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An adult Indian woman recently put up a Facebook post about having told by an immigration officer that she could not travel unless she had permission from her parents or another male.
Aisiri Shankar recently travelled to a destination outside India, alone, and was checked at the immigration counter by an Indian official who was amazed that as a single woman, she was not with a male, any male – relative or ‘even a friend’, and that had done that a few times without any document of permission from either her parents OR a male – even if in July she had travelled with a female friend. Apparently that wasn’t permitted.
“Is there a problem?” I ask
And then he proceeds to say one of the most outrageous things I’ve heard.
“See the thing is, if a woman aged between 18 to 35 is travelling alone, we generally don’t allow them.”
“Yes. There are all kinds of problems.”
“I’m sorry, what? What problems?”
“You see, there wouldn’t be any issue if you were travelling with a male guardian like a father, a brother, a husband or even a friend, it wouldn’t be a problem at all.”
“How does that matter? I have the means to fund my stay and you have the proof.”
“Yes, but a single young woman travelling abroad is trouble.”
I was beyond pissed at this.
“Trouble? Do you ask the same question to men who travel alone?”
“No because they are boys. Single travelling women – it can be dangerous.”
“Isn’t that upto me to decide if travelling alone is dangerous? This is ridiculous. I have had no problems with immigration so far. This is the first time I’m hearing something like this.”
“Yes, and that is why I’m confused because you seem to have travelled quite a lot.”
This, as she rightly says, is beyond ridiculous – even if there is such a rule, it is a discriminatory rule.
This both infuriated me and made me curious, for, like Aisiri Shankar, I had not known of such a rule either. After all, I had travelled twice out of India, alone (well, you could call it alone the second time too, even if I was travelling with my 2 year old, because I did not have a man with me, you see?) and I don’t remember if I had any documentation that said I had a man’s (husband’s in this case, because I was married, and no longer my parents’ ‘responsibility, you know!) ‘permission’. Though I do remember a letter that said I had his permission to take my minor daughter out of the country with me, as her father.
In my state of infuriation + confusion, I decided to dig around a bit. I did get this link to the Ministry of External Affairs that dealt with emigration clearance for those requiring it, which specified, ‘In case of unskilled worker, farm worker and women emigrant’, that had these stipulations about unskilled women workers:
But our traveller here was going as a tourist, AND was an adult, a working professional, who certainly came under the umbrella of ECNR.
Some more digging led me to this eye-opening article from 2016 in New India Express about being required to take an NOC from her parents for travelling overseas, by Sharanya Manivannan, an award winning Indian writer known for her feminist views, who had subsequently tweeted about it.
Sharanya says, “I am a working professional in my 30s. But I am – as one travel agent made clear – ‘also an unmarried woman going abroad alone.’ If this surprises you, you might be a man. My tweet asking about similar experiences unleashed an avalanche of responses from working women across India, across age strata, travelling everywhere from Greece to Chile on work and leisure. Men were incredulous unless they’d provided such letters on someone’s behalf.”
Aisiri Shankar would not have it, though, and when faced with an immigration officer asking this, raised her voice and demanded to be either taken to a higher official so that she could escalate the issue, or that her passport be stamped, as her plane was leaving in an hour.
She did go on to travel, but says, “I have never, ever, been asked such questions at immigration before. With so much focus on women empowerment in India, I’m surprised that immigration officials are allowed to make such statements. Back in April, I was asked by Thomas Cook to provide a letter of consent signed by my father, husband, brother (“even younger is fine”) or a male guardian, in order to process my Singapore visa. I refused to do this, since I was financing the whole trip and this is definitely not a requirement as per the visa policy of Singapore. As it turns out, a lot of travel agencies in India ask women to do this even though it is not required by the foreign country’s laws. A lot of women just give in, to avoid any hassle, but this is something that we need to stand against, because otherwise it simply sends out a message that women should have no independence, unless a man consents.”
I called a friend of mine who runs a travel agency, and she did say that a few countries required that an NOC was given to minors and women travelling alone, but that was mostly because of the question of who was funding the trip. This might be the ground reality for many Indian women who are dependent financially, the father, the husband, or the son, but surely it should not apply to adult women who can fund for themselves?
I’m not sure if these are requirements from Indian Emigration or just, as Sharanya Manivannan says, “To clarify: it’s travel agents, not most embassies or consulates, who make this request.” I did not get any clear information on digging, and would be glad if someone could clarify that.
Though Sharanya has the last word on that when she goes on to write about a woman who arranges travel overseas, “Kausalya Padmanabhan, who owns Destinations Unlimited and declined anonymity, has been in the travel industry since 1979. Not only does she never require such letters from clients, she has even put it in writing in certain cases that a submission has been made without an NOC at her own risk as an agent. She insists the bias is homegrown. ‘There is no rule. If embassies required it, the same would exist worldwide, and it doesn’t.’ Certain Middle Eastern countries still place restrictions on women’s travel, and she speculates that travel agents simply extended these across all destinations. ‘It’s we in the trade who must take it up, train our staff accordingly, and refuse to ask for such documents,’ (says Kausalya). And we, who travel, must stop letting ourselves be bullied.”
Image source: shutterstock
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In her role as the Senior Editor & Community Manager at Women's Web, Sandhya
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