In India, a centuries-old custom comes up against basic demands for human rights.
MAHARASHTRA — For the past few months, the Kanjarbhat community in Maharashtra has been engaged in a battle that pits tradition against education, and fundamental rights against dogged customs.
The Kanjarbhats, a Denotified Tribe from Maharashtra, practice a custom called gun jiti, whereby a bride's virginity is tested by looking for blood stains on a white sheet after the wedding night. The sheet is checked by the family, and the groom has to declare before the elders whether the bride is a virgin.
Kanjarbhat lore says the custom was established centuries ago during the nomadic days to protect girls from prying eyes. Its application in 2018, with much of the community living in urban areas — such as Pimpri-Chinchwad in Pune, Ambernath near Mumbai and Kolhapur — remains contentious.
Community elders proudly claim the custom has existed for 400 years. Advocate Moorchand Bhat, the former chairperson of the All India Kanjarbhat Association and part of the Jati Panchayat, or caste council, insists it is no different from any traditional wedding night. He calls it a Lakshmana Rekha (boundary line)for the community's girls.
But a group of young Kanjarbhats have challenged what they say is a regressive custom and an affront to privacy. Vivek Tamaichikar, a researcher on regulatory governance at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, sees the virginity tests as "a way to control sexual behavior of the women in the community."
Tamaichikar is engaged, and when he and his fiancee decided they did not wish to undergo this custom, they approached family elders, but in vain. He responded by setting up "Stop the V Ritual," a WhatsApp group of about 60 like-minded people. The Jat Panchayat is unhappy with Tamaichikarst and opposes his methods of raising awareness through the social media.
Many older Kanjarbhat women support the custom, the details of which are spelled out in a book of laws published by the Jat Panchayat groups in 2000. "This pratha (custom) has been going on for many years and I don't know why it's in newspapers now," says an elderly woman from Bhatnagar. "What do outsiders know about our customs? We have all gone through it and it is a custom we are proud of."
The woman's family does not want her name published. "Hume is pratha se koi taqleef hi nahi hai (we have no problem with this custom)," her daughter-in-law adds.
Tamaichikar attributes the lingering support for such customs to ghettoisation. "People tend to stay together in one area and cultural ties are tight. Even if some wish to go against it, their family is pressured by the panchayat and there is a fear of social boycott (ostracism), meaning they wouldn't be spoken to, invited to social functions, etc.," he says. "That's a strong instrument the panchayat wields."
Shakuntala Bhat heads the Maharashtra chapter of the All India Kanjarbhat Women's Association. As a woman, she admits there's something wrong about the tradition. But she is quick to counter that, as a social custom, it is needed. "The community has come a long way from being part of criminal tribes during the British rule, and we now have lawyers, doctors, and government officers. But many women are still not educated enough to make the right decisions. Such customs are needed to keep them within a certain boundary."
People need to be educated about the law.
The Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti has been working to end the custom for years and Milind Deshmukh, its chief secretary, says the lack of "protesting voices' is due to the fear of ostracism. "It is a baseless one since Maharashtra is the only state to have passed a Prohibition on Social Boycott Act, in 2016. People need to be educated about the law."
Krishna Indrekar, director of the State Charity Commission, was ostracized when he ignored the custom and had a court marriage in 1996. "The panchayat takes money to approve things and has kept people under control through superstitions and boycott threats, which is why there have been no complaints filed with the police over the years," he alleges.
Even in cases where the victim is ready to file a complaint, families intervene. In June 2016, a young woman in Nashik was deserted by her husband after she did not bleed. The woman originally wanted to file a complaint, but her family ended convincing her not to.
Bhat insists that there are no boycotts or beatings and there is no penalty enforced even if a girl "fails the test." "We just counsel the couple and advise them to lead a happy life instead," he says, adding that the panchayats do not demand money either. "During the wedding, the panchayat members are given Rs 300 approximately $4.60 each as Dakshina (donation), that's it."
Some younger women from the community tell a different story. Sonal, not her real name, is a 24-year-old an engineering student in Pune. She has two older sisters who are married and have undergone the custom at their parents' insistence. "The Jati Panchayat isn't there waiting outside the room, but virginity test does happen, and there is social pressure to go through it," she explains. "The women remove the bride's jewelry and any sharp objects from the room. The boy is sent inside with a white sheet. If by any chance the bride doesn't bleed, there is a meeting fixed with the community elders and a penalty paid to approve the wedding."
Priyanka Tamaichikar, 26, works in a Pune firm and is part of the WhatsApp group. She is also one of the very few women from the community to openly speak about the issue. "It's a character test," she says. "If you ask girls from our community how their wedding was, very few would say they enjoyed it because everyone is under pressure and scared about the result."
"It's an extremely traumatic public process for every girl,"
Because there's a general lack of sex education, Priyanka goes on to say, very few girls or even older women are aware that a hymen can rupture even due to natural causes. "It's an extremely traumatic public process for every girl," she says.
College education, exposure, and social media have brought about a change in some young Kanjarbhat girls, many of whom don't want the virginity test when they marry. But few are willing to openly stick their neck out.
Shakuntala disagrees with the public method adopted by Tamaichikar's WhatsApp group but admits that there are murmurs for change. She suspects that about 20% of women in the community, especially young women, don't want the virginity test to continue. So why aren't they speaking out?
"Ours is a male-centric society and for centuries, men have been making the rules," she says. "Most women in our community feel rules need to be followed and can't be crossed."
Reshmi Chakraborty is a freelance writer who writes on gender, social change and aging.