Upon a visit to a hospital ward in the Khasi region of North Eastern India, one is most likely to hear cheerful sounds of joy and applause over a girl’s birth, as opposed to disinterest and grief over a boy’s birth.
The Khasi region, holds more in store than what meets the eye. It houses some ancient traditions, characterized by high regard for women, especially in decision making processes. This stands out as a significant anomaly in a male dominated society. So much so, that the region is on the verge of becoming a prospective battleground, with the male section attempting to put an end to the existing matrilineality, once and for all.
Fighting for the ‘right’
Women are believed to stand right at the centre of the Khasi community. The youngest daughter inherits, children take their mother’s surname, and once married, men live in their mother-in-law’s home.
One of the major complaints made by the Khasi community is that only mothers or mother-in-laws look after the children. They believe that men are not even entitled to take part in family gatherings. That way, the husband is up against a whole clan of people: his wife, his mother-in-law and his children.
Analysing the reasons
When it comes to mapping the reasons behind the existing matrilineality in the region, there is an evident clash of opinions.
On one hand, Valentina Pakyntein, an anthropologist at Shillong University says the matrilineal system goes back to a time when Khasis had several partners and it was hard to determine the paternity of children.
On the other hand, members of the Synkhong Rympei Thymmai (SRT) deny this. SRT was a platform formed in 1990 to deal with issues faced by the male community and voice their discomforts. In response to Pakyntein’s claim, they said that their ancestors were away from home for too long fighting wars to be able to look after their families.
What appalls the Khasi men further is the fact that in the past, there have been further efforts towards the expansion of rights of Khasi women. Men’s rights have rarely come under scrutiny and debate.
Women disregard the whole debate and movement against their dominance. They don’t agree with the stand that society is biased towards men. Rather, they regard the prevailing system as a logical one.
They justify their position by claiming that parents can put faith in them and expect them to take their responsibility. This parental dependence is a strong evidence of the stark contrast between the Khasi community and the major part of the rest of the country. Because of this dependence, Khasi women also do not face parental pressure in terms of marriage, no matter what their age is.
Women often question, “Why bother with a husband when I’m able enough to sustain a large family on my own?”
Blurring the lines
These existing conditions tend to create a chaotic picture. More often than not, people tend to overlook the intricacies of the situation,and without delving deeper into the situation, blow the existing details out of proportion.
What is essential to understand is that there is matrilineality, and not matriarchy and the lines between the two shouldn’t be blurred. Khasi women have never held positions of power. All the chief government ministers are men and few women even sit on village councils. A survey about the “Social transition and status of women among the khasi tribe of Meghalaya” points out some unseen realities of the condition of women.
Even though Khasi women have rights over their children, this does not often translate into authority, which in most cases is shared between the mother’s brother/brother on the one side and by the father/husband on the other side, an arrangement obviously made to reconcile male authority.
The position of women in the Khasi society becomes clear when we examine the role of the youngest daughter, who is the traditional heir to the ancestral property of the household.
As the heir to the family property, the youngest daughter is not only expected to be closely guided by the counsel of the mother’s brother, who controls the property but is also obliged to look after her aged parents and other vulnerable members of the family.She needs to provide testimony to her moral conduct, the non-adherence to which will result in the taking away of her rights.
Hence, the role of maternal uncles is crucial in determining the ‘real’ sense of women’s position in the society.
The resilient fight of the SRT
Khasi men often talk about how their position in the society has been reduced to breeding bulls. Their activities are merely restricted to recreation, and they are far away from being given real responsibilities.
The male community has continuously been complaining about the lack of authority given to them.They voice their concerns through SRT and its activities.
Extract from an SRT flyer in Shillong
The SRT sends across its messages regularly through flyers and posters. They prefer to keep their identity concealed due to the fear of being ostracized by the community. With a strength of over 1000 members, SRT also has some female members, mostly from West Bengal, who fear that their sons might fall for Khasi women and give in to their control.
The SRT group believes in solving the ills of the Khasi community by supporting the transition from matriliny to patriliny. For catering to the Christian community, the SRT spokespersons use the Bible as their selling point.