Thursday, June 20, 2024

When Will the Matriarchs Crow?


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By Patricia Mukhim

Khasi women have grown up being told that they should not speak over men in any gathering. Tradition ordains that women are custodians of the domestic space (ki kam iing, kam iing) and therefore have no understanding of the world outside it hence they would not have the bandwidth to engage in ‘world affairs’ (ki kam pyrthei).
I would not be too far off the mark if I said that even in a much-trumpeted and often unfairly eulogized matrilineal society that is the subject of interest of overseas and national scholars, women by and large have pygmy-sized self-worth. If you ask them anything they will dither before they answer. After all they have been schooled to believe that a woman who speaks boldly is a ‘hen that crows’ – an abomination if there’s one. So each time one speaks to rural women out there toiling hard for two square meals, many as single parents, they will smile away their deep-seated insecurities and give answers that will just help them get away without saying much. I have prodded women about the candidates contesting elections in their constituencies and whether they have gone to those candidates with their specific problems? They gasp in disbelief. “How can we go to the candidate with our problems? Why would they listen to us? They are such busy people. And when they come to the village it is only to campaign for themselves. The Rangbah Shnong and other members of the dorbar are there to engage with the candidates. How can we women even go anywhere near the podium?” This is the story of our lives as women. Always in the background; always listening; never able to speak our minds for fear of being shouted down with ‘wat leh stad’ (‘don’t be over-smart).
It’s only in a women’s only forum that women are able to speak more freely but here they are speaking to each other and sharing their woes. Each one has some problems; some issues to resolve. It becomes an echo-chamber unless there is a leader who will take down notes and make sure that those grievances reach the right quarters for affirmative action. It is here that the idea of self-help groups (SHGs) comes as a ray of hope for women.
Last week the School of Languages and Cultural Communication and the Centre for Gender Equity and Diversity, Education and Research of the Martin Luther Christian University (MLCU) in collaboration with Film SouthAsia and Hri Institute, Kathmandu, Nepal held a two-day film screening and art exhibition on the theme – Challenging the Visual Depiction of Women and Violence in the Media in South Asia. As a member of the audience watching the documentaries – some with scenes that were raw and soul-searing such as the protests by women in Pakistan demanding more rights to their bodies and calling out the cruelties inflicted by the male members of their society, I must admit I had never seen such a spirited protest. Here were women who were accosted cheek by jowl by men who said they were violating the tenets of Islam by asking for the right to decide on their own rights and freedoms over their bodies. The women protestors, most of them young, articulate and educated would meet and strategize on how to go about their protests. They were a committed bunch that would not retrace their steps and go back into the dark crevices of a life controlled by the male. It was such a brave protest like nothing I have witnessed before.
Later in a conversation with others in the audience, I expressed my admiration for those women protestors in Pakistan who despite all odds and defying the mullahs came out to demand their rights to a gender equitable society. I also lamented that it is unfortunate that we don’t have such protests by women in Meghalaya. In fact, there isn’t a single robust women’s civil society group that will come out to the streets if need be to raise the banner of protest against all the adversities faced by women here; the growing cases of rape and sexual abuse; the barely working health care system in some of the unreached villages like Rasong to name one. The answer from the people around me was shattering. They said, “We in Meghalaya are so much better off. We don’t suffer the kind of domination or the atrocities that women in Pakistan do.” Oh really? So, we matriarchs of a matriliny are better off but how? Do we have a voice in governance? Do we have reproductive rights? Can women decide how many children to have? No way! Not now, not in the past. Reproductive rights are the exclusive rights of the educated, urban elite; not the poor woman hawker or the woman slogging in the field or the domestic help we use to lighten our burdens.
True there are NGOs dedicated to serving the cause of women but they won’t or can’t be caught organising a protest for they would lose whatever little support they get from government or some funding agencies. A protest should be a spontaneous response from a civil society group dedicated to women’s issues. Why do we not see such a civil society in Meghalaya? Why are all pressure groups led by male members? And this in a matrilineal society! Khasi women have yet to realise that voice is agency. Once they have spoken they empower themselves. We have been repeating ad-nauseum the words “women’s empowerment,” for decades now. What we don’t ask is who will empower women? Women’s empowerment means that power must be equitably shared between women and men in all spheres. I am using the word “equitably” and not equal because there is a perceptible difference between the two. Equality means each individual or group of people is given the same resources or opportunities. Equity recognizes that each person has different sets of attributes or a disadvantage. Hence any assistance must address the disadvantage by making use of their strengths. It means allocating the exact resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome. The reason why many schemes fail is because they adopt a ‘one size fits all’ model.
Coming back to the MLCU film festival, after the films were shown there followed a panel discussion on the theme of visual depiction of women and violence in media portrayal where a panelist teaching in North Eastern Hill University stated that there’s pushback from the students when any topic on violence against women is discussed. This was followed by a statement from a student who said she did not believe in feminism. Earlier that distraught student had shared how she was sexually abused at age 12 and how she had to relive her agony when her case went to court and the defence lawyer would cross question and confuse her with his intimidatory tactics. She seemed to have lost faith in the justice system too. She might not be the only one. And she comes from a matrilineal society.
One really doesn’t see how women in a matrilineal society are more privileged than their peers in a patriarchal society because patriarchal undertones and sometimes overtones operate in Khasi society too. The much touted, “women can own land” syndrome is now an urban legend. In the villages there is landlessness staring women in their faces.
Coming back to voice, as a woman editor one is always looking out for women writers to contribute their thoughts so one gets to know their minds and the breadth of understanding on issues but this is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Women’s voices can help deliver better governance and engender a more equitable world. When will women speak up and speak out boldly and when will they claim their space in this world where women are brainwashed to believe they hold up half the world? No, they don’t. It’s still a man’s world out there.
So the hen must crow and the unheard female voice must rise like the sphinx into a crescendo. Let more hens crow if that is needed to change this world into a more equitable place under the same sun. And let’s remember, that for us Khasis the sun is female.

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