India: Village bans unmarried women from using mobiles

The Guardian

 An Indian village has banned unmarried women from using mobile phones for fear they will arrange forbidden marriages that are often punished by death, a local official said today. The Lank village council decided unmarried boys could use mobile phones, but only under parental supervision, said one council member, Satish Tyagi. Local women's rights group criticised the measure as backward and unfair.

Marriages between members of the same clan are forbidden under Hindu custom in some parts of northern India, where unions are traditionally arranged by families. In conservative rural areas, families sometimes mete out extreme punishments, including "honour killings", for those who violate marriage taboos. In some cases, village councils themselves have ordered the punishments, though police often intervene to stop them.

The Lank village council feared young men and women were secretly calling one another to arrange to elope.

Last month, 34 couples eloped in Muzaffarnagar district, where Lank is located, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, police said. Among the couples who did so, eight "honour killings" have been reported in the past month, police said.

"Three girls were beheaded by the male members of their family after they eloped," said the police assistant director general, Brij Lal, in the state capital of Lucknow.

Rulings by village councils – called panchayats and comprising village elders selected by the community – are not legally binding in India but are seen as the will of the local community, and those who flout them risk being ostracised. In Uttar Pradesh, panchayats are particularly powerful and have declared that boys and girls of the same clan are essentially siblings.

The mobile phone ban for unmarried women is part of a wider, regional effort to curb intra-clan marriage among the 3 million people of western Uttar Pradesh, Tyagi said. The Lank council ruling, which applies to around 50,000 people, is being considered by councils in nearby villages.

"The village council members feel that cell phones helped in the elopement of young couples," he said by mobile from Muzaffarnagar.

Most marriages in the region are still arranged by the parents, sometimes without the couple meeting before the wedding. But young people are mingling more, with more women in schools and offices and increased access to the internet. They are also watching more western TV shows that focus on independence and individuality, sociologists say.

Mobile phones, meanwhile, have become so common and affordable that even city slum dwellers, rural day labourers and children have them. Across the nation of 1.2 billion people, there were more than 670m mobile phone connections as of August, with the number growing by nearly 20m a month, according to government figures.

The local women's rights group, Disha, said the ban demonstrated the councils' archaic mindset, and warned that it could put girls at a disadvantage in other areas of life.

"These help in easy communication, which in turn helps these youths to get jobs. One cannot discriminate in the use of these contraptions on the basis of sex," said the Disha president, KN Tiwari.