Policing Village Moral Codes as Women Stream to India’s Cities
Kuni Takahashi for The New York Times
By ELLEN BARRY
Published: October 19, 2013
ROHTAK, India — Meena, 20, was a village girl herself, so she can recognize 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,” 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 medieval moral codes are policed by a network of male neighbors 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 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 behavior. 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.
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 “honor killings,” they are just as adamant about preventing these romances, a quest that involves tight control over women.
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 scrutinized their behavior and issued a steady stream of criticism. The criticism, in turn, terrified her parents, who feared being ostracized.
“They would say, ‘Why is your daughter going around in the village with her head naked?’ ” she said. “If you were walking with your head straight, the khap guys would say, ‘Look down at the ground, don’t make eye contact. Don’t have irrelevant conversations.’ ”
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, walking down the road in the golden light of afternoon, 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.
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“In the cities, the girls have phones, because parents provide them, but in the village we are not given phones,” said 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.”
Satish, who runs a photocopy shop next to the college, said the khaps are simply too far away to monitor students’ behavior. Phones are often exchanged as gifts and kept secret from the family, he said. “Generally,” he said, “everyone around here has two mobiles at least.”
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, Meena said. Police officers often work with the khap, many said. A young man from the same village might report back to a woman’s family if he spotted her walking with a man, others said. So could the rickshaw driver who drove her to the city.
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.
The possibility of violence ran like a thin blade through their chatter: Just last month, a young man and woman studying in Rohtak were killed in public by the woman’s relatives after they were discovered violating the ban on same-village romance. The man was beheaded.
“You know,” said Puja, a 19-year-old student, “the first time the parents hear that the girl is roaming around, either they take her home and get her married or else they kill them.”
Even within the khap panchayats, there seemed to be little consensus on how, or whether, to keep an eye on young women away from home. In interviews, numerous local khap leaders scoffed at Mr. Dhankar’s notion of placing surveillance units at places where young women change out of their traditional, billowing clothes.
But Mr. Dhankar was undaunted, saying the photographs could be shown to the girls’ parents, or to friendly police officers, who could threaten to press trumped-up criminal charges unless the behavior stopped. Great dangers await, Mr. Dhankar said, when a young woman keeps secrets from her family.
“It starts with a small lie,” he said. “Then they get into borrowing money and other bad things. The end result is that she will commit suicide or someone else will kill her.”
As he was explaining this, his daughter, a high school science teacher in her early 40s, chimed in with a robustly dissenting view, and Mr. Dhankar admitted cheerfully that the women in his house generally ignore what he says.
Growing serious, he added that it was misguided to see any collision of interests between young women and the traditionalists in the village. They are, he said, on the same team.
“As long as the girl lives within moral codes, she can have as much freedom as she wants,” he said. “If they are going after love affairs or extra freedom, then they are killed.”
Honor Killings in India
Published: October 23, 2013
In “Policing Village Moral Codes as Women Stream to India’s Cities” (news article, Oct. 20), you confirm that Hindus — not just Muslims — also perpetrate honor killings. However, the honor-killing motives among village Hindus are not confined to a taboo against marrying someone from one’s own village (seen as a form of “incest”), but are mainly caste-related. Falling in love or marrying someone from an “inferior” caste is still viewed as a capital crime.
In addition, unlike Muslims, Hindus murder men along with women 40 percent of the time, according to a 2012 study published in Middle East Quarterly, of which I was a lead author. Indian Hindu immigrants to the West do not tend to bring this custom with them, whereas some Muslims do. As women everywhere of all religions and cultures seek freedom, they are endangered by ancient tribal misogyny.
New York, Oct. 21, 2013
New York, Oct. 21, 2013
The writer, a fellow at the Middle East Forum, is the author of 15 books.
...and I am Sid Harth