Indian village bans cell phones for unwed women

A northern Indian village has banned unmarried women from using cell phones for fear they will arrange forbidden marriages that are often punished by death, a local official said Wednesday.

The Lank village council decided unmarried boys could use mobile phones, but only under parental supervision, council member Satish Tyagi said. Local women's rights group criticized the measure as backward and unfair.

Marriages between members of the same clan are forbidden under Hindu custom in some parts of north India, where unions are traditionally arranged by families. In conservative rural areas, families sometimes mete out extreme punishments, including so-called honor killings, for those who violate marriage taboos. In some cases, village councils themselves have ordered the punishments, though police often intervene to stop them.

The Lank village council feared young men and women were secretly calling one another to arrange forbidden elopements.

Last month, 34 couples eloped in Muzaffarnagar district, where Lank is located in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, police said. Among the couples who eloped, eight honor killings have been reported in the last month, police said.

"Three girls were beheaded by the male members of their family after they eloped" with boys from their same clan, said police assistant director general Brij Lal in the state capital of Lucknow.

Rulings by village councils — called panchayats and comprised of village elders selected by the community — are not legally binding in India, but are seen as the will of the local community, and those who flout them risk being ostracized. In Uttar Pradesh, panchayats are particularly powerful and have declared that boys and girls of the same clan are essentially siblings.

The cell phone ban for unmarried women is part of a wider, regional effort to curb intraclan marriage among the 3 million population of western Uttar Pradesh, Tyagi said. The Lank council ruling, which applies to around 50,000 people, is being considered by councils in the nearby villages.

"The village council members feel that cell phones helped in elopement of young couples," he said by cell phone from Muzaffarnagar.

The conflict is relatively new for the Indian region, where most marriages are still arranged by the parents, sometimes without the couple meeting before the wedding.

But young people are mingling more these days, with more women in schools and offices and increased access to the Internet, cybercafes and social networking sites. They are also watching more Western TV shows that focus on independence and individuality, sociologists say.

Cell phones, meanwhile, have become so common and affordable that even city slum dwellers, rural day laborers and children have them. Across the nation of 1.2 billion, there were more than 670 million cell phone connections as of August, with the number growing by nearly 20 million a month, according to government figures.

The local women's rights group Disha said banning cell phone use over sexual politics demonstrated the councils' archaic mindset, and warned it could put girls at a disadvantage in other areas of life.

"These help in easy communication, which in turn help these youth to get jobs. One cannot discriminate use of these contraptions on basis of sex," Disha president K.N. Tiwari said.