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Deconstructing notions of power: Are Khasis ready for a patrilineal change?

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Rukma Singh

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’s response

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.

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                                                            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.

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IMF: Empowering Women Is Smart Economics

IMF says, Getting more women into formal workforce is priority for India

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Ken Kang
Ken Kang. IANS

India must focus as a priority on ensuring that more women work in the formal sector as it continues with labour reforms, according to Ken Kang, the deputy director in International Monetary Fund (IMF) Asia Pacific Department.

While “in recent years India has made very impressive progress in reforms,” he said that “looking ahead there are important policy priorities” and listed three among them.

“One, is to continue improvements in product and labour market reforms with a focus on increasing formal female labour participation to improve the business environment, and reduce complex regulations, but also to address supply bottlenecks, particularly in the agricultural sector and distribution networks,” Kang said at a news conference on Friday in Washington.

As one of India’s major reform achievements, he mentioned the “introduction of flexible inflation targeting and of a statutory monetary policy which has helped to strengthen the monetary policy framework.”

Working woman
Working woman. Pixabay

The Reserve Bank of India Act was amended in 2016, to provide for a Monetary Policy Committee that decides on the interest rate required for achieving the inflation target set by the government in consultation with the bank.

The other achievements include the Goods and Services Tax (GST) and the “major recapitalisation plan for the public-sector banks in order to accelerate the work out of nonperforming loans, as well as made some important legal improvements through a new insolvency and bankruptcy law,” Kang said.

“We expect and hope that the reform momentum continues,” he added.

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“We are not saying that India’s structural reform speed will slow down because of elections,” Changyong Rhee, the IMF director of the Asia Pacific Department said.

“What we are saying is that the growth momentum and the structural reform momentum should continue despite the election period. So there is something misquoted,” he added.

On Thursday, IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde had said at a news conference on Thursday, according to the IMF transcript: “We have seen and we are seeing — I am not sure that we will be seeing in the next few months given the elections that are coming up — major reforms that we had recommended and advocated for a long time.”  IANS