CUDDALORE: It’s not easy for a woman to travel alone. Worse, bureaucratic hurdles, of a Manu-esque slant, are placed even before she can embark on her journey. How? By asking an adult woman to provide a ‘No Objection Certificate’ from her father, husband or son as part of the visa application process.
Express found that irrespective of a women’s age, financial status or employment status, travel agents across the country insisted women submit such an NOC. This is not required of men.
For Srividhaya Sainath, a 27-year-old techie based in Chennai, the experience was “emotional gut-punch”.
In September, Sainath, who had been married less than a year, planned to have an all-girls vacation in Singapore. After overcoming, questions from her family on why she wanted to travel without her husband, she was shocked to hear the travel agency ask her for a NOC from her “male guardian”.
“My husband and I are equals. We earn and contribute equally to the family. In what sense does he become my guardian and why?” she asked.
“When I argued with the agency, they told me the Consulate will wonder what a single woman will do in Singapore and my visa application will be rejected,” she said.
Sainath is not alone. Shivangi Sharma, 28, said she had a humiliating experience while applying for a Paris visa for her honeymoon in 2018.
“At the last minute, the officials told me I had to submit a NOC from my father, my wedding invitation and photos of the engagement. The consulate’s website did not demand such documents but I decided to submit the papers anyway. Then they asked for my father’s Aadhaar card,” she fumed.
“I had to go through this stress, extra paperwork, all because I was a woman and the VFS officials made up their mind I might be up to something. My fiancé faced no such issue,” she recalled.
The Singapore Consulate in Chennai said it had informed all its Authorized Visa Agents to abstain from asking for NOCs from solo woman travellers. However, it added that the requirements could vary “case-to-case”. Meanwhile, a well-known travel agency in Chennai said such requests were made of all women under the age of 50 for visas to all countries — except Thailand.
“These are the procedures made up by the embassies. When we approach the embassy for visa processing, they ask for NOC,” a travel agent claimed. Another Chennai agent agreed. “However, if the women have a healthy income, we can assure the embassy that the woman traveller will return to India,” another agent said.
Why NOC anyway?
According to travel agents Express spoke with, the requirement for an NOC arises because the embassy might suspect the solo woman traveller’s ‘real’ purpose to travel abroad is to find job in the country, marry a citizen of that country, traffick drugs or engage in prostitution.
This last ‘reason’ has been used to coerce women travellers as Sharadha Rajesh, 41, learnt when she was applying for a visa to Singapore in 2017. “I had refused to provide an NOC but was told that a few solo woman travellers going abroad engaged in prostitution and drug trafficking. This is why agencies do not encourage women travelling abroad by herself,” she recalled.
Another patriarchal dimension
S Anandhi, a professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS), found another dimension to this patriarchal request when her 20-year-old daughter applied for a Dubai visa this August. The agency insisted the NOC come from a male a guardian.
“Although I initially refused to provide an NOC, the agency started painting a biased nature about certain countries finally forcing me to submit one. But, the agency insisted the letter come from her father. When I told them my husband is no more, I was forced to submit the death certificate,” she recalled. “It is humiliating that despite the government declaring mothers are legitimate guardians of children, these agencies impose their conservative ideas upon us. In case of safety of women travellers, it is the government’s responsibility. Yet, the responsibility is thrust on the shoulders of women. This indicates the patriarchal and conservative mindset of the agencies,” she said.
Just say no
Sharanya Manivannan, a writer who has had similar experiences, says this is a societal issue and urges each woman to say “no” — as she has done.
“We need to see the request in the context of how women’s freedom is limited in a patriarchal society, not just as a regressive inconvenience that those who have the privilege to travel bump up against, but as a human right. Importantly, when a woman travelling abroad is humiliated by a travel agent — through tone, insinuation, explicit statements, intrusion into her circumstances as well as dismissal of her professional achievements and agenda — why isn’t a man taking a holiday viewed with any such suspicion?” she asked.
Swarna Rajagopalan, founder of Prajnya Trust, which works on gender equality pointed to Section 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and said asking women travellers for NOCs is a violation of that right.
According to the section, “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”
“In 2015, my 80-year-old aunt was asked to submit NOC from her son and provide her husband’s death certificate for a Schengen visa. She refused... Most women agree to submit NOCs to avoid compromising vacation plans. Also, given all the battles they fight, this may seem the most trivial,” she noted. However, if the website of the country’s consulate has not mentioned a NOC as a required documents, women should refuse to provide one, she said.