“Come to Purkazi at 10 am,” Rehana Adeeb says over the phone. “We’ll be going on a protest march to the district magistrate’s office in Muzaffarnagar.” The protest is against a khap panchayat’s recent ruling, banning women, especially young and single ones, from using cellphones. Purkazi is about 24 km from the district headquarters, and a mini-bus has been hired for the occasion. Over a dozen young women, most of them in their teens or early twenties, are climbing in with the cheerful bustle of a school picnic. Rehana, an activist who has been working for several years now in a district grown infamous for its ‘honour’ killings—between 10-13 murders of eloping couples a year on average—is making sure the girls are carrying the placards they have prepared earlier. Her NGO, Astitva, tackling mainly women-related social issues, is in a two-room tenement in one of Purkazi’s narrow lanes, where you only see women draped from head to toe in black burqas.
Not all the young women in Rehana’s group own cellphones as yet but they are willing to fight for their right to possess one. As Rehana points out, “There’s not a family here, no matter how poor, that doesn’t possess a cellphone, but they discourage girls from using it. They fear that girls will go astray if they have access to cellphones, ringing up boyfriends, setting up trysts and so on.” Eighteen-year-old Yasmin Khan is one of the few in the group with her own cellphone. It was given to her by Astitva when she became a group leader over a year ago, and she’s willing to go to any length to keep it. It’s a prized trophy, to be defended at the risk of male jeers, ostracisation and open threats. “Somehow the boys in my locality have got hold of my number and they make lewd calls, send me obscene smses and missed calls.”
But Yasmin refuses to be intimidated. A year ago, when she was given a volunteer’s job in Astitva, angry neighbours organised a community meeting. They took her father roundly to task for allowing his daughter to go astray, brazenly roaming the streets with her face uncovered and carrying a cellphone. But Yasmin’s father, an invalid and unemployed, with a wife, four daughters and a six-year-old son to support, stood up to the locality’s leaders. “It’s my daughter, and I will take responsibility for her conduct,” he told them. Yasmin’s mother is equally supportive: “I’ve always wanted to be educated but wasn’t allowed to go to school. Now people say, ‘Your girls are grown up and you still send them to school and to work!’ And I tell them: ‘So what, they are not doing anything bad, just getting an education and earning a salary for the family’.”
But having failed to persuade Yasmin’s parents to keep her under purdah, the men in the neighbourhood now harass Yasmin in countless ways. “They stand around when I return in the evenings, passing comments as if I was a street-walker.” The comments and the ostracisation have only made Yasmin bolder. She has begun to flout purdah more openly. For the protest march, for instance, she has come togged up in a brand new pair of jeans. We see several pairs like the one she’s wearing hanging outside the shops in Purkazi’s subzi mandi, right next to the black burqas.
The jeans make Yasmin stand apart in these winding lanes but she’s unconcerned. “I’ve been waiting to try out my jeans and today’s the perfect opportunity,” she says. The trip to Muzaffarnagar town has been a good pretext for other girls in the group to pull out their jeans as well. Raakhee, who owns a pair of jeans but not her own cellphone as yet, has put them on today. The bus that was hired to take them to the DM’s office picked her up at her doorstep in her nearby village and will drop her back as well, thereby saving her from the stares of disapproving neighbours.
My Rights Fariha Sayyed with her grandmother and brother at her home in Purkazi
Nearly every young girl in this agrarian district has a pair or two of cheap, unbranded denim jeans in her wardrobe, even if few of them have the courage to wear them in their own neighbourhood. It is pulled out of hiding, as one schoolgirl, Fariha Sayyed, tells us “only when we travel to the city for a family wedding”. It’s a wardrobe decision, as countless girls here recount, which has less to do with fashion sense than a yearning to escape the male-imposed restrictions in their own environment. “It makes us look like city girls,” as Parul puts it.
Indeed, despite the efforts of desperate panchayat leaders to keep their women in seclusion, the ‘city’ is creeping fast into the villages of this district. The first change came a few years ago, when some parents began sending their daughters to the city to attend college. These girls, as the students in the only college in a 40-km radius explain to us, returned home only for holidays, sporting jeans and throwing attitude, ignoring the male dictum to preserve their village culture. Admiration for these city-returned neighbours soon turned into rivalry. So when the first degree college opened in nearby Burla, every village girl wanted to study further, using whatever armoury they have at their disposal to get their way: tears, hunger fasts, trade-offs—“I’ll marry whoever you choose for me provided you let me go to college.” It helps that parents even in Muzaffarnagar villages are beginning to realise that eligible boys don’t want to marry girls without a college degree.
One thing is evident in Purkazi: both parents and daughters are on the same side, ready to conspire against the village leaders whose almost daily diktats against young women are considered too impractical and ‘attention-getting’ to be taken seriously. The aim of every college girl in Burla appears alike: to escape to the city, either by getting a job or marrying someone with a job in the city. “We won’t marry a khetiwallah—a farmer,” as one of the girls, Renu, explains, “and we trust our parents to find a suitable match.” And the first step towards this escape seems to start with a pair of jeans. As Yasmin explains: “Once these boys see me in jeans, they will stop harassing me because I would have become a city girl—beyond their reach.”