Meghalaya, its matrilineal society and the intruding elements of patriarchy

The legal implementation of Meghalayan traditional ethos is getting harder day by day

Indra Shekhar Singh September 17, 2022 16:24:12 IST
Meghalaya, its matrilineal society and the intruding elements of patriarchy

The Khasis, Garos and the Jaintias follow matrilineal traditions. Image courtesy Indra Shekhar Singh

Being brought up in north India doesn’t give one many options, each day we read about numerous sexual violence cases against women. Although we go by the patriarchal head – the father, the brother and the husband as the protector and the first-and-last-word on almost any issue. “Beta, papa is right”, “listen to your brother”, et al, yet our society apparently fails to protect women and girls from criminals. The two Dalit girls hanged in Lakhimpur Kheri is another ghastly example of our collective failure.

Overburdened and overwhelmed by this system, I longed for a different model. Now the modern Western hyper-feminist or hyper-feminity model was easy to fall for, but soon one realises that they are as toxic as hyper-masculinity and “men-bashing” & “man-hate” is trendy but not the solution. It may even fuel another problem. So I moved East into the abode of the clouds — Meghalaya, where indigenous matrilineal traditions still bond society. For the first time, I was in a Wo-men’s world, or at least I thought so.

Meghalaya is home to three major tribes namely Garo, Khasi and Jaintias (and some minor tribes too). They inhabit large areas of the state and give the region its name and cultural identity. Meghalaya’s culture, unlike North India, is matrilineal meaning that from surnames to property all is passed from mother to daughter. This tradition is so resilient that even British colonisation and the spread of Western religion, couldn’t erode the Meghalayan ways. Today, countless people identify as Khasi and as Christians but haven’t let go of their indigenous beliefs, despite them being contrary to conservative Christian doctrines.

Meghalaya its matrilineal society and the intruding elements of patriarchy

The matrilineal society set up in Meghalaya has its own challenges but it is countering it well. Image courtesy Indra Shekhar Singh

I travelled to Meghalaya, seeking to understand how such a society functioned.

Travelling from village to village I encountered a fascinating way of living. In contrast to my North Indian culture, women were bold, confident and most times had more say than men. Women spearheaded most agricultural and social initiatives and most land was under their name too. Unlike many other mountain communities in India, alcohol consumption was very low and sexual violence was against women was lesser compared to North India, but slowly these numbers were rising.

In Meghalaya, the men generally move into their wives’ family home. Like in the rest of India, arranged marriages are still common although mobile phones have started to change how courtship happens. Traditionally the communities have their harvest and other ritual dances, which become the meeting places for the young.

Courtship customs also played an important role and for example in Garo Hills the community has devised a brilliant system involving open consent and courtship gifts. In many parts of Garo hills, the women choose the husband by giving the potential suitor a pumpkin.  If the man likes the woman and is interested in marriage, then he accepts the pumpkin. After this stage, the brothers and family of the woman take the man to be married to the woman. At this point, if the man refuses to marry, the honour of the woman’s family has been threatened and they might forcefully abduct the man. The latter part definitely reminded me of the movie “Antardwand” depicting the tradition of abducting eligible men for forceful marriage in Bihar.

But when it comes to traditional property division, Meghalaya was far from Bihar as the youngest daughter inherits all the property. The Meghalayan logic stumps patriarchy in one blow. This is a unique way of supporting younger women. But Meghalaya’s most mature facet were the marital relations. Most men with Khasi wives, either lived with their in-laws or separately, but rarely with their own parents. For them it was just the way of life.

Being a mainland Indian, I wondered how the power dynamics worked in this setting. Did the husbands live meekly? Most men laughed hearing this. The Meghalayan society exhibited a high level of social intelligence. The process of assimilation of sons-in-law was done in a very pragmatic way to ensure safety and freedom for women as a priority. There was no dowry of course, and marriage as an institution was quite balanced and aligned with the traditional duties of both genders. In Jaintia hills, I heard of the most ideal marriage scenario, where the husband only goes to the wife’s house at night and has to leave for his mother’s house in the morning. All day the husband takes care of his family and the wife hers.

Since Christianity first spread to Meghalaya with the British, divorce has become taboo.  Before, however, people in the community narrated that it had been easy and socially acceptable. There are still many instances when the woman’s parents disliked the man and decided to call off the marriage. The man then goes back and in case of personal difference, the man has to only make one social announcement in the village and then leave. Women’s honour remained intact and as the property and household belonged to the women, she was always secure.

Speaking with community members, I began to understand how different social and sexual norms are. A few times a year, the community participates in a special dance. Children are not allowed to attend and the dance goes on all night, during which men and women – married and unmarried – go with anyone they please. Come the morning, men and women return to their spouses again. I was pleasantly surprised at this custom, which provides for sexual catharsis and an outlet for repressed sexual feelings. These, to my eyes and ears, seemed like an ideal and unrepressed society with women’s will at the helm of things. One wondered what would Freud think of this. Perhaps an antithesis of the West, where an early culture that abhors repression has ritually created conduits for purging collective anxieties and desires.

Now having spent many days roaming the Meghalayan countryside, it was time to hit Shillong and hear what the urban folk thought. The first question was of course on domestic violence as it is more prevalent in urban areas than rural ones. Given the matrilineal nature, I hoped women suffered lesser here. But perhaps I was wrong yet again. Domestic violence against women was rampant even in a matrilineal society. It took many conversations and time to comprehend how a woman can be beaten by her husband in the wife’s home, especially when the wife’s parents live in the next room. The answer shocked me – it’s “the couple’s business”, and usually people don’t want to interfere. But overall domestic violence against women was not as common as in North India, but nevertheless a growing trend especially in the cities.

Meghalaya its matrilineal society and the intruding elements of patriarchy

Life may not be as easy for women as it is presumed from outside in a matrilineal society and there are rising instances of domestic violence and crime against women. Image courtesy Indra Shekhar Singh

This change came with the modern ethos of the urban centres. Due to the influx of migrants and the foreign ethos of patriarchy, many people are also trying to walk away from the tradition. Many Khasi and indigenous women and men are marrying outside their communities and conform to the norms of their spouse’s families. Moving away from the traditional property norms, men and other siblings are also given a fair share. Naturally, Indian laws favour property for men and is bias towards men. The legal implementation of Meghalayan traditional ethos is getting harder day by day.

After two weeks in Meghalaya, I felt that I had only scratched the surface. To sum it all up, I spoke with older and younger men. They would often joke, “We have nothing, we start from scratch and don’t even get our inheritance, would people in Delhi believe this?” Perhaps people in Delhi, Mumbai or London won’t believe this system, but I had developed my sympathies for it. It served as a different model for existence, one in which society was fairer to both sexes. For men, it provided freedom and women security and comfort. I left with the hope that maybe the rest of us could learn a little from Meghalaya.

The writer is an independent agri-policy analyst, writer and agri-talks show host. He was also the former director, Policy and Outreach, NSAI. Tweets at @indrassingh. Views expressed are personal.

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