Annu Malik rides a bike with her classmate Manju on the streets of Ishapur Kheri

A Haryana panchayat has banned jeans and mobiles for women, but teens are having none of it

Annu Malik owns 11 pairs of jeans but her favourite is the one ripped at the knees. She would wear it all the time if she could. In her spare time, she plays music on her phone and watches YouTube videos. Sounds like an ordinary 17-year-old? Except when Annu wears her jeans or plays Temple Run on her phone, it’s an act of defiance against patriarchal control.

Last December, after three girls eloped from the village of Ishapur Kheri in Haryana’s Sonipat district, 120km from Delhi, the sarpanch called for a ban on jeans and mobile phones for girls. In his words, the village earned a bad name and families came to him pleading “bachchon ko tight karna padega” (children have to be disciplined).

Four months down, the ban evokes mixed reactions. While some parents have enforced the rules, others say the decision is plain silly. Still others believe youngsters will do what they like anyway.

Annu’s parents, for instance, have not taken the panchayat ban seriously. “My mother bought me the jeans, and my father taught me how to ride the bike. They ask, why we should allow anyone else to decide what we do,” she says with an impish smile.

Jyoti Malik, who studies in Class XI at a private school in Nooran Kheda, a km from the village, says, “If we have to wear salwar suits then the boys must wear kurta-pyjama. Why should they be allowed to wear jeans?” To her, the ban appears unjustified. “No one ever stops the boys. They lounge around all day, watch as much TV or YouTube as they like. But we are always being nagged: don’t sit like this, don’t talk too loudly, don’t this, don’t that….”

Since everyone is not allowed to wear them in the village, jeans are something of a prized possession. The girls need to take a bus to Gohana town 14km away to buy a pair, which means they need to be accompanied by a parent or older sibling.

“Why don’t they stop minors from getting married instead of announcing these bans,” asks Neeraj who is also in Class XI. Two of her classmates got married last year after Class X and did not return to school.

Neeraj is not allowed to wear jeans or step out of the house after she returns from school. “My mother says sit at home and watch TV but no going out. If I’m not allowed a phone either, what will I do,” she asks.

The Haryana village isn’t the first to ban phones. Last year, Madora in Uttar Pradesh announced a fine of Rs 2,100 on women who are found using a mobile. In 2016, a panchayat in Gujarat cracked down on single women.

With or without the ban, access to phones remains limited for girls. They usually share the phone with an older sibling or the family and have access to it for a couple of hours in the day. This is in line with a gender gap that can be seen across the country. Less than 46% of Indian women own and use a mobile phone, according to National Family Health Survey 2015-2016. In urban areas, 62% women use a handset compared to 37% in rural areas. In Haryana, nearly half the women have access to a phone.

Geeta, the mother of a boy and a girl, says mobile phones are “just trouble” and should be banned for both men and women. Other mothers nod in agreement, chiming in about obscene pictures, long WhatsApp calls, and distracting images and videos.

But panchayat member Anil Tikaram Malik rubbishes the ban. “Our children have to move forward. How can they if there are bans like these? We were not consulted when the decision was made,” he says.

Krishan Kumar agrees, explaining with a sense of wonder how his sevenyear-old can download and access a book he needs for homework without any help. “Why should I stop him? Or my daughter? We have to learn to move with the times.”

Yet Sarpanch Prem Malik remains firm in his resolve. “Mobile phones spoil girls. It is not just me saying that. The village came to me and said jeans and mobile phones were spoiling our children. So I announced the ban.” He says there has not been any action against those who have not adhered to it. There are stories about how the girls who eloped used mobiles to plot their escape.

Pramila Malik, panchayat member and Anil Tikaram’s sister, disagrees with her brother. “There are bad things on the net. Girls should not see them, and where is the need to wear jeans? Saada peheno, saada raho (wear simple clothes, live simply),”

she says.

But the young girls will have none of it. “We have nothing to hide. It’s the boys who have the phone all the time and keep it locked with a password. If they are not doing anything wrong, why do they have a password?” Manju, 17, says.