A village council in Northern India last week banned women from using mobile phones. The leaders of Sunderbari village, population 8000, hope that fining unmarried women (Rs 10,000, or 114 GBP) and married women (Rs 2000, or 23 GBP) will stop premarital and extramarital affairs.
The men’s logic is simple: these affairs that have led to elopements — at least six in the past year — and humiliate the village. Manuwar Alam, council member, explains: “We had to hide our faces out of shame.” Local government officials took a serious view of this “unlawful diktat” and questioned the village council. In an about turn, the council now denies it announced fines.
While India has made efforts to work towards gender equality, ridiculous restrictions placed on women in the name of curbing chances of shame are still a problem. National debate focuses on how to empower women, be it through reserving 33 per cent of seats for women in parliament or the use of mobile phones. Yet on the ground in much of India, men are clearly threatened by any move toward’s increasing women’s independence.
This isn’t the first time a village council has tried to ban women from using mobile phones. In July, a village in Uttar Pradesh banned women from using them on the streets, mainly to stem the tide of “love marriages” in a culture that believes marriages should be arranged between families. The next month, a similar diktat in a village in Rajasthan ordered all girls below the age of 18 to stop using mobile phones, so that they would not get “distracted”.
This repressive instinct travels beyond village councils and right up to members of Parliament. In October, a former minister from Uttar Pradesh, Rajpal Singh Saini, cautioned his audience against giving girls mobile phones, saying: “What are the girls missing without mobiles? Did our mothers, sisters, did they die without mobiles during their time?”
The problem goes well beyond mobiles. Local khap panchayats (village councils) in India’s north regularly indulge in honour killings to send a message to young lovers who elope that inter-caste marriages are not allowed. So regressive is the thinking that a former chief minister of Haryana went as far as to suggest that the marriage age of girls be lowered to prevent the rising number of rapes in his state.
Beyond the joy of simple conversation, the mobile phone has become a powerful instrument to empower women in India. In Bihar itself, health workers have been given mobile phones so that they can connect with the local public health officers while out on their field, and also to facilitate mobile money transfers. In Uttar Pradesh, women have used them to learn the alphabet through the use of mobile phones. UN Women Singapore recently gave a grant to a Rajasthan-based project that helps women sell feminine hygiene products to others via mobile.
Even the government of India is moving forward to connect all 250,000 village councils with broadband connections to bridge the digital divide. Osama Manzar, director of the Digital Empowerment Foundation which is helping the government train village officials to become digitally proficient, told Index that for a village council to ban mobile usage is uncalled for. “I see this more as an issue of cultural change which the older generation is not used to and not aware of much and does not know how to comprehend. The sooner we make our society digitally literate, such issues will be a non-happening.”
Yet it seems that the by-product of having a phone — that women’s personal choices and confidence are increasing — is what has threatened the chauvinist Indian man. Manuwar Alam, of Bihar’s Sunderbari village has said:
[The] mobile phone is the cause of all evils in our society, including increasing love affairs and the incidents of elopement.
But mobiles do not cause these problems. Repression does.