Northeast India has always been looked at with respect for having matrilineal societies. Such a society or group adheres to a kinship system in which ancestral descent is traced through maternal instead of paternal lines or when the children of a particular clan take on the name of their mother instead of their father. This is one significant aspect but it is not the whole picture. In this kind of society, it is the daughters who inherit properties from their mothers and the tradition favours women to have economic precedence over men. This does paint an extremely empowering picture of women in such a society that’s deeply ingrained in the Northeast but what’s the reality beneath the surface? Social activist and journalist, Patricia Mukhim debunks several misconceptions around the subject in her latest book Waiting for an Equal World: Gender in the Northeast.
Demystification of the matrilineal society
Mukhim, a staunch advocate of freedom of expression and gender rights, writes about the prominent tribes (Garo, Khasi and Jaintia) which form a crucial gendered narrative of the northeastern land’s history in her book. It focuses on the Khasi matrilineal society but also intersects with and touches upon larger issues of gender in the neighbouring states of India’s Northeast, all of which follow the patriarchal order of society. She says, “The matrilineal society has a patriarchal worldview because matriliny does not mean anything beyond lineage from the mother’s clan line but there are so many subversive aspects of the society that disempowers women like they being abandoned, divorced and not paid maintenance and the rise in the number of such women. Women not having enough means to look after themselves etc. are also the sad reality of a matrilineal society.
There are several people who romanticise matriliny which is what I want to demystify and to give them the real picture of this kind of society and the status of women in it. They don’t have decision-making powers nor in politics or in society because in the northeastern society, the women’s organisations which are always under traditional institutions is very male-centric. So, women really have no space to air their views or to influence any policy in their favour,” Mukhim spoke in detail with SheThePeople.TV about her book.
She gives a deeper understanding into the functioning of the matrilineal system of society and notes that in such a society, the right to property and the house lies with the youngest daughter. “She becomes responsible for taking care of her parents, unmarried siblings who continue to live in the house and divorced siblings who choose to come back to the house. However, the gender roles are mostly intact in terms of the breadwinner of the house. Here, the husband only earns the money but hands it over to the wife to run the house. Whoever else like the brother or the sisters who continue to live in the house and are working will give their earnings either to the mother or the youngest daughter.”
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Journalists can’t do quick stories on the matrilineal society
Mukhim says that the journalists and researchers who wish to do a ‘quick story’ on this kind of a society should understand that they cannot successfully show the various aspects of matriliny just by speaking to somebody for an hour. “They can only understand its underpinnings if they read beyond the headlines. For example a journalist will come and talk to a few people, go back and say this is a land where women are running houses while men are just ‘breeding bulls’. This is so not true as every decision within the families are made jointly,” she stresses.
#MeToo impact on North-east
The #MeToo movement also had an impact in the Northeast when it spread over the entire country last year in October. We asked her about the impact that she has witnessed in the post-MeToo times. “There is a lot of calling out happening in Northeast as well and people have become extremely vary of committing a crime like sexual harassment. Now with social media, everybody is empowered to raise their voice but the only setback is that one looks for a logical conclusion to such cases and one doesn’t see that happening,” responds Mukhim adding that organisations are proactively constituting Internal Complaint Committees (ICCs). But she points out that this is not a post-MeToo consequence.
Dire political representation of women
The political representation of women from the Northeast is a failed reality. In the recently concluded Lok Sabha elections the Northeast only had six women MP candidates from the seven sister states with no women contesting from Nagaland. Of these only two women won the election which is a very small number from such a large region. Shedding light on this she said, “At the moment it’s very tough for women to get into politics. Even when the amendment to include 33% women in Panchayati Raj came, Mizoram, Nagaland and Meghalaya were exempted because it was believed that we have traditional institutions but they are so male-centric. If women don’t have the opportunity to participate at the grassroots level where it’s easier to participate then it becomes very difficult at higher levels. Women who have got into politics or have won elections in the Northeast are those who are well-placed or who come from political families.”
What women entrepreneurs in the Northeast want?
She also spoke at length about why women in the region are failing to make their start-ups a success and the challenges they face. “There is not enough access to banking unless one is financially well-off or has collateral to give. We need micro-credit institutions in the Northeast who can hand-hold and help with book-keeping and help in other areas of the businesses at which women are not that strong. I believe these micro-credit institutions will go the last mile and will also aid them by providing step-by-step training to improve their start-ups, making sure that they are able to repay the loan and help them get an even bigger loan and then the women entrepreneurs can perhaps get an access to a bank loan. Our start-ups are very small scale and despite the fact that micro-credit is a bit expensive I still feel that they are much better for people to access.”
Speaking on the Mudra scheme, she revealed that it hasn’t reached the Northeast. “Only few women in the cities or town know about it but it hasn’t percolated to the villages.”
“The matrilineal society has a patriarchal worldview because matriliny does not mean anything beyond lineage from the mother’s clan line but there are so many subversive aspects of the society that disempowers women like women being abandoned, divorced and not paid maintenance and the rise in the number of such women.
In spite of everything what makes it worthwhile for women in the Northeast?
Talking about the silver-lining for the women in the Northeast, the author said, “Women there at least have social mobility and there is not much of a gender-based discrimination against them. Of course, the gender division of labour is sharp and same as other patriarchal societies but if a woman decides to go out and take up an economic activity, she is free to do that. In the Northeast women can move around freely at night and they don’t fear the pressure to conform. There is no social ostracisation of men and women wanting to mingle around in public which makes it a liberal society.”