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Female Activist in Haryana Works Within System for Change

June 18, 2014

Female Activist in Haryana Works Within System for Change

New York Times/by Betwa Sharma

Over a cup of milky tea some months ago in a nondescript hotel in Rohtak, a dusty town of steel and oil mills, colleges and auto repair shops, Santosh Dahiya reflected on the slow-moving pace of change in the mostly rural state of Haryana.

She is the head of the women’s wing of the Sarve Khap, Sarve Jaatiya Mahapanchayat, an umbrella organization of khap panchayats, traditionally all-male unelected councils in north India that exercise a great deal of social control.

When she was a girl, she used to watch the men in her native village gather for meetings at which clan leaders and village elders would settle disputes: adultery in the family, domestic violence, even murder.

Though many have come to see the councils as oppressive, Haryana is virtually run by them, and Ms. Dahiya recalled marveling at how quickly the disputes were solved.

"The fear of being shamed before your own people is greater than being put in jail,” she said.The diktats of the councils, many say, reinforce caste-based prejudices and impose a stranglehold over women’s freedoms. Some say it has led to honor killings and female feticide, and the state of Haryana has the lowest ratio of females to males in the country.Ms. Dahiya, 45, who had a relatively progressive family and husband, was able to get an education and carve out a space for her activism in Haryana. After receiving a doctorate in physical education, she became a professor at Kurukshetra University in the northern part of the state, where she now works and lives.

In 2010, she was nominated to be the president of the women’s wing of the umbrella organization, and she has used her platform to speak out about atrocities against women.

In Afghanistan, an 18-year-old was shot to death for running away to escape an arranged marriage in May. Weeks ago in Pakistan, a 25-year-old was beaten to death for marrying the man she loved. In September, a 20-year-old was lynched in Haryana and her fiancé was publicly beheaded by the woman’s family because the couple had decided to marry despite being from the same clan, considered a social taboo because members of a clan are regarded as family. Over the years, village councils have reinforced the argument against intraclan marriages, as well as marriages between people of different castes.

The thread running through these killings this past year is that women are chained to family honor, which justifies controlling their lives, said Ms. Dahiya.

"There is no notion that she can have her own thoughts, plans and desires,” she said.Although she is not a clan leader, a position still held only by men, she is able to speak to the news media about women’s issues in Haryana. And though she believes that marriages within the same clan should be avoided, she speaks out against honor killings as a choice of reprisal."I hold meetings with villagers three to four times a month. I tell them that murder is not an option in this modern era,” she said. Ms. Dahiya advises parents that their children must be allowed to leave their village unharmed.

There is some indication that her appeals to logic fall on deaf ears. A community leader in Haryana this year said that same-clan marriages led to the birth of eunuchs......[Read More]


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