- Zinara Rathnaik
On my travels to different parts of the Indian mainland, especially in small towns and villages in the north, I rarely encountered a woman running a shop or selling goods in markets.
And when I was sitting in restaurants in Uttar Pradesh, I watched men making flatbreads and mashing vegetables to make curry sauce, serving them to male customers. And I was sitting on the trains between Calcutta and Garchabur, surrounded by male passengers. The absence of women was evident in most public places.
But the situation is different in the state of Meghalaya in northeastern India. At Yodo Market in the state capital Shillong, which is one of the oldest and largest markets in the region, the market streets are packed with women, who sell vegetables, cut meat and handicrafts. Older women roam the corridors of the market to oversee trade and order the men who work for them to carry bags of fresh vegetables and fruits.
I visited Meghalaya five times before the pandemic, and I noticed that across the state, women are not only abundant in public spaces, but also dominated by them. This may be attributed to the fact that the Khasi community, which is the largest ethnic group in the state, is the last matriarchal community in the world, as the child is attributed to the mother, the husband moves to live in his wife’s house, and the family inheritance passes from the mother to the youngest daughter.
As for the origins of the Khasi community, there are many theories, the most widely circulated in the state, that the Khasi community is descended from seven sacred clans. Hamlet Barih, the Indian author and historian in the 1967 book History and Culture of the Khasi Tribe, argued that the tribe’s origins date back to the Austro-ethnic groups in Southeast Asia that descended from the Mon Khmer language-speaking groups in remote Burmese forests. There is evidence to prove that the “Khasi” language spoken by members of the tribe is similar to the dialects of Mon Khmer, although no one knows when the Khasi community migrated to the mountains and foothills of northeastern India.
Most of the Khasi tribe members today live in the state of Meghalaya, which became an independent state in its own right in 1972. In the midst of the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971, many families of the Khasi tribe were torn apart and their members now live in Bangladesh. A large proportion of the tribe also lives in the neighboring Indian state of Assam.
Amina Noora Basah, a historian of the Khasi tribe who lectures at Northeastern Hill University in Shillong, says the heritage of the Khasi people is verbal. According to the oral account, the Khasi society was a patriarchal society in the beginning.
Men of the Khasi tribe, when conflicts broke out over land ownership with other tribes, would go to the plains to fight. In the midst of these battles, some men died and others settled on the plains. Women abandoned by their husbands or widowed, remarried or related, and tribe members often found it difficult to determine a child’s lineage.
Basah says, “Society used to describe these children as” illegal “, but our grandfathers deplored the accusation of women and children, and decided to attribute all children to their mothers only.
The Khasi community shares many characteristics with the few matriarchal societies around the world, including that wealth and property pass from the mother to her daughters, and the children belong to the mother’s line and belong to their mother’s clans.
The Khasi community lives in closely related families or clans. Children carry their mothers’ family names, which is why the daughters are guaranteed to keep the clan’s name. Girls in the Khasi community are free to either live in the family home or move to another house, with the exception of the youngest daughter, who becomes the guardian of the family’s property and does not leave the house even after her marriage. She takes care of her parents and becomes the head of the family after the death of her mother.
In the town of Terna, 65 km from Shillong, Loret Sukhalit, the younger sister in a family of the Khasi community, lives with her husband in her mother’s house. Although Sukhlit will inherit her mother’s home after her death, her brother, Edelbert, is the patron of the family. Edilbert, by virtue of being the maternal uncle of the children, takes care of his sister and her family’s livelihood.
Edelbert, who works as a school principal in Terna, lives far from his family, as is customary in the Khasi community. The woman in this society does not live in the husband’s house at all. Rather, the husband moves to live with her in her home. Some men now live away from their wives and children, especially if the wife is traveling for work.
“My wife and children live in Shillong, and I visit them every now and then, but I am also obligated to take care of my sister and my mother,” Edelbert says. Edelbert decided, in recent years, to convert part of his mother’s house into a hostel for travelers to obtain additional income to support his sister’s family.
On the role of the uncle in Khasi society, Basah says: “The uncle is the guardian of the family, and he controls the distribution and management of the inheritance, and he does not make any decision in the family without his prior consent.”
In the past, fathers did not contribute to spending on their wives or children, because they provided for their sisters and their parents. “The father used to return to his wife’s house late at night, and in the morning he worked in his mother’s fields,” Basah says.
Under British colonialism and the spread of missionary education, some members of the Khasi community left their hometowns in search of work. The authority of the uncle declined with the emergence of families in their contemporary concept consisting of two married couples and children, and the father in some Christian families in the cities now became the head of the family, although members of the Khasi community in the villages still follow the matriarchal system.
“Meghalaya is a matriarchal society, but it bears some features of patriarchal societies,” Basah says, noting that women in matriarchal societies take charge of matters in society and government.
Nevertheless, there are distinct cultural differences between the Khasi community and the male-dominated societies of India. While women are usually exposed on the streets of India to pitfalls and other forms of harassment, I have never been subjected to any form of sexual harassment in Meghalaya. And strangers did not try to woo me to force me to talk to them, but they would help me if I got lost and asked for help.
And when I took overcrowded taxis in Shillong with male passengers from the country, no one had ever violated my privacy, and everyone was keen on my comfort. Women here, unlike their counterparts in other remote areas, lead independent lives. The woman who hosted me to stay with her in the village of Mausinram, which is one of the most rainy areas in the world, is a single young woman who is close to forty and lives alone, and this is a ban in all parts of India.
While people in India always asked me if my parents would not object to me traveling alone, no one ever asked me this question in Meghalaya.
“Men in Khasi society respect women rather than arrogate them,” says Dariba Lindem, a writer from the Khasi community who lives in Mumbai. Women in Khasi society do not face the pressures faced by their peers in most parts of India to marry someone chosen by their family.
“There is no misogyny in Meghalaya, and the population may prefer to ignore the voices of women rather than silence them, as is the case in all parts of India. Their joy at having girls is no less than their joy at having boys,” says Lindem.
Patricia Mukhim, activist and editor for the English-language Shillong Times, says that aspects of patriarchy are evident in all aspects of life across India, from male decision-making to women’s absence from political, academic and even commercial space.
While girls in India face many obstacles that prevent them from studying and working, Mukhim says that girls in the Khasi community enjoy greater social freedom and there is no ceiling to their economic ambitions.
I remembered an elderly woman I met in Yodoh who was running a wholesale vegetable market, and told me that she had separated from her husband and decided to raise her children on her own while selling vegetables.
When I asked her about the reason, she said, “He was not able to provide for our livelihood, and I did not need to support him, and that is why I asked him to leave the house,” indicating that she was related to more than one man after him. By virtue of being the youngest daughter in her family, she has now become the custodian of the family’s property and oversees an entire team of male and female merchants.
More recently, however, the migration of members of the Khasi community to the cities and their distance from their close-knit clans has imposed additional burdens on mothers. “According to the matriarchal system, men are not obligated to support their children after they leave town. The number of female breadwinners has increased in Meghalaya. In the past families used to spend on mothers who were abandoned by their husbands, but now the size of families has decreased and mothers have found no escape from dependence on them,” says Mukhim themselves”.
On the other hand, some men launched campaigns to demand change. And one of the institutions calling for something similar in the modern era to the “liberation of men”, is fighting a battle for the end of the patriarchal system. “We do not want to strip women of their powers and rights, we just want to have a status equal to that of women,” one of her members told the BBC news channel recently.
Mushaim attributes the men’s resentment to the fact that “their children are attributed to their mothers, and they feel that they do not play an important role in their lives. The participants in these campaigns believe that men do not feel safe in their wives ‘homes or in the homes of their parents that they left to live in their wives’ homes.”
Bassah commented that the supporters of the abolition of the matriarchy represent only a minority of society, and she believes that society is going through a transitional stage. “Some families now have equal inheritance between males and females,” she says. “Perhaps the youngest daughter gets the largest share by virtue of the fact that she is responsible for caring for her elderly parents.”
Basah, as well as most of the people of Meghalaya, believe that cultural customs associated with parentage are so ingrained in the lives of members of the Khasi community that they will last for decades.