Meghalaya: Where women call the shots

Many Indian women cry out for equality, but a matrilineal culture thrives with little parallel in the northeast.

Khasi-Jaintia women believe men have enough of a role to play in society [Subhamoy Bhattacharjee/ Al Jazeera]

Shillong, India – In a far corner of India, a country where women usually cry out for equality, respect and protection, there’s a state where men are asking for more rights.

Meghalaya – “Home of Clouds” – is picturesque state with its capital Shillong a regional hub for education and the trend-setter for the Westernised culture that’s accepted by most tribes in the country’s northeast.

The two major tribes of Meghalaya, Khasis and Jaintias, are matrilineal with a vengeance. Children take the mother’s surname, daughters inherit the family property with the youngest getting the lion’s share, and most businesses are run by women.

Known as the “Khatduh”, the youngest daughter anchors the family, looking after elderly parents, giving shelter and care to unmarried brothers and sisters, and watching over property.

The Khasi Social Custom of Lineage Act protects the matrilineal structure.

Some trace the origins of the system to Khasi and Jaintia kings, who preferred to entrust the household to their queens when they went to battle. This custom has continued to provide women the pride of place in the tribal society.

“Matriliny safeguards women from social ostracism when they remarry because their children, no matter who the father was, would be known by the mother’s clan name. Even if a woman delivered a child out of wedlock, which is quite common, there is no social stigma attached to the woman in our society,” says Patricia Mukhim, a national award-winning social activist who edits the Shillong Times newspaper.

Mukhim says her society will not succumb to the dominant patriarchial system in most of India.

“We have interfaced with several cultures and our women have married people from other Indian provinces and from outside India. But very few Khasi women have given up their culture,” says Mukhim. “Most have transmitted the culture to their children born out of wedlock with non-Khasis.”

Matrilineal culture

Anirban Roy, a Bengali married to a Jaintia woman whom he met as a fellow student in a veterinary college, says he faced no problem adjusting to the matrilineal culture of his wife’s family.

“Everyone in the wife’s clan made it a point to come and introduce themselves, and invite me to their houses either for lunch or dinner to know each other better. Whenever we face a problem, the members of my wife’s clan rushed to our help,” said Roy. “As a groom, I enjoyed great respect and privilege.”

But many Khasi and Jaintia men complain, and some formed the equivalent of a “men’s liberation group” called Syngkhong Rympei Thymai (SRT) back in 1990.

“Our men now have no roles as fathers or uncles. Since ancient times, fathers have been the protector and bread-earner, but this notion is not so much of a reality in our society now,” says Keith Pariat, SRT’s founder.

Khasi women with children in Shillong [Subhamoy Bhattacharjee/ Al Jazeera]

“In our society, there is applause and celebration when a girl is born, but the birth of a boy is just taken in the stride,” Pariat says.

Some tribal families have been switching over to patrilieany, where the father assumes leadership of the family, Pariat says. But he admits such cases are rare.

SRT has only about 3,000 members, but most are silent members who are too nervous to publicly challenge matrilineal traditions of the Khasi-Jaintia society.

“We hope things will change and we will get a more meaningful role to play in our society. But we cannot force a change,” says Anthony Kharkhongor, a SRT member.

C Joshua Thomas, regional director of the Indian Council of Social Science Research, says religious beliefs also help perpetuate the matrilineal system. Thomas is based in Shillong and has closely watched the tribal societies in Meghalaya in his long career as a social scientist.

“This system will survive because the people zealously guard this system. It has support from many quarters, including the indigenous religious systems Seng Khasi and also from the mainline Christian churches both from the Catholics and Protestant orders. The NGOs in Meghalaya also support this system, ” he says.

Khasi-Jaintia women, meanwhile, say the men have enough of a role to play in society – if they want to.

“Even in our matrilineal society, we treat the fathers as the head of the family, and they take important family decisions. Men are given due recognition even in major family decisions,” says Iwbih Nylla Tariang, a female employee with Meghalaya’s animal husbandry department.

But Tariang is keen that the present matrilineal system stays as is.

“Unlike elsewhere in India, we have followed a unique matrilineal society for centuries. Our society in Meghalaya always gave respect to women. The children taking mother’s family name is the biggest respect,” she says.

‘Disgruntled individuals’

The social activist Mukhim calls the SRT a “bunch of disgruntled individuals”.

“Khasis, as a whole, do not find any problem with matriliny. It is a small group of urban males who seem dissatisfied having to live with the wife’s family,” Mukhim says.

“Khasi men were known to be polygamous and marriages are brittle. Marriage as an institution came about only after Christianity and is practised only among Christians. Those who follow the indigenous faith, or who are outside the purview of any religion, still practise cohabitation or living together. So our system works.”

Khasi women selling fruit in Shillong [Subhamoy Bhattacharjee/ Al Jazeera]

In India, where women often become victims of “honour killings” if seen with a male from another caste, Khasi-Jaintia women enjoy remarkable social mobility and can accompany any men without taboo.

Unlike elsewhere in India where the bride’s family is generally required to pay a dowry to the groom’s family, the women of Khasi-Jaintia society do not.

Nor is there any arranged marriages.

Khasi women are enterprising and run small businesses well. In Shillong’s oldest market, the Lewduh, women operate almost all businesses.

Many Khasi political leaders are apprehensive about outsiders coming to settle in Meghalaya and marrying local women.

In 2007, the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council (KHADC), which gives the tribes self-governance, declared a policy of encouraging Khasi women to have more children.

Some Khasi mothers who had given birth to 15 or more offspring were handed out cash rewards.

“We have a lot of land but migrants from other parts of India and neighbouring Bangladesh are coming into Meghalaya in some numbers,” says KHADC chief HS Shylla, justifying cash rewards in a country where the federal government advocates strict family planning.

“We may be swamped by them, like neighbouring Tripura or Assam, if we don’t grow in numbers.”

One crucial area exists, however, where women are not the dominant figures. The Dorbar Shnong – or the grassroots political institution of the tribes – debars women from holding office and remains a male-centric institution.

“Women would be represented at the Dorbar by male members of the family such as their husbands, brothers or uncles. These days women attend the Dorbar but cannot hold office as executive members, and certainly not as the headman,” says Thomas.

The 60-member Meghalaya state assembly also has only four women lawmakers – an unusual situation in a society where social and economic powers rest with females.

“This is one reason why women in Meghalaya have been uncertain about entering electoral politics. There is an inherent feeling that politics is a male domain,” says Mukhim.

This feature is a part of our ongoing special India coverage. To read more stories click here.

Source: Al Jazeera