Pune, an industrial city in the west of India, home to many IT giants and also the first Trump-branded apartments in the country, is a cosmopolitan hub.
But within this urbane city lies a deeply conservative hinterland.
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On January 21, three young men, Prashant Indrekar, Saurabh Machhle and Prashant Tamchikar, who were part of an anti-patriarchy campaign, were beaten by a group of around 40 people in Pune’s Pimpri-Chinchwad.
The victims are part of a campaign against a ritual practised in the nomadic Kanjarbhat tribe: a “virginity test” for young brides.
Newlyweds in the community are handed a white sheet on their wedding night to use during intercourse, according to the order of the panchayat, or village caste council.
If the groom does not confirm three times that his wife was a virgin, the council announces a punishment which could entail beatings for the bride and monetary penalty.
If the bride is pronounced as “broken”, there is an enquiry about who she lost her virginity to.
The abuse, the misogynist attitude towards women’s bodies inherent in the practice propelled her to join the “Stop the V-Ritual” campaign, said 26-year old Priyanka Tamaichikar from Pune.
In December last year, several youth from the Kanjarbhat community created a WhatsApp group titled “Stop the V-Ritual” (the “V” standing for “virginity”).
Priyanka is one of the dozen women from the community who are opposing the “anti-woman” custom.
“I am quite determined not to let any panchayat test my virginity. I am going to talk to my partner about this ritual. It is an assault against the dignity of women,” says Priyanka who works as a recovery manager in a real-estate firm in Pune.
“There is not a single marriage that happens without this virginity test. The council tells us they don’t want the women to go ‘out of control’.
There is not a single marriage that happens without this virginity test. The council tells us they don't want the women to go 'out of control'
“They think women would indulge in ‘illicit’ physical relationships if they don’t have the fear of the virginity test awaiting them. Our question to these councils is – what is the virginity test for men?” Priyanka told Al Jazeera.
The underlying obsession with women’s bodies and the premium on virginity is troubling, say women rights activists.
“There is no community in the world that does not have practices that are patriarchal, problematic and needs to be challenged.
“The call for reform from within the community is powerful. That’s what riles up the custodians of patriarchy,” Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, told Al Jazeera.
Activists say the order of the council underlines the misogyny that there is “honour” in virginity; it also parades a warning to the female population of Kanjarbhats: if you oppose the test imposed by the panchayat, you are clearly a loose woman.
Prashant Indrekar, a member of “Stop the V-Ritual”, was among those beaten at a wedding recently for opposing the practice.
“That Sunday evening, I was attending a wedding in Pimpri. ‘Til 11:30pm at night, the panchayat were discussing the ritual. People there were aware of my campaign. I was on my way out of the wedding, when I saw two of my friends being beaten up by a group of around 40 people, I intervened.
“They rained blows on me as well. We went and filed a police complaint after which a few people have been arrested,” Prashant told Al Jazeera.
Both Prashant and Priyanka say they are facing threats from these groups, who support the regressive practice.
The police official investigating the case at the Pimpri Police Station in Pune told Al Jazeera that they have arrested four of the five people named in the police complaint while the rest of the unnamed mob are being identified.
“All the four accused were arrested and produced in a court. They are currently out on bail. We have not been notified of any threat to the activists who are opposing this so-called ritual,” Raju Ramchandra Thuval, Assistant Police Inspector at Pimpri station in Pune, told Al Jazeera.
These village councils – unelected all-male bodies – are spread across India and have issued many decrees, including ordering “honour killings” of couples who do not marry according to tradition and hierarchy.
In the rigidly patriarchal society of the Kanjarbhats in Maharashtra state, the powerful village councils enjoy a conservative grip that sometimes challenges the law of the land.
“This is against the human rights promised to every Indian citizen by the Constitution. This virginity test is governed through a parallel extrajudicial mechanism. The council acts like a parallel government,” rationalist and activist Hamid Dabholkar told Al Jazeera.
“The fear of social boycott is used as a weapon to prevent protests. The Kanjarbhat community must realise this is demeaning their existence. At the same time, the state must ensure these illegal acts are not carried out,” he added.
No legal sanction
The tradition has no legal sanction, yet regressive cultural practices such as “virginity tests” get the societal endorsement.
Vivek Tamaichekar, founder of the Stop the V-Ritual and a scholar at Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, says the community is obsessed with “retaining caste purity”.
“The panchayat is the upholder of tradition and go to great lengths to test female purity.
“The room where the newlyweds spend their first night together is sanitised, all sharp objects are removed, the bride’s bangles are counted so that she can’t use anything to make herself bleed,” Vivek told Al Jazeera.
“Indians are talking about liberalisation and globalisation, what does this mean for my community. There is a lot of pressure from the panchayat on the families. They tell their girls, ‘We send you to college, we let you wear jeans. Is this freedom not enough for you?’
“This is the mindset; men who have had their fill of affairs want their wives in ‘sealed covers’. ‘Seal broken, intact packets’. This is the crude language used to describe women,” Vivek added.
Although the “virginity test” is a ritual exclusively practised by the Kanjarbhat community in India, oppressive patriarchy is not limited to any particular group.
Women and men are still murdered across the villages of northern India for daring to marry outside their caste. Cases of illegal abortions of female foetuses and immolation of young brides by their in-laws for not fulfilling dowry demands are also rampant.
Practices like the “virginity test” are also aimed at keeping women confined to a wholly subordinate role, says Priyanka.
“Women are seen as weak, made to feel weak. This is how men have been able to rule in perpetuity.”