Shillong, India – In a far corner of India, a country where women usually
have to cry out for equality, respect and protection, there’s a state
where women organise society, and everything works better.Meghalaya – “Home of Clouds” – is picturesque state with its capital Shillong a regional
hub for educationand 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 very matrilineal.
Children take the mother’ssurname, 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.
- A Khasi tradeswoman
“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
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 some 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
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.
Rape Scandal in Maghalaya
Recent Newspaper headlines refer to a series of horrific rapes in Meghalaya. The national press
took up the reports and they were reprinted round the world. Reporters portrayed Meghalaya
women as uncaring abour rape and that this proved the matrilineal culture was no good.
3 comments..First.. 800 cases in 10 years doesnt seem so many. Second.. Maybe rape gets
denounced more often in Meghalaya, in most parts of India if you admit that you were raped
it maycondemn you to social exclusion (no dowry, ‘damaged goods’ etc), poverty and
maybe death, so women stay quiet and this promotes impunity for rape culture, they get
away with it. Thirdly.. Meghalaya women say most of the rapists are outsiders..
Another Meghalaya cop sacked for rape – Zee News – India
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.”
In Sept 2013 a general strike in Meghalaya demanded the
‘ILP system’ to stop immigrantsfrom otrher parts of India
swamping the successful local cultures.