As The First All-India Khap Panchayat Meet Comes Up To Discuss Traditional Practices In Modern Times, A 90-Year-Old Great Grandmother, A Young Female Executive And Schoolgirls From Pune‘s Kanjarbhat Community Challenge The Virginity Test
At 90, Janabai Indrekar has seen it all. The resident of Yerawada, Pune, has given birth to 12 children, and raised two stepchildren alongside her own. Yet, her memories of her wedding day are sharp as ever. “We were poor and my mother wanted me to marry a 32-year-old. I became his third wife — the first two wives had died during childbirth. I did not want to marry him, but I was told that the community would disown me if I didn’t,” she says.
Janabai was 14 and newly acquainted with her menstruation that marked her initiation into womanhood. But, this didn’t mean that she was ready for what was to come her way. “I saw bloodstains on the bed sheet and began weeping. I assumed that my husband had bitten me. Seeing me bawl, my husband had to leave the bedroom. An older lady entered, inspected the sheet, and announced to my relatives standing outside, ‘maal khara hai’,” she recalls.
Priyanka Bhat, 26, is a recovery executive with a private firm in Pune. She’s a steady voice against the virginity test, despite pressure from her community to back down
Janabai belongs to the Kanjarbhat community, which has drawn public attention recently for its practice of a V-Test. V stands for virginity here, and the test is hardly a scientific one. If a woman bleeds after penetrative sex on the wedding night, she passes the test; if she doesn’t, it’s interpreted as her having indulged in sexual activity prior, which calls for suitable punishment. This includes the following: physical torture (slapping and kicking), shaming, and a monetary penalty (which can range anywhere between R50,000 to R1 lakh) to be paid by the bride’s family to the caste panchayat. For many women of the Kanjarbhat community, the wedding night is a stressful affair where the privacy of their bodily functions is made public to family and community.
The concept of virginity is one that the Kanjarbhat have known for long, but the word entered their lingo only recently. New brides are assessed as shuddh or ashuddh, khara (pure) or khot (impure). The English word “virginity” has become part of daily parlance, ironically, only after a protest against the generations-old practice.
Late last October, Kanjarbhat youths — men and women — formed a WhatsApp group named Stop the V-Ritual. The group’s motivations gained strength after Vivek Tamaichekar, a 28-year-old student at Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences, who belongs to the same community, realised that his fiancée would be subjected to the same practice. The group is now some 60 members strong. On January 21, three members in their late teens and mid-twenties were allegedly beaten up by 40 people at Bhat Nagar, Pimpri. The three were filming community elders receiving money at a wedding, another customary practice, when the mob assaulted them.
Members of the Kanjarbhat community argue that this is an age-old tradition and carried out in private. Pics/Sameer Markande
Following this incident, the panchayat has decided to hold an urgent meeting to discuss the issue with members of the community in Kolhapur. Over 25,000 members are expected to attend the event.
A new generation
Bhat Nagar is in Pimpri, a town with its own municipal corporation on the outskirts of Pune. For Mumbaikars, Pimpri-Chinchwad is best known as the bus stop and urban centre that heralds Pune on the highway. Here, Bhat Nagar is a colony of buildings, most of which are occupied by members of the Kanjarbhat community, but not entirely. The caste panchayat is a self-appointed body, with much sway over the community, right from its property dealings to sex. This is where the mob that attacked the protesting youth hails from. This is also where Priyanka Bhat lives.
Members of the Kanjarbhat community at Bhat Nagar, a colony in Pimpri
Bhat is a 26-year-old recovery executive with a firm in Pune and has invited the wrath of many elders, including the ‘panchayat’ members. We meet her in the morning hours, and she is smartly dressed in a pair of black jeans with a black shirt, rides a scooter, and moves with great poise. “I first heard about the practice when I was in Std VII. I only knew that if it was good news, they served biryani in the morning. On the other hand, if the woman was ‘kharab’, we got dal chawal,” she tells us.
“I didn’t know what virginity was then. I only knew that we were expected to be ‘shuddh’ and that there should be a ‘lal rang’ on the ‘suhaag raat’ sheet,” she continues. It was not until some years had passed that Bhat understood the physiological processes behind the sacrosanct evidence of virginity. “I started attending educational camps organised by a non-profit in Hadapsar and Pune, where I would go to teach street children. Here, I learned more about the bodily functions of women,” she says.
Meenabai Gulabsingh Bhat, 70, a member of the Kanjarbhat caste panchayat, who believes the V-Test is an acceptable ritual, but only to be discussed privately. She is surrounded by women, some married and others unmarried, who dismiss allegations that their community carries out this ritual
Priyanka’s confusion is something that several other women endure, she says. There are those who do not bleed the night the marriage is consummated, and are allegedly harassed by the panch and relatives. Forced to provide a rational explanation, the easiest, and the most treacherous one that these young brides resort to is to lie that they have had previous sexual relations with another man, mostly a non-Kanjarbhat man. “These women don’t know what virginity means, or that a hymen can break even without sex,” she explains. The punitive monetary compensation that the bride’s family gives is also seen as a way of making money by the panchayat.
Bhat says she is no longer plagued by anxiety. Even when the community compels her family to keep her in check, even when her brother is boycotted in the colony’s cricket matches, even when her name appears in the news — she is at ease because she knows “what is what”.
Dignity of the body
The Kanjarbhat community is a de-notified tribe that has been known for its nomadic status, and originally hails from Rajasthan. After Independence, they were offered settlement camps in Solapur, and today, they have moved to Pune, Pimpri, and Ambarnath in Mumbai. They are fluent in both Marathi and Mewari, and switch with ease between the languages in their homes and the locality.
Bhat Nagar in Pimpri
The obsession with virginity and consummation, says Vivek Tamaichekar, may have something to do with the fact that the community used to be migratory, and would have had to face a number of invasions and enemies. “It would have meant that protecting women and the purity of the caste from outsiders was necessary. While times have changed, the tradition seems to have been carried on,” he says.
This extreme, voyeuristic interest in virginity and the fetishisation of the wedding night is not just the Kanjarbhat’s alone. Much of mainstream cinema, whether Bollywood or regional, has devoted endless number of scenes, dialogue and song picturisations to the suhaag raat. Take the song, Rukmini Rukmini from Mani Ratnam’s Roja. The villagers want to know what happened after the shaadi. It’s meant to revel in the naughtiness that the couple might have engaged in, but, the truth for many a Kanjarbhat bride, is far from pleasure and merriment.
Because the need to bleed on the wedding night is so grave, the community wants to make sure that what they are seeing is the real deal. We heard accounts from women, all under the condition of anonymity, that young girls are asked not to play aggressively, lest their hymen should tear. Brides are stripped of metallic objects, including jewellery, and the room is checked to make sure that there are no sharp objects lying around. “They want to make sure that the blood on the sheet is from sex. What if a woman cuts her finger and smears the blood there?” says a young girl in her 20s. There has been a case, unknown to the community elders, where a bride did not bleed after sex, and was allegedly helped later by her elder sister. The sister cut her finger and bloodied the sheet to save the young bride from further harm.
Dr Shashikala Gurpur, former member of the National Law Commission and presently Director of Symbiosis Law School, Pune, recalls Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, and says that the French feminist has accounted for similar practices that have been conducted in communities across the world. “To think of a woman’s loss of virginity, actual or supposed, as a wound on the community is to reduce a woman to just tissue and body, instead of a thinking being. The guesswork of orthodoxy is that if a girl is not bleeding, then she is not a virgin. But a hymen may not have grown at all. Or, sometimes, it may have been ruptured during illness, surgery, an accident, or during sports. But, imposing this as the image of the girl, making her identity depend upon this, and shaming her if she isn’t a virgin is a violation of human rights of the highest kind. It leads to the social, physical and mental consequences for the girl,” she says.
Gurpur and Priyanka state that there is anecdotal evidence of to-be brides approaching doctors for a hymenoplasty or for a pouch with blood to be inserted in them. Dr Ramesh Bhosle, head of obstetrics and gynaecology at Pune’s Sassoon General Hospital, states that while women do come to them with such requests, it is hard to say how many of them are from the Kanjarbhat community. In any case, when women ask for such measures to be implemented, doctors would be wise to counsel them and turn them away, without allowing them to succumb to the pressure of these practices, he says.
All for one
Before the days of Stop the V-Ritual, Bhat says that she thought she was all alone in her belief. Now, she has found like-minded youngsters in the community.
The situation of the wedding night, say some in the community, has gone out of hand. And the pressure is not the woman’s alone. For the grooms, a demand is made of them to consummate the union. The ritual is a test of their virility, if not their virginity. A member of the community recounts the time when a couple, both from the same community, had engaged in pre-marital sex. As it turned out, the bride failed the test on the wedding night, and was questioned severely by the elders. The groom, under pressure to conform to the community’s standards, turned against the girl, and said that she may have engaged in sexual liaisons with another man prior to their wedding. It was only after his wife persuaded him to come out with the truth that he did so.
At Bhat Nagar, the atmosphere is tense post the altercation. When Manoj Machale, president of the Maharashtra Kanjarbhat Sangh, enters this locality where he resides, he is protectively greeted by several neighbours, many of whom are concerned about this interview. We are seated in a canopied part of a street, surrounded by some 50-odd members of the community — men, women and children — who dismiss the allegations made by the protesting youth.
“As recently, the apex court gave a verdict that the customs and religious practices of communities must not be defamed. These youth are trying to create a mountain out of a molehill. If this was such a brutal practice and panch members are torturing women, then why haven’t there been cases registered against us till date? The question about a woman’s virginity exists, but doesn’t it also when we talk about honeymoons and first nights? We don’t discuss a woman’s virginity in public like these young people make it out to be,” he says.
The surrounding men, young and old, nod in agreement. So do the women. Never before has the word “virgin” been uttered so often in a conversation in public, you would think.
We speak to the bride at whose wedding the protesting youth had been mobbed. She now lives with her husband in Ambarnath. She condemns the protest, and says that she is bound to follow the practice as a virginity test is important. “It is one of the most prestigious moments for our parents. I will adopt the practice for my children, too,” she says. A 32-year-old woman, a resident of Bhat Nagar, agrees, “Right from her birth till the night of the wedding, it’s a parent’s duty and the community’s to safeguard the girl’s virginity. So, from a young age, we do not let girls cycle or stretch, lest her hymen should tear. For us, her virginity is like an uncut diamond and needs to be safeguarded like a treasure.”
One of the panch members is Meenabai Gulabsingh Bhat, 70. We speak with her inside her house, where we are surrounded by a number of women. Behind her, a wall is covered from floor to ceiling with images of divinities, prominently among them, the goddess Durga. Meenabai says that the ritual surrounding a woman’s virginity is a private affair. “The panch members exist as mediators who try to mutually settle the issue without knocking on the door of the court,” she says. An “impure” bride is punished, but, at least, she is not deserted after marriage — a silver lining out here. We then ask the women, what about a man’s virginity? Why is that never checked? A quiet murmur, a hushed approval of our question, passes across the women in the room. But Meenabai remains resolutely quiet.
At a girl’s school in Pimpri, where a majority of the students from the Kanjarbhat community study, there is a possibility for change to occur. Young girls are skipping, playing catch and running recklessly up and down the stairs during lunch hour, and among them are Kanjarbhat girls, too. We meet six of them in a computer lab, and they are seated next to a pristine idol of the goddess Saraswati. The young girls tell us that while they do not face any restriction from their families about playing or cycling, they do think that their education could come to a halt should their parents feel so. We ask them if they have heard of the idea of “shuddhta” and the purity of a bride. One of them slowly says, “Yes we have. We don’t know what it means or how it is checked. But, we have all heard that something happens on the wedding night.” Her friend adds, “We all think this should stop.”
Stop the V-Ritual has now been backed by the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti, to put an end to these regressive practices. And, whether it is 90-year-old Janabai, 26-year-old Priyanka or these young schoolgirls, the sentiment is the same. Janabai passed the V-Test back then but is done with the ritual. She says, “Being bound to custom, I made the same mistake with my daughters and they too underwent this ritual of virginity, as did my granddaughters. I will not be able to bear that such customs should be followed for my great-grand-daughters. I want the girls in my family to carry the torch of progressive thought, and marry men who respect them and their privacy.”