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Making calls seen as the road to sin in conservative areas

Girls in rural India barred from using mobiles

Making calls seen as the road to sin in conservative areas
The penalties for women using mobiles in parts of India can be severe (AFP photo/Sajjad Hussain)
Ritu Sharma, New Delhi

December 13, 2012

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In recent years, India has offered among the lowest mobile phone tariffs in Asia. But for young women in the village of Sunderbadi in Bihar, using a mobile has never been so costly.

Earlier this month, the village council barred women from calling on mobiles phones and imposed heavy fines on those found using them.

The council issued an order imposing fines of 10,000 rupees (US$185) on single girls found using their mobiles and a lesser penalty of 2,000 rupees for married women.

Village councils in the northern states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Jammu and Kashmir have imposed similar bans.

In October, a senior politician in Muzaffarnagar backed a ban on women owning mobiles and in August a village council in Rajasthan prohibited girls from carrying phones and directed them to cover their heads when outside their homes.

In August, in parts of Jammu and Kashmir unknown militant extremists warned girls they would be shot dead if seen using a mobile in public.

Local lawmakers who have imposed bans all give similar reasons: they hope to curb increasing cases of rape, extra-marital affairs and quickfire marriages.

“This is done just for the safety of the girls,” says Rampal Singh, a village council member in Muzaffarnagar district, Uttar Pradesh. “We are not against them. We just don’t want them to get into trouble.

“If we keep girls under control, boys will automatically not persuade them to do anything disrespectful."

Jyotsana Chatterjee, a Delhi-based women’s rights activist, says that certain sections of society consider a woman to be “someone to play with.”

“The reality in India is that men are superior,” she added.

Many village councils simply do not care about state laws, says Chatterjee, with caste, religion and gender often the main factors determining right from wrong.

“When religion and culture join hands, the situation becomes worse for women in rural areas,” she added.

State authority is often weak in such areas of India, meaning village councils decide what can or cannot be done on a day-to-day basis. The repercussions of falling foul of local diktats can often be severe – offenders can be expelled from their villages in extreme cases.

Kanchan Das, a journalist from Bihar, says that despite the sometimes harsh repercussions for using a mobile, her state is making genuine progress on women’s rights.

“Such diktats are highly uncalled for. People have to come out strongly against such inconveniences as mobile phones – in a way – provide security to girls,” she says.

Vajinder Sharma of Ambala district of Haryana says that no matter the pros and cons of owning a mobile, members of village councils are too often uneducated and insular, so mobile phones have become the latest target in a never-ending cycle of extremist traditionalism. Sharma says that girls have even been killed in parts of Haryana for marrying a boy of their choosing.

Abhey, a journalist who goes by a single name, says that draconian authority at the village level too often goes unpunished by senior state officials.

“While the whole world moves forward, we are moving backwards,” he says.

The only answer, says Bihar journalist Das, is for women to take matters into their own hands but “that would take a long time as it would not be easy for men to lose their power.”

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