Mobile Phones: Patriarchy’s New Red Alert

Villages are imposing mobile phone bans on young women in order to control their new independence and mobility.


Credit: Flickr Commons

It started with Khap Panchayats in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan instructing and sometimes imposing different kinds of bans on young unmarried girls and women. The items and activities banned by this moral policing have ranged from girls wearing jeans to consuming noodles. One of the most common activities banned has been the use of mobile phones. Recently, it was reported that villages in Gujarat’s Mehsana and Banaskantha districts have imposed similar restrictions on unmarried schoolgirls using mobile phones.

This unanimous banning by different village councils took its cue from a similar recently imposed ban by Suraj village in Mehsana district. Devshi Vankar, sarpanch of Suraj village, was quoted as saying that with the support of other OBC communities, this ban would be extended to other villages and districts of Gujarat. He cited mobile phone usage by girls as a “nuisance to society” on the pretext that “young girls are misguided”.

What is scary is that which was earlier a threat has now turned into a reality – under a government that runs flagship programs for digital literacy.

Challenges to patriarchy and instances of abuse

According to Vankar, this ban is justified because it ‘saves’ girls from technology. “Everyone knows what happens in today’s world. This is kalyug,” he says. This perceived threat associated with technology is evident from the strategies adopted for ensuring the implementation of the ban. Strict punitive measures have been undertaken, such as imposing a fine of 2,100 rupees on the ‘violator’ and creating a community vigilante mechanism by rewarding the ‘informer’ with 200 rupees. Together these measures constitute a well-thought-out mechanism to cut young women’s access to technology and monitor their behaviour around it.

Feminists over the years have argued that control over women’s sexuality is the central essence of patriarchy, which requires a larger control of women’s desires and bodies. Restricting women’s physical mobility and confining them to the domestic space has been a common, traditional route for achieving this control.  Cutting off their access to the outside world ensured that they had limited interaction with ‘others’, thus controlling their sexual behaviour to suit the larger scheme of patriarchy.

The advent of communications technology and, within it, mobile phone technology, has challenged this control. Mobile phone technology expands our social networks: it reduces distances and brings people closer to one another. Hence, it gives people opportunities of forming and experimenting with relationships while also ensuring privacy. The mobile phone device is no more an interplay of wires and unseen frequencies. On the contrary, it has become a tool of venturing into unknown arenas of virtual (and yet real) socialisation, becoming an integral part of our lives and to some extent also defining how we arrange our daily living.

Terming technology a “nuisance to society” marks a perceived shift in power structures on the part of those who wish to maintain their status in society. With access to technology, young people have the autonomy of forming and dissolving associations at will, which is a clear threat to both a stable and an unequal society, and requires extraordinary measures to control.

The strategy of imposing a heavy fine on an unemployed girl and thus controlling her individual behaviour is humiliating for both the girl and her family. Rewarding the informer is another questionable strategy that involves the entire community in ensuring that the victimised woman’s behaviour is controlled. This might lead to the ‘witch hunting’ of young women found using a mobile phone. In short, rather than ‘saving’ them from harm, such measures expose women to abuse and blackmail.

Additionally, the clause of parental supervision of phone conversations explains that the real problem is not the technology but the conversations being carried out over that particular medium.

Patriarchy and conservatism not just a village thing

This is not the first time that coercive measures are being undertaken to control the behaviour of young unmarried people.

In middle class households, control and monitoring of young people’s access to and usage of communications technology is now an important part of parental duty and supervision. This issue gets complicated because it is pitched as an action undertaken to ‘protect’ young women from the imagined ‘harms’ of technology. Punishing and cutting access to the information source is a much easier solution than patient listening and initiating conversations. The latter might actually result in expanding young people’s capacities and reframing conversations about improving sexual and reproductive health outcomes for young people.

Our resistance to take the harder way is simply a form of new packaging of age-old conservatism around normative sexual practices.

Needless to say, in the context of mobile phones, as in many other cases, the ‘protection from harm’ argument is gendered and discriminatory in nature.

It targets and punishes young women for ‘exposing’ themselves to harm that is actually perpetrated by others. This goes against the fundamental premise of the Indian Criminal Amendment Act, 2013, which shifted back the onus of the crime on whom it belonged – the perpetrator.  The constitutionality of the implementation of such a diktat is questionable and should be challenged in the court of law.

Is the access to communications technology by women seen as the new mobility and mobile phones as tools of mobility in themselves?

There is limited control of information flow in new media cultures that remain mostly in the virtual word. ‘Virtual’ is still an ambiguous concept, with most understandings and fears around it imagined. Nothing can be more dangerous for patriarchy than young women deciding to take control of their actions, movements and decisions – in this case both physical and virtual.

As evident from this ban, desperate measures and new confines are adopted in order to regain control of women’s power. Punitive measures speak clearly of underlying fears. Ironically, this ban was the result of a discussion in the village council about the problem of growing alcohol abuse by men!

Anubha Singh is a feminist activist and researcher currently working with CREA, New Delhi.

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