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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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India Can Really Take An Ostrich Approach To The Condition Of Women?

A total of 548 global experts on women’s issues , 43 of them from India

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BJP Leader Asks Parents Of A Rape Victim To Express Gratitude To Them
Can India Really Take An Ostrich Approach To The Condition Of Women?. Flickr

-By Deepa Gahlot

You read with a mixture of alarm and scepticism, the poll report by the London-based Thomson Reuters Foundation that India is the most dangerous country in the world for women, beating Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

According to reports, a total of 548 global experts on women’s issues — 43 of them from India — were asked about risks faced by women in six areas: healthcare, access to economic resources and discrimination, customary practices, sexual violence, nonsexual violence, and human trafficking. And shockingly, India comes out as the worst!

We see women progressing in every field in India, but, there is also the increasing violence against women and young girls reported every day; not long ago, female tourists felt safe in India; but now, women travelling solo are constantly targeted. Everyday there are reports of the rapes and murders of minor girls, often accompanied by unimaginable torture and mutilation.

There has been outrage in India, and also holes punctured in the survey that has such a small number of respondents, but can we really take an ostrich approach to the condition of women? Even as education and healthcare improve for women — at least in metro cities — the contempt for women is socially and culturally ingrained in the Indian psyche. In a city like Mumbai considered progressive and relatively safe for women, the girl child is unwanted even by many educated and wealthy families. In spite of laws being in place, female foeticide and infanticide is rampant, to the extent that there are large territories where there are no girl children and brides for the men have to be ‘imported’ from other states.  As dowry murders and rapes rise, the more unwanted the girl child becomes.  The fact is that India’s gender ratio is deplorable.

And if the male child is valued over the girl child, he grows up believing that he is special and if he is thwarted in any way, he can resort to violence. In spite of education and exposure to progressive ideas, in the case of rape or sexual violence, the tendency to blame and shame the victim persists.

To give just one small example, in the West, accusations of sexual harassment resulted in united shunning of a man as powerful as Harvey Weinstein and many others in the wake of the #MeToo movement, that helped many women speak out about their experiences.

In India, Malayalam actor Dileep, who has been accused in the abduction and rape of an actress, and was boycotted by the Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes (AMMA), was recently reinstated. This caused shock and dismay among women in the film industry.

A statement by a group of over 150 women film practitioners says it like it is, “A body that is meant to represent artistes of the Malayalam movie industry showed complete disregard for its own member who is the victim of this gross crime. Even before the case has reached its conclusion, AMMA has chosen to validate a person accused of a very serious crime against a colleague. We condemn this cavalier attitude by artistes against women artistes who are working alongside them. There is misogyny and gender discrimination embedded in this action.

“We admired and supported the Women in Cinema Collective that was formed by women film artistes in Kerala in the aftermath of the abduction and molestation of a colleague, a top star in the industry. We applaud the WCC members who have walked out of AMMA to protest the chairman’s invitation to reinstate the accused. We pledge our continued support to the Women in Cinema Collective who are blazing a trail to battle sexism in the film industry.

“Cinema is an art form that can challenge deeply entrenched violence and discrimination in society. It is distressing to see an industry that stands amongst the best in the country and has even made a mark in world cinema choose to shy away from using their position and their medium responsibly at this important moment. Today, women form a significant part of the film and media industries, we reject any attempt at silencing us and making us invisible.”

The Gujarat elections have brought the BJP and the Congress in close contest with each other.
Indian women. VOA

The preference for male children has had some unexpected ramifications. In a working paper published by the American non-profit, National Bureau of Economic Research, by Northwestern University’s Seema Jayachandran and Harvard University’s Rohini Pande (quoted in Quartz Media), finds that stunting in Indian children could also be blamed on the cultural preference for sons.

“In India, on average, the first child — if he is a son — doesn’t suffer from stunting. But, if the first — and so the eldest — child of the family is a girl, she suffers from a height deficit. And, then, if the second child is a boy, and hence the eldest son of the family, he will not be stunted. This happens because of an unequal allocation of resources to the first child”.

According to the report, “When Jayachandran and Pande compared India and Africa results through this lens, they found that the Indian first and eldest son tends to be taller than an African firstborn. If the eldest child of the family is a girl, and a son is born next, the son will still be taller in India than Africa. For girls, however, the India-Africa height deficit is large. It is the largest for daughters with no older brothers, probably because repeated attempts to have a son takes a beating on the growth of the girls.”

Also read: Has Legal Framework Turned a Blind Eye towards Under-representation of Women in Indian Politics?

In spite of all the Beti Padhao, Beti Bachao rhetoric, the required shift in the male-centric attitude towards a more egalitarian one is simply not happening; or, it is a case of one step forward, two steps backward. The Thomson Reuters Foundation report may be unfair and skewed, but being known as the rape capital of the world does nothing to improve the image of India in the world or even in its own eyes. (IANS)