NEW DELHI -- India's Supreme Court ordered an investigation Friday into the case of a young tribal woman who reported having been gang-raped by village elders and other men as a punishment for falling in love with a Muslim.

The incident again turned a spotlight on the prevalence of sexual assaults on women in India. But it is also focusing attention on the powerful role of village clan councils, who often hand out crude penalties, outside any official judicial system, for those who defy traditional social norms.

The 20-year-old woman told police Wednesday that she was raped Monday night by at least a dozen men in her village of Labhpur, in the eastern state of West Bengal, after the 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, authorities said, and 13 men have been arrested in the case.

Sexual-assault cases are being reported more often in India since the fatal gang rape of a young woman on a bus in New Delhi 13 months ago. The attack sparked a national outcry and an unprecedented public conversation about women's safety.

The Labhpur incident highlights the challenge entailed in efforts to enhance women's freedom in line with modern norms within tightly knit village communities largely governed by ethnicity, caste and deeply patriarchal practices.

In recent years, informal clan councils, which operate separately from elected village councils, have forbidden women in northern India to go to the bazaar in the evenings, wear jeans or use cellphones.


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In the northern state of Haryana, village elders have also ordered the killing of young couples who fall in love and elope in defiance of caste and clan restrictions. Such killings, they said, are necessary as a deterrent and to preserve honor of the community. Families have also been ostracized for flouting village verdicts.