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.“They travel by bus to go to college and strike up friendships with boys from neighbouring villages, whom they are not supposed to marry. 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.
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.
“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.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.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.“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.