In India and other parts of South Asia, clan councils have long worked outside the legal system as enforcers of centuries-old social codes and traditions. Experts say these largely male bodies serve an important function in settling small property disputes and marital discord in remote villages. But their brutal punishments — often aimed at women — have garnered international headlines, and India’s Supreme Court has said these groups should be illegal.
Last month, the Indian state of Maharashtra passed a new law limiting the behavior of clan councils after several disturbing incidents, including one case in which a teenage girl was whipped because she was too scared to say that her father had raped her.
Some in India’s central government want other states to follow suit. Experts think that these councils — largely made up of older men — are a dying breed that will have little effect on younger generations. But for now, they still hold sway.
Here is a list of earlier acts by village elders that have caused controversy.
- On Thursday, leaders of a small village in Pakistan were arrested and charged with burning a teenage girl to death because she helped one of her friends elope. Police said that the killing was a preplanned act of 14 leaders who “said she must be burnt alive to make a lesson for other girls.”
- In 2014, a 20-year-old woman was raped by at least a dozen men in the Indian state of West Bengal after a village chieftain conducted an informal tribal court hearing and ordered men to punish her with rape. She was assaulted for hours in the chieftain’s hut. Thirteen men were eventually arrested in the case. Her crime? Falling in love with a man from outside her tribal community.
- In 2010, village elders declared the marriage between a young couple from the same clan in the northern Indian state of Haryana incestuous. As the couple, Manoj and Babli, tried to flee town, the young woman’s family chased them and dragged them from a bus, strangling Manoj and forcing Babli to drink pesticide. Their bodies were dumped in a canal. Five men were sentenced to death for the crime, later commuted.
- In June 2013, a village council in Maharashtra allegedly authorized a father to strangle his pregnant teenage daughter after the family had been ostracized by the community because the young woman married outside her caste.
- Clan councils are also known for banning everything from mobile phones, jeans and T-shirts for women, liquor, meat, and even loud music at weddings. In 2012, a village elder in Haryana caused a stir when he went so far as to suggest consumption of fast food such as chow mein was behind growing incidents of rape. “Chow mein leads to hormonal imbalance evoking an urge to engage in such acts,” leader Jitender Chhatar told the Times of India.