The Venus Flytrap: Female = Flight Risk?

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I should be in Australia when you read this, basking on a beach (caveat: it’s winter). While applying for a visa, I encountered again that bizarre requirement often made of Indian women travellers: an NOC/permission letter from my father, along with his documents. If I had a husband, I would have been asked to furnish these from him instead.

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. To clarify: it’s travel agents, not most embassies or consulates, who make this request.

For the sake of brevity and anonymity, I’ll share highlights. Leading experts having to submit consent letters promising they’d return from conferences (i.e. not run away with a foreigner). Honeymoons on which only the bride had to obtain parental permission to go. A “certificate of character” from an employer, ostensibly testifying to – what, exactly? One traveller even realised later that the passport number on her NOC, forcibly submitted after a long fight, had been wrong – so what was its purpose?

“I really felt like I was being blackmailed at the time, and there was no transparency,” one woman echoed a common sentiment.

Travel can be stressful, and many give in – after all, it’s just one more piece of paper. But what if it’s not possible? I heard some harrowing tales: demanding an NOC from an ex-husband without visiting rights over a child; not being allowed to attend a celebration of one’s work due to having neither father nor husband; agents refusing to process paperwork even after their claims that it’s the law were proved false. Demanding NOCs is not just infantilising, insulting and arbitrary; it’s actually prohibitive.

I’ve furnished such letters in the past too, owing to pressure and misinformation, but not this time. As I collected my passport, I enquired about this procedure. My agent admitted he hadn’t questioned it, but shared guidelines for French Schengen and UK visa applications, which list documents from “spouse” or “relatives”. These gender non-specific terms are applied exclusively, in practice, on women.

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 Ms. Padmanabhan 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.”

And we, who travel, must stop letting ourselves be bullied.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 4th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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