Deep in the Haryana countryside where a late rain has flattened the wheat fields, a group of young men play cards. It’s a common sight, almost a symbol of the masculine world in these parts. But a “what if” question also bubbles up: could girls too play cards and while away their leisure hours under the shade of a tree, as they laugh and gossip?
The men are at a dhaba in Keorak in Kaithal district off a busy highway. Some of them are students at the college across the road, though they aren’t attending any classes. When the counterfactual is posed to them, they shake their heads in wonderment at the thought and go back to their merriment. Most are products of the deep patriarchy that characterises both public and private life in villages. Here, regressive diktats of khap panchayats ensure compliance of time-worn norms and traditions; educated girls are frowned upon as “trouble” and boys who don’t study are still indulged.
For instance, Raj Tanwar is a 30-year-old Jat, who lives in a joint family, a few kilometres from here. He was married at the age of 15 and now spends the better part of the day with college students at a dhaba. “I don’t have to do anything for a living as my family owns 30 acres of land. So why shouldn’t I spend my time here?” he says. As the youngest of four siblings, two of whom are sisters, the world is his oyster. “Right from the beginning, I can’t remember anyone at home stopping me from doing anything. I could do what I wanted. Boys are allowed to drink and get into fights. It’s not necessary that a girl should be permitted to do all that boys can,” he says.
When Tanwar dropped out of college, “no one at home created a fuss. Why should they? I am married to a girl who studied up to Class IV and even though she wanted to study more after we got married, I sorted out her ideas. I have bought her a buffalo and she has a lot of work to do now. What will she gain by going to weddings and outings? I told her to spend her time rearing the buffaloes and our three children.”
Tanwar is of the firm belief that to educate girls is to invite disgrace on the family for they are “sure to get involved with someone outside. At a time when boys don’t get jobs, why bother to educate girls? I admire the foresight of our elders who laid down rules that restrict girls.” Tanwar has been driving a motorcycle since his indulgent mother bought him one when he was 16. “My mother hardly ever turned down my requests. Of course, my sisters could not have the same privileges. I wake up at 10 in the morning, while my sisters would be up early to help my mother in the kitchen.” His sisters are now married.
Why? “Because that is how it is, and has been for centuries. Girls in our society are very sensible. They adhere to societal rules because they know what is good for them,” he says. But Tanwar rues the fact that things are changing. He remembers, once in college, watching a cricket match on television and fuming in anger. “I saw girls with posters saying ‘I love you Yuvraj, Dhoni’ running on to the cricket field. If a boy had done something like that, he would be beaten black and blue by the police. But girls in cities get away with everything nowadays,” he said. The others around him share the disapproval.
Forty kilometres away in Cheeka, Krishna is also 30 years old, a postgraduate student. One of three daughters, she hates the term bechari girls. “The prefix bechari follows girls all the time, whenever people refer to women.” She sees in its use an articulation and reinforcement of the inferior status of women.
What is the single biggest challenge that girls growing up in khapland encounter nowadays? To be able to study, says she and many others. Krishna remembers how she was asked to give up studies after Class V. “My chacha, who called the shots in our family, said, ‘Who will do the housework if you go to school?’ So I used to cook for everyone before going to school. But there, too, he would sometimes follow me and ask questions like, ‘Why were you talking to so and so? Why was your head not covered that day? Or why were you looking up at a balcony?’ Even if I felt like laughing loud, I could not do so without looking around to see if I was being observed,” she says. With greater prosperity, the difference in the way a girl and a boy are brought up is now not so much over nutrition, the extra glass of milk or dollop of butter that the mother dished out to her sons, but over the “wasted” expense of educating a girl who will go on to earn for her in-laws.
Sharanjit, 21, from Habdi village married against her parents’ wishes a few months ago. “I was always made to feel inferior at home, even though I was good at studies. I am doing a BA, but I had to throw a tantrum at home to be able to go to college. My younger brother was given a mobile phone in Class VIII and I was never given one. I was supposed to understand and accept that his wishes would get priority over mine. They told me that I do not need a phone. Did he, as a Class VIII student, need one?” she says.
Like Tanwar, Sharanjit loves to ride a bike. But the only time she tried to ride a cousin’s bike one afternoon, she was severely censured. “I just took it out for a small spin in our neighbourhood and all hell broke loose at home. My little brother also gave me a lecture on what girls cannot do!” she says. The unwritten code of conduct for girls is to cover their heads, walk demurely, not laugh out aloud or even talk on their cellphones in public. “A girl who covers her head and walks quietly in the village will be respected by one and all,” says Tanwar, as he shuffles the cards for yet another round.