A village council in the state of Bihar this week prohibited unmarried women and girls from using mobile phones, saying that they promote extramarital affairs and unsanctioned marriages and erode the moral fabric of society. Married women will be allowed to use them only indoors and in the presence of a relative.
The decree was issued Sunday by a panchayat — an informal, unelected council — in Sunderbari, a village of 8,000 in the Purnia district of eastern Bihar. “Girls,” as the council calls them, which are defined as all unmarried females, face a fine of 10,000 rupees, or $180, if they violate the order, the council said, or the equivalent of months of income for most families in the area; the fine for married women is 2,000 rupees.
“With the use of mobile phones by the girls and women, incidents of love affairs, elopement and extramarital affairs have increased in our village,” Mohammed Manwar Alam, a panchayat member, said by telephone Tuesday. “It is intolerable and eroding the moral fabric in our society,” he said.
Many villagers, male and female, attended a village meeting Sunday about the ban, and most favored it, particularly older people, Mr. Alam said. He presided over the meeting. The panchayat, which is made up entirely of men, also barred women from bathing outdoors, at water pumps or in ponds or canals.
Sunderbari is an impoverished, predominantly Muslim village about 300 kilometers, or 190 miles, from the state capital, Patna. About 60 percent of district residents live below the poverty line.
Another member of the panchayat, Mohammed Javed Iqbal, said that at least six women from the village had eloped in the past five months, which he said has hurt the village’s reputation. “Even the married women have eloped with their lovers, dumping their husbands,” Mr. Iqbal said. “The easy use of mobile phones has been the real game changer in all the incidents,” he said.
The panchayat formed a social advisory committee to implement the ruling; a 10-member executive body within the committee will be in charge of enforcing it.
The ban was immediately decried by women’s rights activists, who said it would isolate women. Jagmati Sangwan, vice president of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, said that the men who head such village councils “want women to get cut off from the processes of modernization, education and employment.” She said they knew full well that such laws, targeting only one segment of society, are not legal.
Sandeep Kumar R Pudakalkatti, the Purnia district magistrate, has opened an investigation into the Sunderbari panchayat’s move; he told the BBC that if the edict is unlawful, “necessary action will be taken against those guilty.”
Another district official, Sanjay Kumar, a block development officer, said in an interview that he planned to visit the village himself to ensure that the reports are true. “Such a diktat cannot be allowed in a democratic society,” he said. “It is unlawful.”