so and so’s daughter-in-law.. Sangeetha, in Garudahalli, said she would identify herself as Postmaster Mariswamy’s wife. This made it even clearer that many of the women identified themselves in a relational way and were embedded in a patriarchal network which impacted on enrollment (although there were exceptions, of course).

Many of the women we spoke to (particularly in Delhi, and rural Assam) felt uncomfortable in spaces of identity transactions. One respondent talked of an Aadhaar center as “a male space”—both in terms of functionaries and users. A social worker we interviewed (essay V1) was told by the Food Office to get your husband or get some man when she wanted to get a BPL [below poverty line] card. In addition, some female interviewees said they didn’t like identification processes (like form filling) because they reminded them of the skills they didn’t have. When we observed Shailaja and Parvati opening a bank account, Parvati was denied an ATM card because she could not sign it. She said each time I have to go the bank and fill that form…it reminded that I must at least know how to sign my name even if I cannot read and write. Finally the delays and uncertainty in bureaucratic procedures impacted on their time away from home, having to be at home for their in-laws, children and so on. Many of our female respondents faced challenges simply because of the time cost of gathering all supporting documents, especially when they work outside the house—as Gudia, a factory worker in Kesarpur, noted, a day’s running around to collect documents for credentials means a day’s loss in wages.

Another key concern which arose much more for female interviewees than male at the point of enrollment was around privacy, particularly bodily privacy.47 Ganga, a Rajasthani puppet seller in Delhi wearing the ghungat (or veil), emphasized the importance of her husband’s presence during the Aadhaar registration process, to the extent of holding her hand down during fingerprinting. She added: see even here on my 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. My mobile number [a feature phone] is only for my children. My phone is just for the family. My number is not for the public. Men are therefore still intermediaries even though the unique identifier is supposed to be for the woman (i.e., a phone number is supposed to be personal to Ganga, but it is her son’s and husband’s contact details on her card).

Another example was when we met Narisa at a rural (Grameen) bank in Bilgaon, Assam. She had come in to apply for a loan while we were interviewing the bank agent. She was reluctant to talk, stating I don’t know how to speak but then told us she was applying for a loan for women (although the loan was in her name it was for her husband’s chicken business). We asked if she had faced any challenges opening the bank account for the loan and she said it had been easy as her son had helped her fill in the forms and gather all proofs of ID, although neither husband nor son were able to accompany her that day. Her sense of discomfort was palpable when the male bank agent held her finger down for identification for opening the bank account.

Photo of bank agent holding down Narisa's finger for identification

Narisa, interviewed in Assam, did not want her face captured in any photographs

Narisa was also uneasy having her face photographed because she wasn’t sure where the photo would end up, and was scared of her husband if it ended up in the wrong hands, adding that being outside the house was a rare occurrence for her—I never go anywhere, I don’t know much about anything. At this point, she said she had to rush as her boat was leaving (she lived on the Chars islands). After she left, the local fixer stated: actually they have some traditional rule especially in backward societies that women should be at home only, she should not work outside home. His biased language reminded us of the clash of contexts for Narisa and particularly between a patriarchal domestic space and a patriarchal (in a different sense) outside, business, space, and her negotiation of both in the need for identification. This is clearly only one example— women of higher socio-economic demographics, and those more experienced were much more comfortable in these environments. However, Tarini, the flower seller we interviewed in Bengaluru, illustrated the common discomfort on obtaining ID credentials with these words: why should I go to government offices like a man, and do all this.

Enrollment not empowerment?

Do women find value in the enrollment and use of identity credentials? It depends. For many women—particularly unorganized workers 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 not only could access benefits (although they then faced other challenges here). In addition, accessing work through this could also contribute to a sense of empowerment. With credentials for themselves, women can be independent—Shailaja, for example,

with her own mobile, her own bank passbook, voter and Aadhaar cards, is able to carve out her life separate from her estranged husband. For Sumitra Didi, the Madhubani artist, the most important ID artifact was her artist’s guild card because it made her proud. Identification as an individual emerged as a critical path to empowerment for these women. Yet others, like Anjali, a homemaker in Kesarpur, felt an Aadhaar card was no use, as what she really wanted to do was work outside the house and her husband would not allow her.

However, 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 also wary of the dangers involved if her mobile fell into wrong hands. Privacy—at least amongst those we interviewed—was seen as very much a woman’s responsibility rather than society more broadly— not to behave “badly” or “wrongly” (“galat” as the word used). This was especially the case of younger women. When we spoke to one father, he said “my daughters do not indulge in any wrong practices. They are good children.” Brothers, too, 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” picture on their WhatsApp profile).

Photo of a shop sign

Filling a bank account form

Another twist is that while many women obtain identity credentials—such as ration cards (in the eldest female’s name), open zero balance accounts (part of the financial inclusion effort of the Indian government), and apply for increasing schemes for women, many of these are eventually used by men. On more than one occasion (for example as seen in the case of Narisa in Assam, Madappa in Garudahalli, others in self-help groups) we found women’s names being used for loans for their husband’s businesses. Hence, many men are reliant on the identification and visibility of female family members, but this doesn’t always add value for the women themselves, but rather the men.

Srilatha Batliwala defined women’s empowerment as control over material assets, intellectual resources and ideology and the process of challenging existing power relations, and of gaining greater control over the sources of power.3 Women owning and controlling their own identity credentials go a long way to empowerment (consider Shailaja who recognized this and fought to regain access to her credentials from her in- laws). Yet, Narisa, Anjali and other experiences we heard, along with other primary research, suggests that this has not entirely happened.

The role of labor rights organizations

As increasing numbers of women enter the labor force, they appear caught between organized and “unorganized” systems, with the need to have identity documents but without the know- how. In our interviews, Hasiru Dala, a waste management social enterprise, found that female waste pickers were keen to obtain Aadhaar cards, not just because of access to services, but so that they would not be harassed by police on the street and could “legitimize their existence.” There have also been news reports of sex workers feeling “empowered” because of access to Aadhaar4 but activists spoke to us about the privacy concerns some had voiced to them.

The site where we encountered the most important role of labor rights organizations was in Kesarpur. While many women (and men) work in the garment factories, they can be denied IDs both at work (because they are hired by intermediary contractors who don’t want to provide IDs) as well as proof of residence documents at home by landlords. Those we spoke to praised the support of labor rights organizations such as Nari Shakti Manch and Mazdoor Ekta Manch who helped women obtain IDs. Following her own challenges getting an Aadhaar card, Jamima said: after I started working with Nari Shakti Manch, I myself have enrolled more than 250–300 kids. But much of this enabling others is dependent on volunteer time—she added but now I don’t do any of these things anymore, I don’t get time. While these centers are clear, accessible intermediaries, they are also resource-constrained and need financing. largely in rural regions. In our interviews, we found sanghas helped women open bank accounts and facilitate the process of loans (by obtaining loan-related documents on their behalf, including Aadhaar cards, PAN cards and registering individual enterprises, such as shops, household professions, etc). Respondents such as Shwetha (a garment shop-owner) said that she had learnt entrepreneurial skills and confidence in paperwork. Individual empowerment was possible through collective efforts, as highlighted in interviews by Shwetha, Sangeetha, Venkatamma and other members of sanghas at Garudahalli. This was possible through continuous harnessing of social capital, flatter structures, and shared knowledge systems (a shared understanding of official processes that work, or informal relationships with intermediaries that could be strengthened).

An additional under-supported ID intermediary for women is the sangha or self-help group model—voluntarily organized women’s groups


If access to identity is to empower women and progress towards SDG 5, we need to address the broader context that women are entrenched in. “Women” are neither homogenous, nor passive, not 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, she lives independently as sole provider for her daughter, but also depends on her brother’s family, initially for obtaining her accommodation, for her daughter’s admission to school, obtaining a bus pass and so on. Similarly, Susheela in Garudahalli said the death of her husband made her take socially unpopular decisions such as working as a single mother, which led her to open a bank account. It may be argued that women such as Shailaja and Susheela have not gained absolute agency and empowerment. Nonetheless, they have sought to navigate and express themselves within specific power- ridden contexts they belong to, and identity credentials have been key in opening this door.

Designers and implementers of ID systems can incorporate gender-sensitivity in numerous ways—they can ensure that a woman’s bodily privacy is respected particularly during biometric registration (having female registration agents or dedicated times—some of which is operational but not standardized); address male patriarchy on why women holding their own credentials are critical to their agency (although this is a deep cultural context), and work more in partnership with intermediaries such as labor rights organizations and sanghas.

  1. GSMA, “Driving Adoption of Digital Identity for Sustainable Development: An End-User Perspective Report,” February 2017.

  2. Syed Ishtiaque Ahmed et al., “Privacy, Security, and Surveillance in the Global South: A Study of Biometric Mobile SIM Registration in Bangladesh,” in Proceedings of the 2017 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, CHI ’17 (New York, NY, USA: ACM, 2017), 906–918, doi:10.1145/3025453.3025961.

  3. Srilatha Batliwala, “The Meaning of Women’s Empowerment: New Concepts from Action,” in Population Policies Reconsidered: Health, Empowerment and Rights, ed. Gita Sen, Adrienne Germaine, and Lincoln C. Chen (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, 1994), 127–38.

  4. Abhilash Botekar, “Sex Workers Feel Empowered with Aadhaar,” The Times of India, March 18, 2015.