Friday, 13 April 2018

The Last Surviving Matriliny in Meghalaya

When I was young and careless, I had performed in a skit where the head of the family: a gentleman sees a dream in which some people have come to choose his son as a groom for their daughter. All the roles of a patriarchal Indian family are reversed as the son has to undergo a thorough interview where the bride checks his culinary skills, his sewing and knitting skills and also his vital stats. The son is made to wear the mangalsutra and bid adieu after marriage by the parents. 

In most parts of India, men outnumber women on the streets, in the offices and social gatherings too. Generally men serve in restaurants, sell items on roads/shops and generally dominate the social fabric. Women are a lot lesser to find roaming on roads and tend to move around in small protective groups. Over the years India has kept its staunchly patriarchal attitude due to which sons are preferred over daughters. The main reason being sons stay connected with the parents and their houses/ jobs even after their marriages while daughters leave and become the property of their husband's family. 

The preference given to sons is equally visible in Indian languages where women is equated with being a burden to the father, others' possession (PARAYA DHAN) and so on. According to a Bengali saying " Caring for a daughter is like watering a neighbour's tree."  That's why the skit and the complete cast was an instant hit amongst the teenagers as they found the whole dream sequence witty and humourous. We all were completely unaware of the existence of any such land within India which lived the dream as a reality day in and out.

As a newcomer to Shillong, when I tried to enquire about the popular means of road transport in the steep hills, I was promptly told by my friends that nothing could beat the black and yellow coloured Maruti 800 Taxis which ferried men and women from remote Bastis to the crowded lanes of Police Bazar. I was told that these taxis could carry as many people as decided by the driver alongside loads of veggies and other items simultaneously. I didn’t like the idea because coming from mainland India, this meant going through another experience of being stalked and lynched by the opposite sex! But, to my surprise I found it was just the opposite! Even the completely drugged/drunk men knew how to be seated next to you in a sober way, which reminded me of being in one of the few places in the world where Matriliny was still surviving. The few other communities following Matriliny in the world are:

1.Isthmus Zapotec community in Mexico
2. Minangkabau community in Indonesia
3. Mosuo community in China
4. Nayyar communities in Kerala in India 

That's why in contrast to northern India, one can find Khasi women with young ones tied as a backpack roaming around deserted lanes, working in meat shops, doing business on streets of Police Bazar in Shillong. I was reminded of the skit from my childhood days. For all these years I had never ever believed that this dream could be true even for a day and here I was facing women living the dream everyday. 

I was elated at the thought of the effect of Matriarchy prevalent in the state. I was corrected by a local resident and introduced to the unique concept of Matrilineal society of the Khasi tribals of Meghalaya in India. Though the terms are not completely synonymous, there are similarities between both as the women are considered to be central in issues related to descent, inheritance and authority. Anthropologists use different terms to describe cultures where women play a strong role in societies, such as:

1. Matriarchal: The word is a combination of Latin word mater and a Greek word arche , which refers to a family system wherein power, authority, control rest entirely in the hands of the mother.

2. Matrilineal: The word is a combination of two Latin words: mater and linea, which refers to the fact that children belong to the mother and her clan.

3. Matrifocal: The wife is the head of the household and children and often manages the family purse. The husband plays a lesser role within the family.

4. Matrilocal: After marriage the husband moves to the wife's family home.

 Some of the salient common features of all these are:

1.The women, especially the youngest daughters (in Khasi culture) play a pivotal role in the family.

2. The children carry the  title/surname of the mothers. Children will be living in the mother's house.

3. Men will move to the wife's house after marriage. Men will take care of the household activities such as cooking, cleaning, washing clothes/utensils, looking after children and so on. Women are free to work wherever they want.

4. Mothers/ Women will be in charge of the household finances and earn for the family. Family property will be in the name of the women, and will be inherited by the daughters esp the youngest daughter( in Khasi culture). Taking care of old parents and family home/ property will be the responsibility of the daughters, esp the youngest daughters (in case of Khasi society).

5. In case of separation/divorce, the children will stay with the wife.The husband will have to move out of the house in case of divorce or remarriage and will have no claim over children.

How did it start in Meghalaya?
It is difficult to try to find the exact reasons for the beginning of Matriliny in Meghalaya as the main occupation of the state has been farming since ages. The methods of farming used in this state required levelling of lands, digging of canals, damming of streams and most commonly used practise of Jhuming ( slash and burn). Also many times, there is no choice but to do wet cultivation. For all these tasks, there can not be a substitute to using the male members in the family. Then how did women end up with all the power in the family?
I think it would have been handed over to them when men went on long head-hunting trips in the forests and hills. Maybe then, they handed over the authority to rule their clan to the womenfolk in the family. In cases when the menfolk did not return the power continued to stay with them and that's how the children started using the mother's title as their surname too. 

 Why is the youngest daughter so important?
In most of the cultures, be it patriarchal or matriarchal, generally all the family powers are inherited by the eldest son or daughter. Khasi form of Matriliny is one of its own kind which celebrates the identity of the youngest daughter. Generally, the youngest child and especially the daughter, is supposed to be the weakest and the most inexperienced one. His her opinion is hardly taken into consideration in case of any important family decisions. Then why do the warrior tribals of Meghalaya give so much of importance to the Ka KHATDUH (the youngest daughter)? 
The reason that some locals gave me to justify this practice was that the youngest daughter would stay the longest in the family so she is supposed to be the best link between the past and future generations of family members. 

Looking at Shillong's matrilineal society, I felt if there was a model society to oppose the patriarchal values of the rest of India, and then it surely had to be in the Khasi culture.  As women are considered to be more compassionate and considerate when it came to practicing authority in personal and social matters. This means the happiness quotient of the state of Meghalaya was higher than the rest of the country!

But then a local saying popular amongst the non-tribal taxi drivers of Shillong, " You can never depend on three 'W's of Shillong: weather, wine and women." forced me to think about the evolving meaning of Matriliny in Meghalaya in today's world.

Read about what Khasi Men have to say about it in my next blog.