Khasi society: matriliny, matriarchy or what?

Patricia Mukhim

There is a tendency by western scholars today to conflate the meaning of matriliny/matrilineality with matriarchy. According to the Oxford English Dictionary matriarchy is a form of social organization in which the mother or oldest female is the head of the family, and descent and relationship are reckoned through the female line. It also means government or rule by a woman or women. The there is the definition by James Peoples and Garrick Bailey which defines matriarchy as female dominance. Within the academic discipline of cultural anthropology matriarchy is a culture or community in which a family, society, organization is dominated by women. According to anthropologist William A Haviland matriarchy is rule by women. In fine a matriarchy is a society in which females, especially mothers, have the central roles of political leadership, moral authority and control of property.

A matrilineal society is defined as one in which descent is traced through the female line. Scholars like Peggy Sanday and Heide Abendroth Goettner have now suggested that matriliny needs to be redefined and the word matriarchy be used especially for contemporary matrilineal societies such as the Minangkabau of Sumatra islands. By extension the Khasi matrilineal society also appears to be listed amongst those that fa-it this paradigm. Hence the recent discourse during the International Terra Madre conference at NEHU titled, “Matriarchies as Societies of Peace,” managed to confuse many of us who have internalized our matrilineality and who enjoy no special powers other than that our children carry the mother’s clan name.   These scholars also believe that matriarchal societies existed on account of the hereditary nature of economic and social power through kinship lines. They feel therefore that in a matrilineal society all power would be channeled through women and that although women may not have retained all power and authority in such societies they would have been in a position to control and dispense power. Hence matriarchy is the correct nomenclature for such societies. But is that the correct position as far as Khasi society is concerned? And should we be defined by Eurocentric imaginations and conclusions from the societies they have studied? This is not to trivialize the great scholarship that Abendroth-Goettner or Peggy Sanday have invested in, and the kind of opprobrium that the former had to suffer on account of her single-minded pursuit into the study of matriarchies across the world. This is only to caution our own scholars to interrogate whether the Khasi society is a matriliny or a matriarchy or neither.

Going by legends the Khasis seem to place great emphasis on their umbilical tradition of having descended from women such as Ka Li Dohkha (a mermaid) who later married a human and gave birth to the Syiem Sutnga clan and Ka Pahsyntiew the daughter of U Lei Shyllong who emerged from a cave and was later captured by a man who married her. She went on to give birth to very good looking children, then disappeared again. But the tradition of respect for women seems to end just there. Women are seen as progenitors of the race. But the fact that both Ka Li Dohkha and Ka Pahsyntiew disappeared into their original habitats one in water and the other inside the cave after having given birth to children would suggest that they might have been unhappy with their earthly existence or the treatment meted out to them.

Monica N Laloo in her paper, “Political Structure of the Khasis: With special reference to the Nongthymmai Dorbar Pyllun,”says the folklorist traditions of Khasi-Jaintia such ‘Ka Li Dohkha and Ka Pah Syntiew,’ indicates that the origin of some clan and Syiem or chief of the Sutnga and of the Shillong Syiems respectively (Bareh, 1997: 44-68) was traced back in the past and the identity in essence is embodied in a woman. But there is nothing to suggest that women had any kind of control over resources within the family or outside it. Political control right from the early times was with the male. Hence when people carelessly point to Khasi society as being democratic they seem to conveniently forget that half the population (women) has no voice in that carefully constructed political system which is, till date, a male-centric system. The current controversy over the Village Administration Bill revolves around this issue. Although the Bill in English says every Khasi person who has attained the age of 18 years is a member of the Dorbar, the Khasi word used in the Bill to denote that person is ‘Rangbah’. Most of us understand the word ‘Rangbah’ to mean an adult male. Hence the word Rangbah Shnong for the Headman! There are some who try to defend the VAB by suggesting that Rangbah in the Bill means all adults. This attempt to play with words is misleading.

The irony of the Khasi matrilineal society is that on proper analysis women really have no power to decide things for themselves. They do not even have reproductive rights. My own research has shown that the average rural woman has no control over her body. Even if she is nutritionally deficient she still gets pregnant every year or every alternate year. The average family size in rural Meghalaya is between 7-8. Maternal Mortality Rate in here is 291 per one lakh live births. This is a very high figure second only to Assam at 398/100,000. And these figures may not even be correct since only those women figure who give birth in hospitals (institutional births) are tracked. MMR is calculated by tracking women who die during childbirth or in the first 42 days after they have given birth. The Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) is higher than in most other states at 49 per 1000 live births. All these suggest that women are at the fringes of the economic ladder and have poor access to health. They suffer anemia and malnutrition. The children suffer Vitamin A and D deficiencies.

There is therefore a huge disconnect between matriliny as it is perceived and romanticized by western scholars and how it actually pans out in Meghalaya. The female workforce participation is only 4% of the population, which is very low. This was the finding of the Mckinsey Global Institute’s study, “The Power of Parity: Advancing Women Equality in India, which was quoted by Maneka Gandhi in the Rajya Sabha when a question was raised by MP Wansuk Syiem about the status of women in Meghalaya. Yet the Report ironically states that Mizoram and Meghalaya score high points on gender equality at the workplace. MGI further states that gender inequality in India is high or extremely high on three dimensions — gender equality in work, legal protection and political voice, and physical security and autonomy — and medium to high on the fourth dimension of essential services and enablers of economic opportunity. On the basis of the above indicators one wonders how Meghalaya and a very patriarchal Mizoram have been touted as the states which score points on any of the indicators.

Statistics mined by such international consultants can often be very troubling because their questionnaires are not nuanced. You cannot get the same answers when questioning women in Uttar Pradesh as you would when interviewing a woman here. There is the question of ‘voice’ which is often muted and the manner in which the questionnaires are administered which is problematic.

On the whole it is very disconcerting for a matrilineal society when its women are quickly losing voice and hold over land. When the Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC) says that 76 % of rural Meghalaya is landless it means that women are landless since it is assumed that women own the land. I find it ironic that no one speaks about this rapid descent in women’s status and that the state does not have any specific intervention strategies to address this serious gap. Alas! All these troubling statistics did not find voice in the ITM discussions on matriliny/matriarchy since there was no woman on the dais to speak for herself.

That is the reality of matriliny in Meghalaya! Does it make any difference if you call this social system a matriliny or matriarchy?

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