Life in Pakistan without a digital ID

In a nation where biometric identification permeates almost every aspect of life, thousands of people have had their ID cards suddenly blocked, rendering them essentially stateless. Here are some of their stories

Sophia-Layla Afsar

Karachi

Sophia-Layla Afsar, 35, has been embroiled in disputes with Pakistan’s National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) for most of her adult life. When she first applied for a computerized national identity card (CNIC), as an 18-year-old Pakistani living in Saudi Arabia, it was delayed for years. When she finally got her hands on it, her name was misspelt. Years later, a NADRA official alleged that there were two cards issued under her name and tried to get her to sign an affidavit admitting fraud. 

Afsar is trans. Her frustration with NADRA escalated this summer when she went back to have her gender changed in the system. Pakistani law allows for self-identification, and trans or non-binary people can have ID cards that say “X” instead of “M” or “F.”

“They tried every excuse in the world to turn me away,” said Afsar. “They tried to ask for my medical certificate, which they’re legally not allowed to do. They asked intrusive questions.” 

Afsar had travelled to her local NADRA office with an activist friend who has helped other trans women through the process. “She argued with the supervisor for an hour,” she recalled. “When we were finally allowed to proceed, the data operator had no idea how to process the gender change request. First, they made me tick an option that really didn’t apply to me, then they decided to just leave the gender section entirely blank.”

Wadud Khan

Islamabad

Both of Wadud Khan’s grandfathers served in the British Indian Army, prior to Partition in 1947. His father was a member of the special forces unit of the Pakistan Army and fought in two wars against India in 1965 and 1971. All the men in his family have either been in the military or worked as government employees. Khan, who lives in Islamabad, works for Pakistani intelligence and two of his brothers are in the army. Despite this, his ID card was blocked without explanation in 2016. It took him four years to have it reinstated. 

“The most galling part is that there are Afghans in my neighborhood, who were never affected,” said Khan. “One of them even came up to me and asked how my card managed to get blocked, given my family’s service.” 

Khan was asked to present documents proving his family’s nationality to a NADRA panel. Individuals with blocked IDs are required to provide documentary evidence of having lived in Pakistan before 1978, the year the country amended its citizenship laws to account for East Pakistan becoming the new nation-state of Bangladesh. Those documents are not always accepted, though.

“When the verification board convened, I presented everything to them: records of my forefathers’ military service; a land record dating back to 1903. But they weren’t satisfied. They said they would have to independently verify everything. It’s all a lie, this business of presenting records prior to 1978. Whoever pays will get through.”

Muhammad Sher

Islamabad

Muhammad Sher runs a construction business based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he has lived for decades. Last year, before the onset of the pandemic, he received news that his father was ill, back home in Islamabad. He decided to fly back to look after him. He planned to stay for two weeks and to renew his passport, which was nearing expiration. 

But officials told him that his passport could not be renewed, because his CNIC had been suspended. Sher says that he has been shunted from one government office to another, in an ordeal that is still ongoing, trying to get his ID unblocked. Despite residing in Islamabad, officials instructed Sher to take his case to a NADRA branch in Mohmand — a district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province that  borders Afghanistan — where his ancestral village is. His lengthy stay in Pakistan means that his work visa to Saudi Arabia has now expired. He doesn’t know if he will ever be able to recover $30,000 owed to him by clients in Riyadh. 

“I’m still waiting for NADRA to call me for my interview before the verification board in Mohmand,” said Sher. “I have to bring along two village elders, who can vouch for me.” 

Sher’s interview has already been rescheduled twice. “Two months ago, I was summoned for an interview. I traveled all the way from Islamabad, spent thousands of rupees on logistics. We waited all day and were finally told we would have to come back another day. Last week, they summoned me again. The same thing happened. Now I’m waiting for them to call for a third time.”

Mansoora Begum

Machhar Colony, Karachi

Mansoora Begum’s CNIC was abruptly blocked in 2008. Her parents died when she was a young girl and she was raised by a neighbor, who married her off to her son as soon as she was of age. Mansoora was able to procure a card through her husband, but authorities are now refusing to issue her a new one, unless she can provide them with her parents’ citizenship papers. 

Mansoora’s father was born in what is now Bangladesh. All she has is a steamship ticket in his name, for a one-way passage from Chittagong to Karachi, dated 1963. At the time, Chittagong was part of Pakistan. NADRA officials have rejected that documentation as insufficient.  

“After giving me the runaround, they said, ‘You must be a border crosser.’ ‘Fine,’ I told them. ‘Handcuff me, put me away in jail. But my children were born here — give them cards at least. I begged them. I gifted them fish. One official told me I’d get my papers if I let him sleep with my daughter-in-law.”

Mera Khan

Mohmand

Mera Khan, a tribal elder from Mohmand, isn’t sure when his CNIC stopped working. All he knows is that when he went to purchase a new SIM card in 2016, the shopkeeper told him that it was suspended. Then, he went to the bank, where a teller told him the same thing. 

It took him four-and-a-half years and at least 70,000 rupees ($400) in travel expenses to his designated NADRA office to have the card unblocked. He is furious at having to prove that he is Pakistani, given that his ancestors have lived in Mohmand for centuries. His ties to the land predate the nation itself. When I met him, he posed a pertinent question: how would NADRA have dealt with the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, whose family originally hailed from the Indian state of Gujarat. 

“If NADRA asked Jinnah Sahab for papers, what would he have? A passport from 1947? I gave them documents from a hundred years ago.”

The story you just read is a small piece of a complex and an ever-changing storyline that Coda covers relentlessly and with singular focus. But we can’t do it without your help. Show your support for journalism that stays on the story by becoming a member today. Coda Story is a 501(c)3 U.S. non-profit. Your contribution to Coda Story is tax deductible.

Support Coda

Alizeh Kohari

Alizeh Kohari is an independent Pakistani journalist who divides her time between Karachi and Mexico City. Between 2011 and 2015, she was a staffer at Herald, a Pakistani news magazine. Her reporting has been published in BBC, Reuters, Harper’s and WIRED.