Rohtak/Mewat, Haryana: Ghoongat (veil) firmly in place, Sonia Singh is busy making tea in the kitchen. The face of the new bride, who contested the recent panchayat polls in Haryana, is plastered on posters all over the village but here, at home, her place is in the kitchen.

It’s her husband who speaks for her. “If I hadn’t married her, my father’s political career would have ended," says Phool Singh with remarkable candour of the woman he married in December. Sonia pulls her veil down a little lower, serves the tea, and melts back into the kitchen.

A second-year Bachelor of Arts (BA) student at Rohtak University, Sonia met the qualification requirements by a wide margin for the panchayat election held on 17 January—the first since the government introduced new eligibility criteria, including minimum education, for all candidates. Under new rules, women candidates for the panchayat polls must have cleared their Class VIII examinations and men their matriculation.

Scheduled Caste women need to have cleared their Class V examination.

In the previous election in 2010, Sonia’s father-in-law, Balwaan Numberdaar, a landowner with five acres of land, contested the polls, and lost.

This time around, because his village seat was reserved for women, he had hoped to get his elder daughter-in-law to contest. There was a hitch though. She was under 21.

Numberdaar then did the next best thing. He began looking for a bride for his younger son. There were only two conditions: she had to be over 21, and she had to meet the minimum education requirements.

Fortunately for Sonia, when the results for Lakhan Majra village in Rohtak were declared at the end of January, she had won.

Among Haryana’s more prosperous districts, with a literacy rate of 80.4%, Rohtak did well in fielding women candidates compared to a poorer district such as Mewat, about 100km from Delhi but with a literacy rate of only 56.1%, according to the Census 2011. At just 37%, the literacy rate for women is among the worst in the country, well below even the state’s average of 66% literacy for women.

If the small village of Lakhan Majra in prosperous Rohtak saw seven women in the fray, the village of Bhango, in Mewat’s Tauru block—like Lakhan Majra, reserved for women—managed to throw up only three.

To get to Bhango, you must drive past Gurgaon’s steel and glass high-rises, past a golf course and luxury hotel through a tract of unlit, potholed roads that get narrower and dustier as you drive further away from Gurgaon.

Sajida Bano found herself an unexpected candidate for the elections. Married seven months earlier, before the new rules were announced, she is the third daughter-in-law—but, coincidentally, the only educated—of Shamshuddin, who contested the panchayat polls in 2010 but lost.

The weighty matter of campaigning and talking to the village elders over hookahs was left to Shamshuddin. In the evening after the housework was done, her mother-in-law would slip out to chat with her women friends, asking them to vote for Sajida. In an interview before the election, Sajida, who has studied up to Class VIII, said she had no plans to stay put at home if she was elected. “I’ll have to attend meetings and speak up when the time comes," she says. She won, by 200 votes, and is sarpanch.

There are 328 middle schools —273 government and 55 private—spread across Mewat’s 439 villages, according to the Census 2011. Bhango has a government school only up to Class V. Children who want to study further must go to the school at Mohammadpur, 5km away as the crow flies, but, since there is no direct road, they must trek through a roundabout route that is twice the distance. “Girls get enrolled but stay at home," says a teacher who asks not to be named.

Educating a daughter in this area is not always easy. Overcoming social attitudes is the first obstacle. “In our community, women do not go out," says Khursheedan, the outgoing sarpanch in the neighbouring village of Chahalka, who didn’t contest this year because, as she says, she is an angootha chhaap (illiterate). Her two older daughters studied at madrassas and now help with household work as they wait to get married later this year.

But the youngest daughter goes to the government school in the village and is in Class III.

At Chahalka, the most qualified girl is Miskeena, who is completing her teacher-training course in Gurgaon—an hour-and-a-half by bus each way.

“People told me I was making a huge mistake by sending her so far to study, but I didn’t listen to them," says Aas Mohammad, her father, who is also contesting the polls.

The education clause in panchayat polls, says Mohammad, will encourage more fathers to send their daughters to school. Some of the fallout has been unanticipated. Last month, for instance, he says, 10 girls from the nearby village of Padhenee got married without dowry on the strength of their sole qualification: they had gone to school. “Imagine that," he laughs.

When the 73d Amendment to the Constitution in 1992 mandated 33% reservation for women in local self-governing bodies, it was to give women a measure of empowerment and representation in a deeply patriarchal society. But there was a fear that some would contest as proxies for powerful husbands, which when they did gave rise to the tag “pradhanpati" (husband of the chief).

In Haryana, rich or poor, literate or not, whether in Rohtak or Mewat, women candidates have one thing in common: their identities are defined by their husbands and fathers-in-law. In virtually every election poster, the photograph of the woman candidate is accompanied either by that of her husband or father-in-law.

“In our state, a woman is known as the wife or daughter-in-law of someone," says Mahinder Rathi of Lakhan Majra.

Rathi’s sister-in-law Sarla Devi, contested and lost to Sonia Singh. But, unusually for the area, her posters did not share space with a male relative—but only because her husband has a government job and so is not allowed to endorse candidates.

But sometimes, even if unanticipated, the women who win decide to assert themselves. Nirmala Rathi, a relative of Sarla Devi, looks back at her own election victory in 1994. The family was happy, but when an elder male relative suggested she return to the kitchen and leave the business of running the panchayat to him, she told him that “I was not answerable to him but to the people who had voted for me".

Nirmala believes the education clause will ultimately benefit society but will also result in immediate exclusion of poorer women. Even Mahinder Rathi, who is otherwise supportive of the education clause—“we cannot progress without education" —concedes: “The government should have relaxed the norms for this one election to enable wider participation."

Yet, now that the rules are in place, “parents will want to send their daughters to school", he says.

With a Masters degree as well as Bachelor of Education (B.Ed), Saroj, a Dalit, who won unopposed from Nindana Tigri village in Rohtak, is unusually highly qualified. Her mother, she says, is completely illiterate, but her father ensured all four daughters received an education.

Now that she’s won the elections, the new sarpanch has her priorities worked out: vocational training for the youth and water for the women who otherwise have to go far to fetch it.

“The people have voted for me, and I will have to step out and work for them," says the mother of two who has been a housewife for all 14 years of her married life. “When you’re a sarpanch, there is no room for a ghoongat."

Namita Bhandare is gender editor, Mint.

This is the second part in a series of on-the-ground reports from three recent panchayat polls in Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, to understand what’s at stake.

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