The (in)Accessibility of NADRA and Union Council Processes for Women & Gender minorities

Official identification documents such as birth certificates and computerized national identifications cards (CNICs) are the fundamental right of every citizen. However, the procedures to attain them, which appear to be objective on the surface, carry within them countless hidden loopholes and biases disproportionately affecting marginalized groups.

In our research project, we took an ethnographical approach to shed light on and identify areas of inaccessibility with regard to the basic policies and procedures of the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) and the Union Councils (UC) for women and gender minorities.

Our study employed a two-pronged approach: participant observation and interviews. Our participant observation took us to several NADRA and UC offices within Lahore. Additionally, we carried out semi-structured interviews with women and gender minorities who had faced several practical impediments in the process, as well as NGO workers, legal experts, and trans activists.

A common problem faced by women at NADRA offices was discrimination against non-nuclear family arrangements. Given that the UC Birth Certificate contain questions related only to paternal lineage, the situation carries with it the potential to be dangerous when women are required to produce a male guardian. Consider the case of 22-year-old Tatheer Fatima, who filed a case against the State which went up to the Supreme Court (SC) in 2018. Tatheer’s father had abandoned her as a child and contributed nothing financially towards raising her. She was brought up solely by her mother and wished to have her name as her surname as well as on her NIC. However, the highest court of justice in Pakistan denied her request, calling it “un- Islamic.” Similarly, we discovered that trans persons, if registered as ‘X’, cannot legally adopt a child since, according to policy, this child cannot be registered. Sex workers, too, are demeaned when official documents do not contain the language to describe their situations.

Interestingly, if faced with any issue during the process, applicants are told to appeal to a personal contact in the system, even by officials themselves. The flipside is that those individuals who cannot procure contacts must leap through unrealistic hoops to get simple procedures done. However, certain dire situations warrant the involvement of external organizations like HOPE who are able to navigate the bureaucratic complexities. Legal processes are also made exceptionally inaccessible to trans folks, as revealed by NGO Worker, Shawana. These applicants are made to gather a lot of unnecessary paperwork from various sources (such as their gurus).

Moreover, personnel at NADRA offices may also be unaccommodating to those who do not fall into conventional social roles e.g., cis women without male guardians or trans women aiming to get their gender legally changed. Of greater concern is the fact that trans individuals reported being ridiculed and even abused and harassed at these offices. There is an implicit transphobia within the legal system (e.g., the requirement for a medical examination to register with NADRA as a trans individual) as explained by trans-rights workers, Mehlab and Mani from HOPE. This phobia is reflected in the attitudes of the personnel present in th NADRA offices as well, who refuse to allow the male identity to trans individuals because they do not believe them to be “real men”. Finally, many policies to benefit women and gender minorities are in place but are not being implemented, such as the Transgender Persons Protection Act, 2018.

Many policies to benefit women and gender minorities are in place but are not being implemented, such as the Transgender Persons Protection Act, 2018.

Marha Fathma & Hajrah Yousaf