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Indian village council bans love marriages

NEW DELHI: Police in northern India are investigating a village council after it banned “love marriages” and barred women under 40 from shopping alone or using mobile phones in public, reports said Friday.

In a slew of restrictive measures on women’s behavior, the council, or “panchayat,” in the predominantly Muslim village Asara in Uttar Pradesh state also insisted women cover their heads in public, the Press Trust of India said.

Home Minister P. Chidambaram condemned the orders, saying they had “no place” in a democratic society.

“Police must act against anyone issuing such diktats. If anyone takes action against any young man or woman based on illegal village courts, then they must be arrested,” Chidambaram said at a press conference.

Local police superintendent V.K. Shekhar told PTI that an inquiry had been ordered into the content and legality of the council restrictions.

Panchayats often comprise an unelected group of elders, who are seen as the social and moral arbiters of village life.

Although their rulings carry no legal weight, they can be highly influential and have been blamed for numerous abuses, such as sanctioning “honor killings” of women whose actions are deemed to have brought shame on their family.

The measures were swiftly condemned by women’s rights groups.

“This notion that women up to the age of 40 need protection and need to be controlled is extremely chauvinistic and undermines all basic norms,” said Sudha Sunder Raman, general secretary of the All India Democratic Women’s Association.

The head of the National Commission for Women, Mamta Sharma, said the council rulings were “laughable” and unenforceable.

“Panchayats do not enjoy constitutional powers. And if there are no powers, there is no need to follow the orders,” Sharma said.

Council representatives interviewed by the Mail Today newspaper said the rules were intended to safeguard women from “bad elements” in society.

Council member Sattar Ahmad said “love marriages” as opposed to parentally arranged marriages, were damaging and a “shame on society.”

“It is very painful for the parents, specially the girl’s family, because such marriages dent their respectability.”

The villagers themselves were reportedly satisfied with the panchayat rulings, saying they would help prevent young women being misled and forming unsuitable relationships.

“Mobile phones are a curse, especially for girls. I would have been happier if the panchayat had completely banned girls from using mobile phones,” villager Tarun Chaudhary told the Mail Today.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 14, 2012, on page 12.
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