Mikail, 14, is aiming to take his O-level exams next year. In order to take the exam, he’s going to need valid identification. But Mikail and his mother, Ambareen Samuels* don’t know if the teenager will have valid identification by the time the all-important exams roll around. He lives in Pakistan under a Pakistan Origin Card (POC), and his is expiring early next year.
Mikail also has other worries. He hasn’t seen his father, Justin Samuels, since August of this year. After roughly 13 years of working and living in Pakistan, the state refused to reissue Justin’s POC, indirectly asking him to leave the country.
The POC was introduced in 2000 by then president Pervez Musharraf. The concept behind the card was commendable — it was meant to facilitate foreigners with ties to Pakistan who wanted to live and work here but didn’t want citizenship, especially if it meant giving up their own passports.
The POC was especially exciting for Pakistani women married to foreign men since the constitution’s gendered clause on citizenship allows foreign wives more privileges than foreign husbands. Foreign husbands can never be granted Pakistani citizenship, while this is an option for foreign wives. This issue has also been taken to the Federal Shariat Court which has concluded that this gendering is unlawful, but a change in the law is yet to be seen.
Justin received his first POC in 2001. Ambareen says that then, a year before the War on Terror began, the card came accompanied with a letter that warmly welcomed Justin to Pakistan.
Over the years, the rules and officers associated with the card grew colder, there would be unofficial, sporadic bans on reissuing the cards. Newspapers are littered with articles of foreign men and women taking NADRA to court over non-renewal of cards, and in most cases high courts have passed judgements against NADRA, ordering them to immediately grant foreign spouses these cards.
In March 2017, at the behest of “sensitive security agencies” the interior ministry placed an outright ban on renewal or issuance of POCs for foreign spouses. The bank accounts, properties and the movement of foreign spouses were all made inaccessible. Those with expired cards couldn’t hold down their jobs.
Later that year, in December 2017, the interior minister tweeted that the ban had been lifted. But NADRA didn’t get the memo until March 2018, when it once again began issuing and renewing spousal POCs.
Upon hearing from other foreign spouses that POCs were being issued and renewed, Fouzia Saeed, the author of Taboo and a former executive director of Lok Virsa, and Paul Lundberg, her husband, rushed to NADRA — they wanted Lundberg’s expired POC to be renewed.
“We went to NADRA and they said apply online. But when we applied online, the system wouldn’t process our application,” says Saeed. They shuttled between the NADRA office and their laptops for a few months before giving up.
Saeed and Lundberg married in 1998, they lived peacefully in Pakistan with a POC till August 2016 after which NADRA refused to reissue it. Lundberg continued to live in the country, on a multiple entry visa between 2016 and 2018, after which the couple grew tired of him having to exit and enter the country every three months. They packed up and lived in Sri Lanka for a few months and are currently based in the United States.
“There is no official ban on issuing these cards and yet they aren’t giving them out,” says Saeed. “It feels very similar to the attack on Pakistan’s civil society, it’s not official so those who aren’t directly affected by it can hardly notice what’s happening.”
Saeed says that when she married Lundberg she knew of only one more Pakistani woman who had chosen to live in Pakistan with her foreign spouse. Today, there are at least 3,515 foreign spouses living in Pakistan. That’s thousands of families disrupted every time the POC, officially or unofficially, shuts down.
Ambareen’s family is just one of these cases. “It’s very exhausting to have your family life disrupted every few years,” she says. “This year NADRA has again refused to reissue Justin’s card despite the fact that I have a court order for NADRA from 2013. They cite that it’s a security issue. And if I try online it doesn’t work.”
In Pakistan, when someone points out that you might be a security risk, many doors begin to close for you. Ambareen’s parents are now in their 80s, her son is enrolled in school, to uproot them all and leave for England, where Justin is originally from, seems as difficult as continuing to live without him around in Pakistan.
A third case is made by Suhail*. His wife’s POC expired in late 2017. He isn’t forthcoming with his name since his wife, Sarah*, is illegally teaching in Karachi. He is grateful that her bosses are willing to overlook her expired POC. “I don’t know what would happen if it wasn’t for her job. We are frustrated about how she can’t fly out to meet her parents for Christmas because without a valid POC, she will not be able to come back,” says Suhail.
In Sarah’s case, NADRA isn’t refusing her renewal. It’s just been in process since March, despite the fact that a new card shouldn’t take longer than 31 days. “Whenever we go to NADRA for updates, it’s just a big overwhelming, bureaucratic mess,” says Suhail. “We can’t do anything but wait.”
The biggest question surrounding Fouzia Saeed, Suhail and Ambareen Samuel’s disrupted life is why this happened to their spouses? “Why are they looking at us with doubt? When there are laws in place, why aren’t they being followed?” asks Saeed. “Every gesture of the authorities involved in giving us this card is discouraging and paranoid.”
Ambareen says that NADRA officials have informed her family that “The POC ban for foreign spouses is not completely over, only selective issuance is in place.”
Zohra Yusuf of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan says that this selective issuing of the POC could be a result of the growing chauvinistic environment. “We are fast becoming a paranoid state. The same attitude can be seen in our expulsion of international NGOs. There’s a growing general mistrust of foreigners, especially westerners,” says Yusuf.
But NADRA’s official stance is that nothing is amiss. Their website seemingly stands ready to accept applications and a Lahore-based official who doesn’t wish to be named says that ever since the ban was lifted, POCs are smoothly and indiscriminately being issued. If everything is running smoothly, why can’t I name him, I ask. “This new government runs differently. I don’t want to be singled out for talking to the media,” he says.
But Nasir Khan, a lawyer who deals with citizenship issues, says that he knows of at least two more cases involving foreign spouses where POC cards are stuck. “But to the best of my knowledge, it is a technical glitch in their system and not a blanket ban,” he says.
Whether it’s a technical glitch, laboured bureaucracy or discrimination, at the end it’s the families that are suffering. While in the US, waiting for Lundberg’s POC to be reissued, Saeed is writing a book on the history of feminism and she came across something that struck her: Begum Jehan Ara, a member of Pakistan’s first legislative assembly, first raised the issue of the aforementioned gendered nationality clause in the 1950s. It seems that since then, much has changed but so much has remained the same.