On the mobile, even in the countryside
If you’re reading this, chances are you own a cellphone, what is called in many parts of the world a “mobile”. If it’s smart enough, you may even be reading this on a tiny screen. You probably rely on your phone to call and text, LOL and occasionally release TMI whenever you like.
Imagine losing the right to use your phone. Not dropping it in water, or misplacing it, or getting your mobile snatched by thieves. Your phone would still be right there in your hands. You just wouldn’t be allowed to utilize it, not for any purpose. Not to chat with friends, nor do a search, nor reserve a library book.
Unless, that is, you were married, indoors, and in the presence of your in-laws.
Sounds unbelievable, doesn’t it?
For a long time, Bihar was considered the Mississippi of India, an extremely poor state with little social and economic development. Its situation has recently improved, and markers of growth – including law and order – have improved and accelerated. Bihari life is looking up.
In villages, though, the ancient system of panchayat holds sway. The word derives from the Hindi word for five, panch, and describes the committee of five elders that makes major decisions for the village.
Did I say five elders? Sorry, no. Five elderly men. Women have no role on a panchayat. And although the system has been described as “mediation”, panchayat members, unlike mediators, are not required to act as neutral facilitators. In fact, they bring their own history to bear on the problems presented to them.
That brings us to mobile phones. They’re incredibly cheap in India. Government ministers to three-wheeled taxi drivers use them. Even in rural India, almost everyone has a phone. Which means they have near-instant communication.
For teenage girls, that means boys, too. In Indian villages, where arranged marriages are common. The idea that adolescents might be able to set up dates and meet each other in private to talk is anathema. So the Patna panchayat has banned unmarried females from using mobiles at all. Not unmarried boys and men. Just girls and women who are unmarried. Bad enough, right? There’s more. Even if you’re married, as a woman in Patna you’re not allowed to use a mobile unless you’re indoors with family members listening in.
In Indian villages, married women live with their husbands’ parents, a system called patrilocality. So if you’re an adult woman, responsibly – for India – married, perhaps with children of your own, you cannot talk to your friends, your sisters or mother, even your husband, without your mother-in-law listening in and monitoring your conversation.
The Stasi would be proud.
When mobile phones first arrived in India, they were hailed by married men. While working in another city, at long last they could speak to their wives in relative peace. Plans, news about the children, romantic talk, even phone sex was possible without going through that stern controller of the landline, Mummy-ji.
The Patna panchayat’s diktat against female phone use is illegal, of course. Even in rural India, women have the right to communication. Local government officials, some of them female, are stepping up to protest and invoke the aid of higher-ups.
One can understand the panchayat’s concern. Five elderly men observe that things are not as they were in the days of their youth. For generations, Bihari husbands have left the state to work elsewhere, coming home occasionally for festivals and to sire children. Their lives in metropolitan areas were free of constraint. Of course many of them sought relationships with other people.
Now, however, instead of being kept secluded by mothers-in-law, their Bihari wives are talking to others. Some of these others, the women choose to meet. Occasionally, those meetings develop into relationships. Marriages break up, children are left to the grandparents, and emotional hurt runs very high. It’s a huge pain footprint.
The solution, though, isn’t in banning mobile phone use. The solution, one the conservative male panchayat did not consider, is to recognize that arranged marriages aren’t always healthy marriages. Sometimes, too, people hurt each other. The one-two punch of physical and emotional passion hijacks the brain. They think only of their own happiness (although, as the saying goes, cheaters never trade up), not of the devastation left in their wake.
The solution is education. Start teaching children how good decisions are made calmly. That when you desperately want something, it’s probably the worst time for you to get it. That acting without regard for the feelings of people who care about you is infantile and self-absorbed and narcissistic. That children have to be nurtured, so if you’re doing the horizontal mambo with a parent of minor children, you’re hurting those kids, too.
If wisdom is healed pain, a mobile phone ban is a Band-Aid. Real healing delves deeper.