Challenge to Khasi Pnar Matrilineal System

By HH Mohrmen

Certain pockets of the Khasi Pnar society question the relevance of the matrilineal family system that the majority of the tribal people in the state are following. The general criticism is that the family system that people follow is the cause of the disconcerting state of affairs in the community. In fact much of the wrong that is happening in the society is blamed on the matrilineal family system. People arrived at the conclusion by comparing matriliny with patriarchy and the recent NITI AYOG report which established that matrilineal system does not necessarily guarantee gender equality.

Blame on the matrilineal family system
Critics of the family system had indentified many elements in the system which they consider are threat to the jaidbynriew. 1. The one and principal cause for the downfall of the society are the inter-racial marriages particularly between a Hynñew Trep woman to a male from another race. However inter-racial marriages between Hynñew Trep male and non-Hynñew Trep female is permitted by performing a tradition call “ka tang jait.’ Ironically there however is no ‘tang jait’ tradition in the Pnar society. 2. Matrilineal system is not in favour of a male member of the society as his status is inferior to a woman. This is why he is irresponsible and have has a lackadaisical attitude towards his family it is alleged. He is also a non-entity in both his mother’s as well in his spouse’s house. 3. The Matrilineal system is also blamed for the increasing number of single-parent/mother families in the community. Again, only women and not men are blamed for the sad state of affairs. 4. People not doing well in business also blame the family system. It is alleged that businesses fail because inheritance passes from a mother to the daughter and hence businesses do not last beyond one generation. 5. Women have more powers than men because not only the lineage passes from a mother to the children but the family property also passes to the female, in particular the youngest daughter of the family.

Traditional concept of marriage in the society
Traditionally in the Pnar society marriage rituals proceed with the maternal uncle of the woman approaching the maternal uncle of the man to ask for his hand in marriage to the niece and vice versa. The tradition is called “ka li kyllad kurim” but love marriages were also prevalent in the past. It is also important to note that the idea that marriage is forever or that marriage are ‘till death do us part’ is an influence of the western culture. There is a tradition of divorce in the society called “ka e thnem/e chipiah or ka pylleit kurim” in the Pnar tradition or ka “pyllait san shyieng” in the Khasi tradition. And up to our grandmother’s generation, at least in my family, they married multiple times but the marriages were not polygamous.
Weddings were only for those who can afford them and were arranged according to “ka kyllad kurim”. It was then followed by “ka e ka synjat ka lator” engagement or betrothal and then the pen-ultimate ceremony is “ka lam ïutang” or the wedding. The majority of the marriages either follow the tradition of “pynche kurim” when the Kur (clan) of both sides of the family meet to legitimise the marriage but there is a large section also believes in co-habitation (a couple decide to live together)

The status of maternal uncle in the society
The foundation of the Hynñew Trep society is the clan and his/her life revolves around the clan which is led by the maternal uncle. In the matrilineal society the maternal uncle is the main functionary of the clan and he is responsible not only to guide but also to officiate as the priest of the family. He is responsible for performing the rites and passages of all the member of the Kur. The uncle is the head of the Kur but decision is always made in consultation with all the members of the family including the female members. The “i kmai ïung/ïungblai” the clan’s main house is at the same time the sanctuary where all the rites of passages are held and is the meeting place of the Kur. The question is how can a family be more democratic than this?

The growing number of single parent family
The main cause of this social conundrum is because ka Kur is not as close-knit as it used to be. It has ceased to be the social security on which a clan member can fall back in times of need. Ka Kur now exists as an umbrella organisation only. The idea of “ka longïng longsem” has changed from a collection of families which belongs to the same Kur (joint family) to a nuclear family. Divorce was prevalent in the past too but the Kur looked after its own. As pointed in previous articles, orphanages, old-age homes and homes for destitute women were unheard of in the past because the Kur took care of its own members. Till date there are very few Khasi Pnar beggars because it is a shame for the clan if one of their own has to beg to survive.

Success of a business is not on the family system
The matrilineal system is still thriving among the section of the society where people are still following the Niamtre religion. It is in such societies that the tradition where the maternal uncle is responsible for the Kur still prevails. In such Kur the family business also flourishes because the management of the business passes from the uncle to his nephew. On the other hand questions may also be asked if business is a guaranteed success in the patriarchal society. Businesses fail because of many factors but the matrilineal system is not one of them.

Gender equality in the society
There is no denying the fact that the status of a woman or a girl is much better in the matrilineal society than in other traditions. One of the factors is that lineage is taken from the mother; this however turns out to be a burden in the case of a single parent family. With regards to family property she is merely a custodian of the same and with growing population of landless families in the community; the tradition is of no use to them. By tradition, women have a very insignificant role in the function of the Dorbar Shnong, the Raid and the Hima. In the traditional religion she has a role in some aspects of the religion but mostly subordinate to her male counterpart. The status of women in Christianity is of no surprise either because it is oriented around patriarchy. Perhaps the NITI AYOG report is based on these factors hence it concluded that gender equality is still a distant dream in the society.

Is there a perfect family system?
It is argued that the matrilineal system is irrelevant now but are alternatives free from flaws? What is the status of a female member of the society in such a tradition? Is there no dowry system or favour for a boy child in the patriarchal society? Is it not true that there is huge gender inequalities in such a society? What about divorce rates? Is it not true that divorce rate is highest in the western culture which follows patriarchal society?
It is ironic that while we claim that we want to protect our identity but at the same time we want to do away with the only aspect of tradition that distinguishes us from the others. We want to protect ourselves but we are giving up on our culture and our tradition, and we want to follow the tradition of our adversaries. What is it that we are protecting? Are we not a confused lot?

Matrilineal system is not perfect
The matrilineal system may be an imperfect system but it is the only system which suits the jaidbynriew because it was their way of life since time immemorial. It is an intrinsic part of their unique tribal way of life and it connects them to every aspect of their lives and to nature.
What are we without the matrilineal system? It is the foundation of our relationship with each other. Without the matrilineal family system the clan system will also collapse and people’s understanding of relationships will also crumple. The cardinal principle of ‘tip kur tip kha’ will be redundant then.

Way forward
The next step forward is to accept changes and evolve with time. Here the respective Seng Kur (clan association) has a big role in taking the community forward. The effort should be to repair aspects which require mending and improve the existing system.
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