Indian village bars cellphones for unmarried women

The ban, which does not extend to unmarried men, stems from fear that young couples will arrange forbidden marriages that sometimes are punished by death, according to a local official.

LUCKNOW // An Indian village has banned unmarried women from using mobile phones for fear they will arrange forbidden marriages that sometimes are punished by death, according to a local official.

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

Marriages between members of the same clan are forbidden under Hindu custom in parts of northern India, where unions are traditionally arranged by families. In conservative rural areas, families sometimes mete out extreme punishments, including so-called honour killings, for those who violate marriage taboos.

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

Last month, 34 couples eloped in Muzaffarnagar district, where Lank is located in the state of Uttar Pradesh, police said. The elopements resulted in eight honour killings, police said.

"Three girls were beheaded by the male members of their family after they eloped" with boys from the same clan, said a police officer.

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 ostracised. In Uttar Pradesh, panchayats are particularly powerful and have declared that boys and girls of the same clan are essentially siblings.

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

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

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.

Mobile phones, meanwhile, have become so common and affordable that even city slum dwellers, rural day labourers and children have them. Across the nation of 1.2 billion, there were more than 670 million mobile 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," the Disha president, KN Tiwari, said.

* Associated Press