Shweta* got married last year, and as is the case for most people, it was a day that she would never forget. Marriages are supposed to be joyous occasions but Shweta spent most of her wedding day worrying about the final ritual she would be forced to face the following night – the regressive virginity test. “I hope I bleed,” she muttered to herself, thinking about the gruesome and arduous hours of physical training she had put in for her police recruitment tests. Would it have left her hymen intact? That night she nervously proceeded to a small dingy lodge with her husband. She lay still on the bed with a million things running through her head as family members waited impatiently outside for the intercourse to get over so they could know the verdict. Shweta looked for traces of blood as soon as the deed was done. The bedsheet was still a crisp white in colour. Her husband stared at her in disgust and Shweta was then aware of the horror that awaited her.
The archaic virginity test still plagues many societies in India but the Kanjarbhat Community, a de-notified tribe that migrated to Maharashtra from Rajasthan years ago, is one that considers the tradition central to the sanctity of marriage, even resorting to violence and cruelty towards the girl if her hymen is found broken on the wedding night. Rarely are girls believed when they go over the multiple possibilities and reasons such as sports or other strenuous activities. The Panchayat with their own set of rules and constitution sponsors this primitive act. but the youth of this community have risen as rebels, with a good cause. They have now taken it upon themselves to put an end to this archaic practice by creating a Whatsapp Vigil Group that aims to spread awareness and calls for a boycott of virginity tests.
‘Stop the V Ritual’ was founded by 28-year-old Kanjarbhat youth Vivek Tamaichikar who is currently pursuing his Masters from the Tata Institute Of Social Sciences. When Vivek’s marriage was fixed with Aishwarya Bhat, a girl from the same community, it dawned on him that even she would have to undergo the ‘purity’ test. Vivek was adamant that he would not let his wife-to-be take part in this backward tradition, especially after he had seen and heard cases of how badly women were treated had they not bled that forsaken night. In an attempt to educate and raise awareness in the community, this group was started and joined by many youngsters of the Kanjarbhat tribe.
“There are certain mindsets you cannot change, but the practice can stop if we actively rally the youth against it,” Vivek says narrating in detail the process of the cruel virginity tests. The wedding takes place in a small pandal and the newlywed couple is sent to a lodge by the family. It is ensured that the bedsheets are white and the room is sanitized. The girls bangles are removed and all sharp objects are taken away. “The elders stand outside the room, often knocking, asking if there is any difficulty. If there is, the couple is shown porn,” says Vivek. Once intercourse is complete the husband proceeds outside to interact with the panchayat wherein he is asked:
“Jo Anaaj Ki Bori Dee Thi, Wo Theek thi ya Phati hui (The sack of grains that we gave you, was it good or was it torn)?” or “Maal Kaisa tha (How was the stuff)?”
Meanwhile, the elder women of both sides of the family examine the sheets for drops of blood. If the woman bleeds that means she truly lost her virginity to her husband. If she doesn’t, it is assumed that the girl has previously had relations with another man. She is then beaten and abused and often disowned by her in-laws. She is also forced to speak out the name of the man she was involved with. If the man was from the same caste, he is punished as well.
Vivek tells us that his group has tried reasoning with the elders, arguing that the hymen not being intact does not necessarily mean that the girl has previously had sexual relationships. But the community seniors have a resonating response to this argument as well. “If we do not continue this tradition, the girls will even sleep with their brothers. At least this instils some fear within them,” they say. The Whatsapp group, which is hardly two months old, has around 60-70 members and actively conducts meetings and holds education workshops, awareness seminars regarding the Social Boycott Act and rallies the cause of banning the virginity test through galvanising the youth in both rural and urban areas. Vivek feels that he has built a strong youth leadership and is positive about the younger generation standing against this practice when they decide to marry.
The group has also garnered the support of the Women’s commission and from Dr Dabolkar’s ‘Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti’ that actively works to demolish such archaic practices. In fact, it was because of the support of these two groups that Shweta found the courage to file a complaint. She became the first woman in the community to do so. The pressure created by the media and these two groups led Shweta’s husband to take her back.
Vivek and Shweta aren’t the first ones to stand up against this practice. Back in 1986, Krishna Indrekar, now 51, Director of Finance in the Maharashtra State Charity Commission, refused to agree to state diktats and tied the knot with Aruna through a court marriage. Today, the couple is part of the Whatsapp group and their story has been extremely encouraging for the entire community.
Their fight is also against the Panchayat’s constitution which was oral but was laid down in print by the Akhil Bharatiya Sahansmal Kanjarbhat Samaj Sangh at the jat panchayat’s Shirdi chapter in 2000. Although outlawed in July 2017, the members of the community still reach out to the elders for solving disputes, maternity issues etc. “The Panchayat System and their rules are the root cause of all these issues stirring up. We need to burn their constitution,” Vivek states ambitiously.
As the media broke the news of the Whatsapp group, it didn’t take long for the elders and the panchayat to find out about it. A recent report by Hindustan Times on the same issue quoted Kavichand Bhat, a Kanjarbhat elder, former mayor of Pimpri Chinchwad and the grandfather of Vivek’s fiance said, “People think that when the law changes, everyone will become Ambedkar. It doesn’t work that way. Some have only known the protection of the community.” The report also states that “Kavichand was arrested in 2015, along with other members of the jat panchayat, for enforcing the social ostracism of a young couple who married outside clan stipulations.”
But the backlash from the elders and even his own family is not going to stop Vivek Tamaichikar. Having held multiple meetings, workshops, Facebook live sessions and having collaborated with multiple NGO’s and support groups, Vivek is firm that he would be able to bring out about a change in the system.
The initiative by Vivek and the youth of the community is certainly a bold and a required step towards outlawing traditions that stem from the roots of patriarchy. While it definitely is a step forward towards a more progressive and rational future, the present may be hard to rattle. Shweta’s husband may have accepted her in front of the media but she continues to be ill-treated and taunted for her ‘character’ by the elders of her community. Perhaps, that is because we live in a time where laws may be easier to change than the conservative mindsets of many people who continue believing in the sinister traditions of yesteryear.
*Name changed to protect identity
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