Monday February 19, 2018
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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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It’s not what you wear, but the way you wear it

Men lack the enzyme which processes self-awareness, which is why we think we look good in Speedos

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A lot depends upon what we wear and how we carry it. Wikimedia Common
A lot depends upon what we wear and how we carry it. Wikimedia Common

Definition of being behind on the laundry: When you find yourself seriously considering wearing a Halloween costume to work.

I expected my wife to veto the idea, but she was okay with it, saying: “It’s not what you wear that counts, but whether you can carry it off.”

Mind you, this was a phone conversation and so she couldn’t see what I was wearing. In the event, going to work in a killer clown outfit was not as bad as it might have been, and the fake bloodstains on the costume proved advantageous. Fellow passengers quickly gave me a seat on the bus — actually, a whole block of seats.

Also Read: Get quirky with your shoes

The main (and possibly only) advantage of marriage for guys is that we are given full-time aides (“wives”) who generally prevent us going out looking too ridiculous. Men lack the enzyme which processes self-awareness, which is why we think we look good in Speedos.

Proof: In my true-crime file is a report about a criminal fugitive on the run in Japan who disguised himself in a girls’ sailor suit school uniform. Since he was a tall man with massive shoulders, he managed to evade detection for only minutes.

Definition of being behind on the laundry: When you find yourself seriously considering wearing a Halloween costume to work. Wikimedia Commons
Definition of being behind on the laundry: When you find yourself seriously considering wearing a Halloween costume to work. Wikimedia Commons

Another true story: Last year, a pair of bank robbers decided to dress as women to scope out a bank in Thomasville, Florida. The result was the opposite of what they expected: They became the centre of attention, of course.

It is really hard for men to dress convincingly as females as we lack the two main things that make a woman a woman — good taste, and the ability to walk with our feet clamped in instruments of torture known as “lady’s shoes”.

There’s one exception which proves my point. In November last year, the coach of the Thailand women’s kabaddi team was dismayed to find out that males were banned from attending women’s sports events in Iran, where his team was playing. So he wrapped his head in a female scarf and marched straight in.

Also Read: Why Do People Get Aggressive After Drinking?

He fooled nobody but correctly judged that the women would be too nice to throw him out. Smart guy.

Our UK correspondent shared a sad news item about a group of men who raised money for their local hospital by dressing as nurses and pushing a bed around town. The hospital refused to accept the cash as they said it was considered politically incorrect for men to dress as nurses these days.

It is really hard for men to dress convincingly as females as we lack the two main things that make a woman a woman. Wikimedia Commons
It is really hard for men to dress convincingly as females as we lack the two main things that make a woman a woman. Wikimedia Commons

This seems unfair, as I have seen marathon runners dressed as bananas, dinosaurs and Q-Tips without complaint from fruit sellers, palaeontologists or people who like to poke things in their ears.

But the political issues surrounding women’s clothes are complex. In 2011 someone organised a “slutwalk” in Canada. This involved scantily-clad females marching down the road with protest banners. When the Slutwalk arrived in Asia, the women were fully covered up and many of the marchers were male; so the event missed the point, a bit like the Animal Rights Barbecue that a friend of mine once tried to organise.

Also Read: 7 Unfailing Ways To Impress Your Lady Love & Swoon Her Off Her Feet

Anyway, like my wife says, it’s not what you wear but how you wear it. By the way, I look great in a Speedo. (IANS)

(Nury Vittachi is an Asia-based frequent traveller. Send ideas and comments via his Facebook page)