Men in India’s matrilineal Khasi society demand more rights

ASIA’S MATRILINEAL SOCIETIES WHERE WOMEN RULE – The tribal Khasi community in India’s northeast is famed for its matrilineal heritage. But men are increasingly complaining that the tradition has left them neglected and devoid of motivation.

In India’s northeastern Meghalaya state, the Khasishave been considered the best example of a society where women call the shots. In a state of around 3 million people, the Khasis constitute nearly 35% of the population and together with the Jaintiaand Garo tribes follow the matrilineal tradition.

In other words, in Khasitradition, the family name and ancestral property are passed through the female line of descent, Margaret Lyngdoh, researcher at the Department of Estonian and Comparative Folklore, University of Tartu in Estonia, told DW.

A Khasi man working on a farm in Meghalaya state

Lyngdoh, who is herself a Khasi, said that the tribal conception of clan and kinship had mythical origins in the past, when men had to go to battle and women were left to look after the household and the clan.

“Inheritance is organized so the youngest daughter becomes the custodian of ancestral property. Originally this did not mean that she can sell it or dispose of it because she owns it. It simply means that she is the custodian of clan heritage,” Lyngdoh explained. “Inheritance can consist of land, gold, or coral ornaments, precious clothing, and even traditionally responsibilities towards clan ancestors.”

In a sense, women rule the roost in Meghalaya. Often, they are heads of families and take on leadership roles even in the public sphere and in many cases, also support their families financially.

Mosuo Frauen China (picture alliance/dpa/L. Xianbiao)
Equal partners – Matrilineal societies are generally viewed as those where households are headed by women and lineage is traced through the mother. Furthermore, property is owned and passed on from mother to daughter and husbands move into their wives’ homes upon marriage. But men deal with political or societal decisions. They regard such arrangements as a balanced and equal division of power.

Indonesien traditionelles Kuhrennen Frauen Minangkabau (Getty Images/R.Pudyanto)
The Minangkabau (Indonesia) – Numbering four million, the Minangkabau is the world’s largest known matrilineal society today. While traditionally animist, and later influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism, many of them have now also embraced Islam. They maintain that their matrilineal way of life is in line with the Koran, which they say does not preclude women from owning property or having a say in community decisions.

Mosuo Frau China (picture alliance/dpa/M.Hongmin)
The Mosuo (China) – The Mosuo live in large households headed by a matriarch. They have no concept of “husband” or “father.” They have “walking marriages,” where men can visit women and spend the night, but don’t live together. Children born of these marriages are raised in their mothers’ households. Biological fathers hardly play a role in rearing their offspring, as these men live in their own matriarchal homes.

Bildergalerie Porträt Meghalaya - Schottland des Ostens (DW/Bijoyeta Das)
The Khasi (India) – For Khasis, the birth of a daughter is cause for celebration, while that of a son is a simple affair. Usually, the youngest daughter of the family inherits all ancestral property. If a couple does not have a daughter, they adopt one and transfer their property to her. These matrilineal traits have left many Khasi men grumbling and establishing societies to protect their rights.

Bildergalerie Matrilinearität Garo Nepal Indien (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
The Garo (India) – The Garo bear their mothers’ titles, and the youngest daughter inherits property from her mother. Previously, upon reaching puberty, sons left their parents’ homes and were trained in the village bachelor dormitory. But with Christianity having influenced modern Garo culture, such practices are now uncommon, with modern Garo parents granting their children equal care and rights.

Cham Bak Community Kambodscha (Getty Images/T.Chhin Sothy)
The Cham (Southeast Asia) – Spread across countries like Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand, the Cham too have followed the usual patterns of a matrilineal system: the family name and property passes among females. Girls also have the freedom to choose their husbands. Usually, the girl’s parents approach the boy for his hand.  And married men usually go to live in with their wives’ families.

Khasi Ureinwohner aus Meghalaya Indien (FINDLAY KEMBER/AFP/Getty Images)
Out with the old ways? – But matrilineal practices of these societies are undergoing a transformation, propelled by increasing exposure to other ways of life and growing opposition from some of their men against traditional customs and norms.

‘Women everywhere’

For many men, however, the matrilineal tradition is a heavy cross to bear. “Women are everywhere, in the bazaars, at the government offices,” Keith Pariat, a former president of the men’s rights group Synkhong Rympei Thymmai(SRT) lamented.

The SRT, which in English literally means “a wedge that stabilizes the shaking home,” traces its roots to a similar organization formed in the 1960s, when a group of tribal elders, which even included doctors and teachers, realized that the male members of their community were completely lost. They found that it was the social customs of the Khasis, especially its matrilineal practices, which were bringing them down, Pariat said, admitting that this explanation is, at best, only a theory.

The matrilineal traditions of the Khasi are also the exact opposite of the patriarchal customs practiced elsewhere in India.

Read more: Indian matchmaking fraught with sexism, class and caste issues

If a Khasi man marries the youngest daughter of a family, he is expected to move in and stay at his in-law’s place and with his wife’s extended family members. Pariat believes this is one reason why many families don’t invest much in their male children; they feel that the boys will eventually take wealth away to their wives’ homes.

At his wife’s place, the man has little say because his wife’s maternal uncle and other male relatives run the show.

Furthermore, the man does not have any rights over the children, who get their mother’s name and belong to her clan.

If he finds himself in trouble and in need of help, he can only turn to his sister, who as the traditional custodian of the family is supposed to look after him. Pariat is irked by the tradition. “If I fall into problems, my youngest sister, who has inherited the ancestral property… has the duty to take care of me,” Pariat said, adding: “If I’ve been married and have children and suddenly there’s a break up in the marriage, would I like to go back to my younger sister and live with her in the parental house?”

Pariat’s sister has married a non-Khasi man and lives outside India. “Would I feel comfortable in going and living with my brother-in-law? My brother-in-law wouldn’t like that. It’s impractical.”

More power to men?

Nevertheless, responsibility is a foreign word for the Khasiman: “The man feels that … he is a free bird and he can do what he wants,” Pariat says, adding that this leads men to a wayward life of drugs, alcohol and women. “He’s married and when he sees another good-looking girl somewhere, he’ll move towards her, get children from her too and he can leave them because the children are taken care of by the clan.”

While many men might consider this a dream life, the image of the local wastrel has resulted in Khasi women rejecting men from their community and marrying more eligible bachelors from outside. For people like Keith Pariat, whose grandmother was British, this not only means a danger to the ethnic purity of the Khasis, it also poses a threat to their way of life in an ecologically and culturally fragile environment that faces constant onslaught, culturally and economically.

Essentially, protecting the Khasiculture and its way of life and motivating men to take charge seem to have emerged as two major goals of the mens’ rights campaign. The group’s 5,000-odd members, including around 50 women, are now advocating for changing inheritance laws and rules for passing on the father’s family name to the children.

The facade of women’s emancipation

Women’s rights activists in Meghalaya, meanwhile, criticize the idolization of Khasi society, especially its matrilineal practices and the way the community brings up its girls to lead. Eminent journalist and activist, Patricia Mukhim, in an academic paper called “Khasi-Pnar matriliny: Reclaiming lost spaces” describes the lack of representation of Khasi women in politics and how women are dissuaded from having political opinions because it is considered improper.

The very tradition of women being in charge of their own children has led to a high number of single Khasi mothers who are struggling to make ends meet, because modern life has severed many traditional ties.

Several activists have also pointed to the increasing incidence of rape in Meghalaya, a surprising occurrence in a state where women are supposed to call the shots.

Women in Khasisociety “do not have the upper hand,” Lyngdoh says. “They never have. In political and administrative governance, they have no role. They are in charge of bringing up children, they create the clan and are responsible for furthering it. Men govern. They make political decisions and provide for their families. Women have their place around the hearth in a home. This is their traditional role.”

Deutsche Welle

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