- In 25 years, the number of college-going girls in Haryana has quadrupled
- The number of Class 12-pass girls has gone up five-fold since the ’80s; that of boys has not even doubled
- There are more college-going women than men in some districts
- Families want girls to study to land good husbands; but clamp down hard on love marriages, which are rising anyway
Her name is Maafi; yes, her real name. “English mein jise ‘Sorry’ kehte hain,” explains the young woman in the pink churidar and purple kurta with net sleeves. She was named so because she was the third successive daughter born to a Solanki (scheduled caste) family in Sisana village, 26 km from the Haryana town of Rohtak. However, of late, the sprightly, lively and clearly intelligent Maafi has dumped this apology of a name and taken to calling herself Tamanna. It goes with the fact that this ex-serviceman’s daughter is the first girl in her family to enrol for a BA. Having fought for and won the right to take the bus into town everyday to Rohtak’s Neki Ram College, she now dreams of becoming a lawyer, and marrying a different kind of man from her sisters’ husbands. When you ask her what kind, she says simply: “Jo meri feelings ko samjhe, meri bhavnaon ki kadar kare (who understands and respects my feelings).”
Brave dreams to dream in her part of the world, where women—and their boyfriends and husbands—are killed for exercising choice in the matter of marriage. But Tamanna is hardly the only one dreaming them. Underlying the spate of gruesome killings in Haryana, neighbouring swathes of Rajasthan, western Uttar Pradesh, and even, as we saw last week, a rural pocket of Delhi called Wazirpur, to defend supposedly “ancient” notions of honour, is a simple, modern fact: the growing social mobility of women.
Tamanna looks and sounds like a certain kind of rural woman whose numbers are swelling in this region: better educated than her mother, or her elder sisters, more sharply dressed in a trim kurta rather than a baggy shirt, more likely to own a cellphone, more confident of her earning capacity, and more optimistic about her ability to live life on her own terms. And less likely to be cowed down—sometimes with tragic consequences for herself—by khap panchayats, rural elders, trigger-happy brothers and male cousins, and village strongmen: for all of whom she represents a clear threat.
The self-styled defenders of tradition admit as much. Says Col Chander Singh Dalal, an indefatigable organiser of Jat khap sammelans and a campaigner against same-gotra marriages: “It’s no longer possible to blame just the boy, as we used to do before, saying he ran away with our daughter. I hold the girls equally responsible for what’s going on these days. They are educated, no one has fooled them, no one has trapped them.”
Caste-struck Manoj’s mother stands before clippings of her slain son and his wife Babli
Not surprisingly, Dalal makes pointed references to Babli, the pretty, school-educated young Jat woman from a landed family in rural Haryana, who dared to marry Manoj, of the same gotra. A local court’s landmark verdict in that case—it handed out death sentences in March to five members of Babli’s family, who killed the couple—have not just caused great consternation in orthodox circles; they have also emboldened a rash of other couples to come out into the open.
But Dalal could well mean Monica Nagar and her cousin Shobha, brutally gunned down by relatives last week in Wazirpur, a prosperous Delhi village. College-educated, independent-minded, bold enough to break off an arranged engagement, Monica, a Gujjar, crossed caste divides and broke the “not from the same village” rule to marry Kuldeep, a Rajput schoolmate. Shobha did “worse”, running away with a Muslim and seeking to earn her own living through modelling, not an accepted career in a village that has adapted to the idea of its women going to school and college, working even, but only if they take up “respectable” jobs, reach home before nightfall, don’t dress too fashionably—and of course, don’t elope.
This juxtaposition between allowing women to improve themselves and killing them for marrying the “wrong” man is even sharper in Haryana, where the educational profile of rural women has soared so high in this generation that it bears no resemblance to that of their illiterate or semi-literate mothers. The number of girls going to college quadrupled between 1980-81 and 2006-07, and those studying up to class 12 went up five-fold. Interestingly, the number of boys passing class 12 did not even double in the same period. In some districts in the khap-controlled Jat belt (Sonepat, Rewari and Jhajjar), there are more college-going girls than boys. No wonder then, it is commonplace to meet village girls who have finished school, and not uncommon to meet one who takes the bus, like Tamanna, to the nearest degree college, and even (depending on how broad-minded her family is) takes up a job later.
Lower- and middle-income rural families support the education part, village mothers readily confide, to attract educated grooms for their daughters (rather than the more easily available, alcohol-imbibing, semi-educated young men living off diminishing tracts of land, or money from the sale of it). “Professional boys want an educated girl, even if they don’t want her to work later,” explains housewife Sharmila Ohlan, who has found match-hunting for her nieces a daunting task. “Even when the girl is highly educated, like my niece, and has done judo and sports, they want to see certificates and medals.”
However, as young women become more mobile, they inevitably meet a lot of young men. “They travel by bus to go to college and strike up friendships with boys from neighbouring villages, whom they are not supposed to marry. Most don’t have the courage to tell their parents. Babli and Manoj’s was the first love marriage in our village,” says Manoj’s sister Seema Banwala, 23, herself the picture of the new rural Haryanvi woman: a post-graduate and a police constable who hopes to enter the judicial service.
However, things have changed, even in the three years since the couple married—rural love matches are far less rare, as is evident from the flood of largely rural runaways landing up at the Punjab and Haryana High Court (and even before its vacation bench) for protection, earning it the tag of “marriage bureau”. Senior lawyer Anupam Gupta, part of a court committee appointed by the Punjab and Haryana High Court to deal with them, finds young women, in their red bridal “choora” (bangles) and mehndi-embellished hands, even more determined than young men. “Even when a girl’s parents are in court, and have filed kidnapping cases against the boy, she refuses to fall in with them. These women are clear about exercising their choice, and prepared to take on anything.” Lawyers also report that the couples are generally very young—college-going or even 12th class pass boys and girls, holding hands.
“With education and technology, individuals are building new social networks outside the traditional cocoon of village and khap identities. They are no longer dependent on those identities,” says Rainuka Dagar, who heads gender studies research at Chandigarh’s Institute of Development and Communication. Advocate Rajiv Godara recalls a revealing conversation with a 17-year-old boy in Dhotar village in Sirsa, where many girls from the village were forbidden from going out to study, after one was allowed and had been caught talking to her boyfriend on her mobile phone. “The boy, trying to justify the decision, told me,” he relates, “something happens to these girls when they go out. In the village school, even if we ask them for a notebook, they report it to the teacher.”
For a patriarchal society, all of this has been extremely disquieting. Underlying the ferment over taboo liaisons and marriages, says social activist Jagmati Sangwan, is a clear attempt “to control the sexuality of women”. As she and many others points out, there is a web of complex economic and social reasons here, especially the fear that renegade women, aided by their spouses, will be emboldened to claim property rights under Hindu personal laws—usually foregone when marriage takes place within an intimate circle.
Better then to encircle them in a plethora of marriage taboos, apart from the usual injunctions against inter-caste and inter-religious ones: no same-gotra, no marrying a fellow villager, even if of a different gotra; no marrying someone from a village that has kinship ties with your own, and so on. In practice, these “laws” are not as immutable as claimed; indeed they have also been tweaked from time to time (see interview on page 56) in response to “social needs” and the acute shortage of brides due to the female foeticide-engendered low sex ratio. For example, Dalal, who styles himself as a record-keeper of such matters, concedes that traditional insistence on comparing the gotras of a couple’s grandmothers, along with their parents, has fallen by the wayside.
“In 50 years, there may be many more dilutions. After all, the choti (plait) is fading away, and so is the ghaghri (long skirt). But it will happen only over time, there has to be a process of evolution,” he says. But who decides the pace: only the men “in charge”, or others too—like young women? That’s the challenging question that lies behind the bloody trail of honour killings.
By Anjali Puri and Chander Suta Dogra in Haryana with Arpita Basu and Neha Bhatt