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Policing village moral codes as women stream to India’s cities

ROHTAK (India) — Ms Meena, 20, was a village girl herself, so she can recognise the changes that come when girls from the village arrive in this city as students and take their first gulps of freedom.

Photo: The New York Times

Photo: The New York Times

ROHTAK (India) — Ms Meena, 20, was a village girl herself, so she can recognise the changes that come when girls from the village arrive in this city as students and take their first gulps of freedom.

Blue jeans, forbidden at home, are crammed into a corner of the backpack for a midday costume change. A cellphone is acquired and kept on silent.

She always tells them: You never know who might be watching. If word gets back to the village that a young woman has stepped across the village’s moral boundaries — it could be something as simple as being spotted chatting with a group of male students after class — her life could be upended in a day.

“I tell them, we have to be careful,” Ms Meena said. “Maybe they are not aware that someone can watch them and go and report back.”

As young Indian women leave rural homes to finish their education in cities, often the first women in their families to do so, they act like college students everywhere, feeling out the limits of their independence.

But here in the farming region of Haryana state, where mediaeval moral codes are policed by a network of male neighbours and relatives, the experience is a little different. There is always the danger that someone is quietly gathering information.

The old and new are continually rushing at each other in India, most starkly in places like Haryana, a largely rural, conservative state abutting New Delhi whose residents can commute 20 miles (32.2km) to work in nightclubs and office buildings. But their home villages are sleepy places, whose main streets are patrolled by glossy, lumbering black water buffalo.

The villages are ruled by khap panchayats, unelected all-male councils that wield strong control over social life, including women’s behaviour. That job becomes much harder once the women have left for the city.

When one khap leader listed city shops that were allowing young women to store mobile phones and change into Western clothes, another suggested posting informers outside the shops with cameras to capture photographic evidence as women came and went.

Mr Om Prakash Dhankar, a khap leader who voiced his support for this approach, said measures like these would protect young women from much worse dangers that might follow if they freely cultivated friendships with men.

“The mobile plays a main role,” he said in an interview. “You will be surprised how this happens. A girl sits on a bus, she calls a male friend, asks him to put money on her mobile. Is he going to put money on her mobile for free? No. He will meet her at a certain place, with five of his friends, and they will call it rape.”

A generation ago, women here lived in complete seclusion from men, and could appear in public only wearing a lightweight cloth that completely covered their head and face. Though that tradition is fading, many women are still not allowed to leave the house without permission from a father or husband.

Haryana’s khaps focus much of their energy on defending a single ancient prohibition: Men and women are not allowed to marry anyone from the same village. The local interpretation of ancient Hindu texts holds villagers to be brothers and sisters, rendering their unions incestuous. Young people defy the ban very rarely, but those who do are sometimes murdered by a gang of male relatives.

As much as the khaps condemn these “honour killings”, they are just as adamant about preventing these romances, a quest that involves tight control over women.

Ms Meena, who left her village several years ago to escape an arranged marriage, said young women there were terrified of the elders in the khap, who scrutinised their behaviour and issued a steady stream of criticism. Whether their influence extends to college women in Rohtak, one of Haryana’s largest cities, is another matter.

As young women poured out of the gates of Maharishi Dayanand University recently, they described the alchemy that takes place when young women from the village mix with classmates from big cities. Some begin illicit romances, something strictly forbidden at home. But for many, the changes are modest ones.

“In the cities, the girls have phones, because parents provide them, but in the village we are not given phones,” said Ms Sunita Meham, 23. “She comes to college and sees that other people are using phones, so she also wants to use one. If her parents agree, and if her friends call her on that phone, they say, ‘Why do you have so many friends?’ To save herself all these questions, she has a secret phone.”

Ms Sonal Dangi, 20, shrugged off the talk of tighter controls. Social change had taken hold in Haryana, she said, and it could not be halted.

“Everything has its positive and negative sides,” she said. “But they can’t stop it.”

But others were far more wary. The moral arbiters from the village have informers everywhere, Ms Meena said. All the young women interviewed in Rohtak could reel off stories of classmates who simply disappeared, withdrew from school and were swiftly married to men of their parents’ choosing after word of a moral infraction reached their village.

“As long as the girl lives within moral codes, she can have as much freedom as she wants,” Mr Dhankar said. “If they are going after love affairs or extra freedom, then they are killed.” The New York Times

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