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Dial P for patriarchy
There have been strange stirrings in the lush fields of Haryana and western UP, the region the khaps lord over. Two villages less than 100 km apart made it to newspaper headlines over the last week for very different reasons.
One was a step back. A khap edict was issued in Asara village in UP's Bagpat that banned women from using mobile phones and stopped those below 40 from moving out of the house unescorted.
The worrying thing in Asara village was the nearunanimous approval of the ban, especially the vehement support from young women who seemed to need no coaching to speak in favour of the ban. "Mobiles have a wrong influence, " says a 20-something Farzana forcefully.
Articulating its evils, she says they fixing rendezvous and "talk unnecessarily". Men take photographs of girls and show them to their friends. "How can a brother take his sister's photo?" is an oft-repeated line. Such behaviour is to them a precursor to the khaps' greatest fear: youngsters choosing who they will marry.
In all villages in khapland, young men and women of the same village are believed to have the same gotra or sibling ties. Hence relationships are frowned upon. Those who gather the courage to marry risk their elders' wrath. Many marriages end in the couple being killed by their families. Or the couples - and sometimes the families too - have to abandon their village, property and fields never to return.
The good news. Within days of that, a first-of-itskind meeting was held in a village called Bibipur in Haryana's Jind district. With the blessings of the khaps of 17 villages, a group of local women forced through a ban on the illegal practice of female foeticide rampant in their communities - to their men's aye-ayes. The nation applauded.
A distance of about two hours separates Asara from Bibipur village where Ritu Jaglan has been giving interviews to various media and being widely feted. Ritu is 25 and chaired the first khap meeting where women took the stage. "We were very happy with the respect shown to us by men in the khap, " says Ritu, whose brother is the sarpanch.
Ask her about Asara's ban and Ritu says, "Every village has its own needs. Everyone must sit together and decide what is right for the village. "
Ritu, a post-graduate, takes pains to knock down the idea of a 'love marriage'. "They don't last. Only parents can make the right choice for you. As far as court marriages are concerned, it is not something I believe in but the laws of the land give you that freedom, right? So it is important to impress this upon the people and implement the laws of the land. "
Now here is a twist. While Ritu is winning accolades for a gigantic first step towards improving women's lives, her approach to the ban on mobiles appears to be regressive. Activist Jagmati Sangwan explains this duality. "They are still working within patriarchal limits. It was important to find the vision on which the Jind meet was convened. " Sangwan points out that the resolution passed did not talk of uplift of women. "It talked of fees that the doctors or families will be charged. How can we tackle this issue without talking of women?" Essentially, the drive against female foeticide gained traction from the fact that the villages have a growing number of bachelors with no girls they can marry.
That said, Ritu's campaign is commendable, says Sangwan. In a region where the very existence of a girl child is still a negotiable, a woman asserting her rights beyond prescribed male boundaries is a big leap forward.
For Ritu, it is important to stay within society's limits and bring change from within. The belief in patriarchy is not restricted to men, adds Sangwan. If anything, "patriarchal values appeal and attract women too. Endorsing bans and such brings them popularity as well as acceptance. "
Ritu knows it's a long road ahead. After all the campaigning and gaining support of the khaps, she knows that they have come together only on the issue of female foeticide. The khaps have clearly said no to discussing any other issue, especially inheritance.
She says governance should be about ensuring that no crime takes place. "But villagers must sit together to work out solutions and include women in their discussions (salah-mashwara ), " she adds. "Wahi nirnaye sahi hota hai jo saari duniya mane, " (Only the decision that everyone approves is correct). "Unki larkiya bhaag rahi hai, unke liye yeh rok sahi lagega unko. " (Asara's daughters are running away, to them this ban seems the right step).
For Asara's residents, the mobile phone is the culprit that plays Cupid. It helps girls remain in touch with boys, develop friendships and relationships. Shah Rukh, a 50-year-old father of five daughters, says, "Love karne lagti hai. Ye boorai rokna hai. " (They fall in love. This wrongdoing must be stopped. ) He is proud of the ban and wants the media to show his village as a model one for holding aloft "traditional values". Yet, Asara isn't living in an age long gone. Young men are all in capris, jeans and branded tees. Some have funky hairdos. The girls wear salwar-kameez, dupattas lightly cover their head, they're articulate and talk freely. No dupattas pulled over faces here. Asara has three primary schools and the villagers are proud that all their kids, including the girls, go to school. There's an inter-college that is the village's showpiece. Young married women are allowed to be part of anganwadi work, polio drives and the like.
On the face of it, Asara looks like a happy village. But Asara is simmering. Six couples ran away to marry in court last year. and this is what spurred a local leader, part of the influential khap, to push the ban through. Says Jilleuddin, who runs a local grocery, "The mobile gives a person control. How can young girls and boys be allowed that?"
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