Haryana's caste councils feel a strict dress code on women will curb the spate of honour killings

Khap panchayats (caste councils) in the State have hit out at girls “for being the agents who pollute society and bring a bad name to the community”.

Within days of a young couple in Rohtak being hacked to death in public last month for marrying in defiance of kinship taboos held by the Jat community, two prominent panchayats of this belt have imposed a dress code for women and, in some villages, appointed men to watch and report on the activities of college girls who violate the code.

The panchayats argue that such restrictions will curb the rising rate of honour killings in the region — not some remote rural pocket, but comprising districts that now form part of the National Capital Region. Each gruesome killing of a young couple, which is quite common in this region, has spurred khap panchayats to issue increasingly unreasonable diktats in the name of upholding societal morals. Wearing a pair of jeans, going for a drive with a male friend or even talking on a mobile phone — behaviour which is considered perfectly normal for any young girl just a few miles away from khap-dominated areas — can attract brutal punishment here. “We believe that a woman should be covered from head to toe in loosefitting clothes that do not attract the male eye. Our idea of beauty is a woman whose hands alone are visible. Even her eyes should preferably be under a veil,” says Rajinder Singh, vice president of Barah Birohar Khap, as he puffs a hookah.

The new dress code for any girl above 10 years of age in these villages is a salwar-kameez. Even a churidar-kurta — they look with disdain at my modest green churidar and cotton dupatta — is offensive as it outlines the legs, they say (forgetting, for some reason, that black churidars with shirts were common attire among elderly women in rural Haryana till a few years ago).

Last month, two separate panchayats held at Rohtak and Birohar, two days after the Rohtak honour killing, ruled that the “unconventional” behaviour of girls and young women was causing shame to the society and said drastic steps were needed to “keep them in check”.

Speaking to The Hindu, Om Prakash Dhankar, a member of the Sarv Khap Haryana (a conglomeration of several khap panchayats), said, “It was brought to our notice that girls in at least three locations near the town pay Rs. 200 to Rs. 500 to shopkeepers to indulge in immoral activities.”

These, according to him, were college girls changing over to western dresses in shops after leaving their homes in salwar kameez and going for outings after picking up mobiles in the shops.

While the Sarv Khap has appointed squads of “mature men” to spy on such deviations and submit their report at the next meeting, the 12 Birohar visited some high schools to “advise girls not to break the rules in their own interest”. The khaps are also pressing schools and colleges to have separate buses for boys and girls.

Says Mr. Dhankar, “This might seem drastic but we believe that this is the only way to stop honour killings in this region. Intermingling of girls and boys and influence of television has led to this situation. Even if the government will not do anything, we still have a duty to uphold the morals of our society.”

The diktats of these khaps, rooted in the medieval past, have for long been described as “Talibanic” by activists. The urban intelligentsia often dismiss them as extra-constitutional bodies, but in the hinterland, few dare to oppose the councils publicly as they enjoy social sanction and political patronage.

Kamla (name changed), a lecturer at the DAV college in Jhajjar, has reconciled herself to donning a veil over her face as she drives through a half-kilometre stretch along the village outskirts on her way to work. “I know it is retrograde, but I still do it to avoid a confrontation. It is a small price to pay for peace in the village.”

But not all are so accommodative of the khaps’ rules. In Jhamri, 17-year-old college student Savita says, “Girls from the town wear jeans and western outfits in college, but who will get them for me? We also want to wear something other than this salwar kameez, but our elders won’t hear of it.”

Barah Birohar is proud of the fact that they have managed to restrict the use of loud DJs and “vulgar” dancing during weddings. Nonetheless, young people have — ban or not — begun installing floor DJs and arranging dances in the courtyards of their homes.