NEW DELHI // A village council in the state of Bihar has banned women from using mobile phones, blaming the devices for an unprecedented rise in couples eloping.
Manuwar Alam, who heads the committee tasked with enforcing the ban, said mobile phones were "debasing the social atmosphere" of the Sunderbari village, located 385 kilometres east of Bihar's capital, Patna.
Unmarried women caught using a mobile phone will be fined 10,000 rupees (Dh670). Married women will pay 2,000 rupees if caught using a cell phone in public. They are only allowed to use a mobile phone in the privacy of their homes, and only under the supervision of a relative. Marriages are usually still largely arranged by families acoss India.
"It always gives us a lot of embarrassment when someone asks, 'who has eloped this time'," said Manuwar Alam, who heads a village committee tasked with enforcing the ban.
Mr Alam said the number of elopements and extramarital love affairs had risen in the past few months, with at least six girls and women fleeing their homes.
"Even married women were deserting their husbands to elope with lovers. That was shameful for us," Mr Alam said. "So, we decided to tackle it firmly." The decision by the village council was the latestin a series of such declarations from councils in north India have caused outrage among women rights activists. The pronouncements are a way for men "to control the lives of women", according to Ranjana Kumari, the director of the Centre for Social Research in New Delhi, a non-profit group that works to improve women rights.
"These are tools of patriarchy. They feel that women will connect with whoever they want and they fear they will get boyfriends, break the caste system and all that rubbish," said Dr Kumari. "These are unacceptable archaic ideas." At least two other councils have decreed bans on mobile phones by women. others have south tp ban wearing jeans, watching films and eating Wester-style fast food.
The Supreme Court determined last year that such councils were illegal and asked state governments to investigate their practices, including proclamations that lead to honour killings. The court accused the village councils, known as khap panchayats, of taking the law into their own hands in "kangaroo courts".
However, the self-appointed councils have continued issuing rulings, mostly in the states of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.
In October, after a series of rapes were reported in Haryana state, a village council blamed women's behaviour, including eating western fast food, for the attacks. They also said the legal marriage age for women in India should be lowered from 18 to 16 to keep women "sexually satisfied".
Sube Singh Samain, a spokesperson for the Haryana-based village council at that time, said young people needed to be married off to avoid them "falling prey to the advances of youth".
In Uttar Pradesh, a village decree in July banned unarranged or "love" marriages, saying that women who chose their own partners would be ostracised from the village.
Jagmati Sangwan, the vice president of the All India Democratic Women's Association, said the village councils have been emboldened by each other, making the decrees and adopting each others' conservative stances.
"There is no such law in a democratic country that bans women from using phones, marrying who they want or dressing how they want to but these councils appeal to a certain mindset with their reactionary messages," said Ms Sangwan. "It affects the morale of women who are already struggling hard in these villages to get their basic rights, whether it is using a phone to access education or employment."
* With additional reporting from Reuters