A village council in eastern India has banned woman from using mobile phones, saying they “pollute the social atmosphere” by encouraging women to elope with lovers.
The order was issued by the village council in Suderbari, in the Kishanganj district of impoverished Bihar state, after a formal meeting on Sunday. The measure was designed to check “the breakdown of the institution of marriage”, council leaders said.
Penalties range from 10,000 Indian rupees (£115) for unmarried girls caught using mobile phones to 2,000 rupees for married women. Women may use a phone in the presence of a male family member, however, according to village leaders.
“Unrestricted use of mobile phones is promoting premarital and extramarital affairs and destroying the great institution of marriage. We are extremely worried,” said Manuwar Alam, the president of the social advisory committee, explaining that at least six girls and women had eloped in the past year.
“We had to hide our faces out of shame,” Alam said. “We decided to do something that could firmly curb such cases, which were earning a very bad name for all of us.”
A combination of marginally improved education, more mobility and access to television has led to the traditional authority of fathers, husbands and male village leaders being challenged in much of India.
A growing lack of women, owing to the widespread practice of female infanticide, is also leading to deep tensions. And so-called honour killings, of couples and particularly of women, who transgress traditional customs and discrimination are common.
A series of rapes in Haryana, another northern state, recently prompted a debate on the roots of the widespread violence against women in India. Village chiefs and local politicians variously blamed mobile phones, the ingredients in the increasingly popular fast food of chow mein, and the victims themselves. One suggested lowering the age of marriage as a solution.
The ban in Sunderbari village provoked strong protests from local human right activists. “We strongly condemn attempts to infringe on rights of women. Such things cannot be allowed in a democratic society”, said Farzana Begum, a campaigner in Kishanganj.
Others said mobile phones were important for women’s security, particularly in rural areas. Sexual assault and other violence is common in remote parts of the state. Local authorities have ordered an investigation.
Sandeep Kumar R Pudakalkatti, the most senior bureaucrat in the district, said: “We have ordered a probe into the unlawful diktat, and those found guilty during the course of inquiry will be sternly dealt with.”
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk