Last week, the heads of 30 Jat-dominated villages in the western UP district of Muzaffarnagar came to a unanimous decision: Girls would not be allowed to use a mobile phone without a family member present. They were banned from using smartphones and “creating trouble”, The Hindu reported. While teenage boys and girls were both immature, “there is a strong possibility of girls going wayward”, Narendar Singh, head of the Jat Mahasabha, or grand meeting, was quoted as saying. “So we decided that we take special care of girls and not give them smartphones.” His (all-male) compatriots argued that trouble-making girls on phones brought dishonour to families and communities.
The tradition of keeping young women from “trouble” — a euphemism for finding love, particularly with young men of other castes and religions — has delivered rich dividends to Muzaffarnagar. Its young women are some of India’s most fertile. Nearly 49% of all women between the ages of 15 and 19 were either mothers or pregnant when census-takers visited Muzaffarnagar in 2011. That is seven percentage points above the corresponding figure for UP, whose women boast of India’s longest reproductive span — 10 years.
Muzaffarnagar is an outlier, you say, an aberration controlled by regressive khap panchayats?
I will grant you that all of India isn’t as stifled as Muzaffarnagar’s keepers of ancient clan morality. But Indian women, even in relatively liberal, urban areas, continue to be stifled by a morality that varies only by degrees. Last week in Bangalore, one of India’s most prosperous, globalised cities, many supposedly liberal colleges defended their use of closed-circuit cameras to keep students, particularly — you guessed it — young women, out of “trouble”.
As Indian women enter India’s public places to study, work and play in larger numbers than ever, they expect liberation but find restriction. They are told what they cannot do: Don’t dress as you please; don’t travel alone; don’t travel after dark; don’t go to a nightclub; don’t talk too loudly; don’t retaliate if harassed; don’t complain to the police; don’t do anything that will spoil your reputation, your family’s honour or (if single) your chances for marriage.
Oh, and once you are married, make sure the dishes are washed, the clothes cleaned, and the children and husband fed.
For an Indian woman, there is no escape from a quick, early marriage. Those summits of female achievers, those role models we read about, those strong, independent women we know — they are exceptions to the rule, which is that the average Indian woman will be married by 20. It doesn’t help very much if the woman lives in urban India. The mean female age at marriage in rural areas is 19.7, in urban areas, 20.7, according to the latest census data released last month. Education is an efficient contraceptive — Indian women with a college degree have 1.9 children during their lifetime, against 3.8 for illiterate woman — but it appears to only marginally slow the inevitability of early marriage.
In Kerala, the state with India’s highest female literacy rate (91.9%), the mean female age at marriage is 21.4, just half a percentage point ahead of Muzaffarnagar’s 20.9, even though Kerala’s female literacy rate is 32 percentage points ahead of Muzaffarnagar’s. In the end, young women, whether in Muzaffarnagar or Mallapuram, are shackled by tradition, shown their place and kept out of “trouble”.
Those lucky to escape stifling lives in stifling small towns find the anonymity of the big city refreshing, but familiar moral judgements are often delivered by landlords, neighbours and auto drivers. If India’s regressive narrative is to change, women must make trouble, and we must support their right to do so. Else, the fate of educated Indian women — who drop out of the workforce in growing numbers despite surging past men in school and college — will be to keep those chapatis coming.
To be sure, Indian women have moved on from 1897, when Swami Vivekananda wrote this letter to disciple Sister Nivedita, or Margaret Noble: “India cannot yet produce great women, she must borrow them from other nations. Your education, sincerity, purity, immense love, determination, and above all, your Celtic blood make you just the woman wanted.”
But Indian blood did produce women who broke free. In the 13th century came Razia Sultan, who put men to death, rode in to battle and ruled Delhi for nearly four years. A few decades before Vivekananda came Laxmibai, the rani of Jhansi, who challenged an empire. In Vivekananda’s time lived Pandita Ramabai, a Sanskrit scholar who married a Sudra (a Dalit), converted to Christianity and encouraged high-caste women to educate and emancipate themselves.
Since Independence, growing numbers of women have broken the mould and forced Indian society to accept their unconventional ways. Have the Indira Gandhis and J Jayalalithaas paved the way? Not really. They are still exceptions. Female representation in politics continues to lag the emerging world. Women have indeed pushed their way into the police, the private sector, engineering, the space programme and the defence services — last week, India’s first three female fighter pilots were cleared to fly — but progress is slow. Away from the media spotlight on female achievers, millions of Indian women are forced into the shadows. It is easier said than done, of course, but India needs women to stand firm and know that they are right, as Zaira Wasim did.
When news broke earlier this year that the 15-year-old from Srinagar cleared a screen test and was offered a role in Dangal, actor Aamir Khan’s latest, there was “havoc”, the self-confessed introvert with “social anxiety issues” told Kashmir Impulse, a youth magazine. She overcame parental opposition and learnt swimming and wrestling. She ignored social media abusers, who branded her “immoral”. None of it mattered to Wasim. “What matters,” she said, “is that I know that I am right.”
Samar Halarnkar is editor, Indiaspend.org, a data-driven, public-interest journalism non-profit
The views expressed are personal