Exclusion of Khasi women from the Dorbar


                                                                                    By Fabian Lyngdoh

       The ‘dorbar’ is a central concept in the Khasi political system. It is conceived of as, “ka lympung ka duwan(gathering at the altar) or ka pyndem ka duwan (counselling at the altar). The Khasis consider the dorbar, and the place where it is conducted as sacred. A dorbar where important legislative or judicial matters are transacted is sometimes called ka dorbar-blei(spiritual council). The sitting of the dorbar is considered legitimately constituted only when the syiem, the lyngdoh or the basan have invoked the presence of God, and the gods and goddesses for witness and guidance. The resolutions of the dorbar duly constituted are also considered sacred because they had been witnessed by the presence of God and the gods and goddesses.

     There are two reasons why Khasi women were disallowed to attend a dorbar in the past. The first reason had been discussed in my article, ‘When the hen crows’, (ST. September 3, 2014). The basic political institution among the Khasis had been the dorbar-kur (clan council). In the dorbar-kur all interests of the clan, especially the interests of the women are thoroughly discussed, and the resolutions passed in the dorbar-kur shall be pressed in the State dorbar by the uncles, with the welfare and interests of their mothers, sisters and nieces constantly in their minds. In principle, it is not that Khasi women were disallowed to attend a public dorbar, but because it was felt unnecessary as it was all for their own interests only that their uncles were attending the public dorbar. So if a woman attends and speaks for herself in a public dorbar, it would be an insult or an embarrassment to her brothers and uncles who are there to take care of her interests.

       The second reason why Khasi women were debarred from public dorbar is because the elders who conducted the dorbar always invoked not only God Almighty, but also the presence of other spiritual beings, gods and goddesses, or the state deities and even the spirits of the dead, according to the subject matter of the dorbar, to stand witness and record accounts of the proceedings and covenants that the participants in the dorbar were entering into. Therefore the Khasi traditional dorbar was believed to be charged by the presence of spirits, to which a man would not like his sisters or nieces to be exposed to. The women carry in their persons the wombs which stand guarantee for the kur’s continuing existence from generation to generation. The womb which every kur member is carrying in her person, is called, “ka jar-ksiar Iawbei” (the golden container of the ancestress). This golden container of the ancestress must be protected at all cost from being tarnished by human beings or by spirits. It was considered unfortunate if a woman in the fullness of youth or in pregnancy were to be compelled by circumstances to appear before a dorbar which is charged by the presence of spirits. In modern language, it may imply that women folk should not be unnecessarily subjected to any ‘occult radiation’. That is why the dorbar where men and spirits are mingled in a charged atmosphere was considered a male affair. This spiritually charged atmosphere puts the participants into a temporary supra-sensory realm which must always be dissolved at the end of the dorbar so that men can safely return to the ordinary human realm. A priest or any person who invokes the presence of the spirits for any purpose would always conclude the rites with these words, “te tang katta, la wai mo ka dorbar ka sorbar” (just so much for now, the dorbar is prorogued). With these words, the spirits depart and the charged atmosphere is dissolved and men can return to ordinary human relationships. It might be on this basis that some Khasi Christian priests end their prayers with these words, “sngap katta, rai katta” (hear to that extent, and grant to that extent).

       In some state religious rituals where the presence of women is necessary, women who are past the reproductive age or old women were usually appointed to take part in the rituals; they should always be from ka kpoh (lineage) which holds ‘ka sad ka sunon’. In the dorbar-kur on the other hand, no gods or goddesses were invoked to be present except God Almighty and the spirits of ka Iawbei (ancestress) and u Suidnia (first maternal uncle) of the kur. That is why in the dorbar-kur women were not only allowed to participate, but their presence is necessary to constitute a spiritually charged atmosphere for the spirit of ka Iawbei to make her presence.

     These principles might have been sociologically legitimate in the past. But today, these grounds for exclusion of women from the dorbar are no longer relevant. The spirits of ka Iawbei and u Suidnia are no more religiously invoked in the dorbar-kur. The traditional functionaries in the raid or hima generally exercise power for their own individual interests and their answerability to the kur or the female clan members has now become negligible. The dorbar-shnong has metamorphosed into a new grass roots governance institution built upon precepts of the past, and evolving out of the amalgamation of the Khasi clan-based democracy and the modern popular democracy. The role of the kur in the dorbar-shnong today is totally absent because it is no longer based on clan representation but open to all the resident male adults of the village. Men today attend the dorbar-shnong not on behalf of their mothers, sisters or nieces, but for their own interests and on behalf of their families of wives and children. That is not the traditional principle on which Khasi men are supposed to attend a dorbar, or for which Khasi women were debarred from attending it.

At the present stage of its evolution, the dorbar-shnong is still undemocratic even for the Khasi community as women are excluded from its affairs. It is often asserted that only male adults are entitled to participate in a Khasi dorbar. But that clause is incomplete. The complete clause is, ‘only male adults who represent the kur, and on behalf of the women folk are entitled to participate in the dorbar’. A Khasi man has no right to participate in a traditional dorbar if he has no female clan members to advocate for. But today, a rogue (hati-sawkuna) who represents neither sister nor wife but himself alone, has a right to participate in the dorbar-shnong just because he is a male adult, while a single mother who has no uncle to advocate for her interests, has no right to represent herself and her children in the dorbar. This is traditionally flawed as well as democratically unjust. Furthermore, God or other spiritual beings are no longer religiously invoked to be present in the dorbar of the hima, the raid or the shnong, as all proceedings and covenants of the dorbar are today recorded in writings. So, the idea of protecting women from ‘occult radiation’ becomes a myth. Therefore today the exclusion of women from the dorbar on this count too is baseless.

     In the past, women were forbidden to participate in a public dorbar, firstly, because it was felt unnecessary as they were well represented by the uncles as advocates. Secondly, it was believed that women should not be unnecessarily exposed to embarrassing and harmful situations entailed in public affairs. With these noble objectives, we may at least consider the dorbar as just, if not sacred. But today, only ungrounded sense of custom sanctity, laced with gender superiority complex, prevails to debar women from participating in public affairs. There is no satisfactory answer why women should be excluded from public dorbar today. The only bland reason given is simply that the presence and participation of women in a public dorbar is against the custom. Since the link between the matrilineal kur system and the dorbar is lost, and men are no longer representatives of the kur that stands for women’s welfare, restriction of women’s participation in public affairs has no more traditional ground of justice. Hence it becomes gender discrimination which must be redressed through the Acts of the District Council to fit in line with the tenets of modern democratic society.