Defiant: Teenager Rakhi ignores the order in her village banning girls and unmarried women having a mobile phone and wearing jeans. Photo: Ben DohertyThe telephone was the cause of the conflict, and a key piece of evidence. In Nawada in Bihar, a man strangled his 20-year-old daughter, before dousing her body in kerosene and burning her, after he discovered her talking on her mobile to a boy he didn’t approve of.
The girl’s boyfriend recorded her dying screams on his phone.
The mobile phone has changed the way the world talks, but in no place has that change been more confusing and confronting than in India, where 20million new handsets are bought every month.
In cities, crowded corner shops offer a staggering array of phones and accessories. In the country, even the lowliest subsistence farmer has a basic handset, those in any kind of business often carrying two or three.
Business (busting government communications monopolies), politics (phones as campaign mobilisers) even terrorism (bombs set off by SMS) have all been transformed by phones.
But it is in the realm of relationships – how they are made and fostered in New India – where the phone’s impact has perhaps been most profound.
Cheap to buy, and cheaper still to run, a mobile phone allows young people, women in particular, to communicate in private and complete secrecy, with whoever they want, unrestricted by geography, and outside the reach of their parents, siblings or community elders.
”In urban centres, especially, women are feeling empowered through the mobile phone because they are able to communicate in ways never before possible,” says Australian National University academic Assa Doron, who with Robin Jeffrey is author of The Great Indian Phone Book, on the transformation the mobile has brought to India.
“But in the northern areas, like UP [Uttar Pradesh] and Bihar, the so-called backward areas, you find that the entry of the mobile phone into the household has been very disruptive … You have people who have never been able to communicate in a bilateral way, suddenly able to use this new device, and circumvent all of these structures of authority.”
The response to this upheaval is often brutal. Honour killings over mobile phones are now so common as to rarely warrant more than a few lines in the local press.
In June, Meerut man Kishan Singh stabbed his 24-year-old daughter to death after he caught her talking to a boy on her phone late at night.
A month earlier, a girl from Bihar was beaten and imprisoned in a room without food for days by her father who had found her on the phone. And in January, truck driver Narayan Tomar was killed by a father furious that Tomar had called his daughter.
In Uttar Pradesh, several khap panchayats – powerful extra-constitutional community councils, common in northern India – have decreed that unmarried women are forbidden from carrying a mobile phone.
There is also formal political support. Last October, local MP Rajpal Saini said mobile phones caused women to elope.
“There is no need to give phones to women and children,” he said. ”It distracts them and is useless. Why do women need phones?”
In a classroom in the farming town of Purkazi in the west of Uttar Pradesh, 16-year-old Asma, her younger sister Reshma, and their friend Shalini talked about the ban.
“[It] has been effective on everybody, all families, neighbours, feel they must follow it,” Shalini said.
“They [community elders] feel that by having a mobile, it will cause girls to go down the wrong path, to do the wrong thing. I don’t think it is right. Girls should be treated the same as boys. A mobile is a requirement of modern life.”
Khap panchayat leader Rakesh Tikait said there was no blanket ban on girls having phones, but that “such directives may be taken on a village level due to the local context and the approach of individuals there”.
“Our directives are effective because people have faith in the khap panchayat,” he said.
But the founder of the non-government organisation Asttitwa, Rehana Adib said the bans were symptomatic of a broader discrimination against women in India.
“Boys are given all the freedoms and opportunities, while girls are controlled, and suppressed. They are kept out of education, and stopped from living freely.”
Dr Doron said the broader context of marriage needed to be understood to appreciate “the grave concern of the elders”.
“Marriage in India is not simply between a man and a woman, it is between families, it’s about establishing networks, establishing business relations, about continuing certain lineages, about establishing your reputation within a community, and maintaining caste hierarchies, so having these unmediated channels of communication poses a real threat.”
In a Muslim majority town such as Purkazi, many families keep purdah. But it has its pockets of resistance.
Sixteen-year-old Rakhi proudly wears jeans, with their pockets to keep a phone, sitting on the steps of her family’s unfinished home.
She would show off her phone too, but it had been stolen – presumably by someone who felt she shouldn’t have it.
“My own uncles and grandfathers, and other elders in my family, they put pressure on my family to stop me, my education, me wearing jeans,” she said. ”But I have the support of my parents.”
Rakhi wants to be a social worker, to make it easier for the next generation. “The mindset of the people in the village here, it suppresses girls as second-class citizens.
”It will change. Women will be given freedom, but it will take time,” Rakhi said.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.