PATNA, India - A village council in the eastern Indian state of Bihar has banned the use of mobile phones by women, saying the phones were "debasing the social atmosphere" by leading to elopements - a move that set off outraged protests from activists.
In addition to the ban, the Sunderbari village council in a Muslim-dominated area some 385 kilometers (239 miles) east of Patna, the capital of Bihar, has also imposed a fine of 10,000 rupees ($180) if a girl is caught using a mobile phone on the streets.
Married women would have to pay 2,000 rupees ($36.60).
"It always gives us a lot of embarrassment when someone asks who has eloped this time," said Manuwar Alam, who heads a newly-formed committee tasked with enforcing the ban, referring to queries from neighboring villages.
He said the number of elopements and extramarital love affairs had risen in the past few months, with at least six girls and women fleeing their homes.
"Even married women were deserting their husbands to elope with lovers. That was shameful for us," Alam said. "So, we decided to tackle it firmly. Mobile phones are debasing the social atmosphere".
Local officials have begun investigations, saying that such bans cannot be allowed in a healthy society, while women's rights activists called it an assault on freedom that could potentially end up harming women by stripping them of one source of protection from trouble, such as unwanted advances by men.
"Girls and women are capable enough to protect themselves," said activist Suman Lal during a debate on local television. "Technology is meant to be used, not to be banned...The order is nauseating."
Fellow activist Mohammad Islam said it was "disappointing" that the village council ignored the many advantages of mobile phones before placing a ban on them for one reason.
"I want every girl to be given a mobile phone so that she could call up family members if she has a problem", he said. ($1 = 54.6400 Indian rupees)
(Reporting by New Delhi newsroom, editing by Elaine Lies)