Earlier this week, news trickled out of rural Uttar Pradesh that 10 village panchayats (councils), largely Muslim--but as we shall see, religion is irrelevant--were enforcing a ban on cellphones and jeans for unmarried women. Families of young women who violated this “ban” were first advised against defiance. If that failed, a boycott was enforced. The reasons for the ban were at once tiresome and familiar: Crime and “mischief” would increase if young women spoke to men; Only “responsible men”, meaning married, should have cellphones. “It (jeans, netted dupattas and other presumably indecent clothing) might be allowed in cities, but our organisation has totally banned it,” panchayat president Mohammad Irfan was quoted as saying in DNA.
Allowed in cities? Irfan and the men of Saharanpur and Muzaffarnagar (districts with literacy rates of about 70%) would find kindred souls across urban India, especially in some engineering colleges of Chennai, a city with a literacy rate of 90%. “Girls should wear only churidhars (sic) with dupatta both sides pinned up,” reads the dress code on the website of the Sri Sai Ram Engineering College of West Tambaram. “Wearing half-sarees, middies, short sleeve tops, tight pants and jeans are strictly prohibited inside the campus.” Much more is banned, including mobile phones, iPods and talking to young men. As engineering colleges and a desire for higher education mushroomed in Tamil in the 1990s, with it came a “control-freak attitude” to discipline students and separate the sexes, reports thenewsminute.com, a website, which last month described iron rods once separating women and men in college buses, morality squads nixing attempts to talk to men and professors policing dupattas (yes, no netted versions) and women’s leggings, now a particular provocation. “Leggings are obscene: Young women are crossing limits,” warns the latest cover story of Kumudam Reporter, a popular Tamil magazine.
Rural UP and urban Chennai may appear to be worlds apart, but there is great convergence on “decency”, a vague excuse to impose restrictive moral codes on young people, specifically women. In modern India, the drive for education is strong-one of the issues the UP panchayats stressed was that every girl should be in school-but it clearly runs alongside an anxious desire to keep women in check. For these guardians--as many women as men--of “decency”, India’s minister of culture, Mahesh Sharma, only gave voice to beliefs widely but closely held. Indian women have no reason to stay out at night, said Sharma, because that is not Indian culture.
The attitude of Chennai’s engineering colleges was institutionalised because “students to begin with were tame enough to suffer through it” and “parents preferred and encouraged such strict rules”, thenewsminute.com commented. In Bangalore, residents who run a spiffy park in the tony neighbourhood of Koramanagala pride themselves on stopping “irrational behaviour” by young women and men, the Times of India reported this week. That means love, of course.
Last month, a college principal in the intolerant but prosperous district of Dakshin Kannada told me how he had suspended two female friends-one Hindu, the other Muslim-after a two-year-old photo of them leaning against each other with a wine bottle at their feet went viral on Whatsapp. “What were their parents doing?” he asked. “Is it not their duty to control what their children are doing outside college hours?”
This control continues, even strengthens, as adolescence and hormones subside. Educated women, despite the restrictions on them, flood India’s workplaces, only to eventually find, as one female engineer in her 30s once told me, that whatever else they may desire or achieve, they must ensure “there are hot chapatis on the table”.
The strengthening of regressive attitudes is occurring at a time when women are desperate to work. Perhaps that is why a 10th-standard Chattisgarh text book--the Times of India reports--declares: “Working women are one of the causes of unemployment (for men).” The number of women seeking work rose more than eight times, from 1.8 million to 15.5 million over 20 years to 2011, report Jyothi Koduganti and Shriya Anand of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements. Over this same period, the number of women in the workforce increased more than three times.
Whether India’s men like it or not, the desire for emancipation will only grow. So, the media brim with stories of women who break free, who surmount overwhelming odds, who become role models, whose stories we must celebrate. This week I heard the stories of 25-year-old Sameera K--the daughter of a coolie--and Fouziya B.S., 26, Mangalore hostel mates who were supposed to get an education and get married but chose instead to start a college for dropouts. I heard the latest stories of Rani Rampal, captain of India’s Rio-bound women’s hockey team--and a cart-puller’s daughter--how she overcame the “dishonour” of baring her legs and talent to inspire a generation of village girls to sport and, if not glory, at least the thrill of freedom.
I also heard the story of a professional in Mumbai who seemed sadder than I have ever seen her. I asked her colleagues: What happened? “She got married,” said one, only half joking. But she did. Her in-laws took away her debit card, made her close her bank account and want her to quit her job. It’s uncertain if she will fight back or disappear into the Indian marital void.
Louise Dittmar, a 19th century US philosopher said: “The freedom of women is the greatest revolution, not just of our own day, but of all time, since it breaks fetters which are as old as the world.” The fetters may still be as strong, and the attitudes of men as strongly held as ever, but too many Indian women have broken free to be put back in the cage again.