AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE
Published — Saturday 9 March 2013
Last update 10 March 2013 11:42 pm
India’s remote northeast is home to an ancient tribe whose high regard for women makes it a striking anomaly in a male-dominated country.
But as the world marks International Women’s Day today, the region has become a staging ground for an unlikely battle in which men are trying to end a matrilineal tradition practiced by more than a million people.
The Khasi tribe in the picturesque state of Meghalaya places women at the center of its society from the cradle to the grave.
“Go to any hospital and stand outside the maternity wards and listen,” says Keith Pariat, a men’s rights activist.
“If families have a boy, you will hear things like: ‘oh okay, he’ll do’. But if it’s a girl then there is joy and applause.”
Pariat is the chairman of Syngkhong Rympei Thymmai (SRT), an organization fighting to eradicate a tradition with tremendous staying power.
According to Khasi tradition, the youngest daughter inherits all ancestral property; men are expected to move into their wives’ homes after marriage and children must take their mother’s family name.
And, in a ruling which helps explain the grand welcome for female babies, all parents with ancestral property but no daughters are required to adopt a girl before they die, since they cannot leave the inheritance to their sons.
The matrilineal system has endured for thousands of years here, but now activists like Pariat are determined to overthrow it.
“When a man has to live in his mother-in-law’s house, it tends to make him a little quiet,” Pariat says.
“You are just a breeding bull. No one is interested in hearing your views about anything.”
The 60-year-old businessman believes that the matrilineal system has been “totally detrimental” to Khasi men.
“It puts no responsibility on their shoulders so they tend to take life easy and they go into drugs and alcohol and that cuts their life short,” he told AFP in the state capital Shilling.
It also makes them unappealing to Khasi women, who exercise their right to marry outside the community instead.
Tabor Langkhongjee, a 41-year-old entrepreneur and SRT member, says the choice is easy to understand.
“Khasi men don’t have any security, they don’t own land, they don’t run the family business and, at the same time, they are almost good for nothing,” he said.
A men’s rights movement did emerge in the early 1960s but petered out after hundreds of Khasi women turned up at one of their meetings, armed with knives.
SRT, founded in 1990, faces an uphill battle to overturn Khasi tradition, since India’s constitution guarantees the tribal councils’ right to set their own customary laws.
The clash between clan rules and Indian law is a familiar one, with the judiciary often expected to step in when gender rights are at stake.
In the past however, such conflicts have focused on expanding women’s rights whether in matters of inheritance, dowry or alimony in the case of Hindu and Muslim families. Men’s rights have never been the subject of debate.
In Shillong, most women dismiss the suggestion that their society is biased.
Although Khasi women are empowered to make their own decisions over marriage, money and other matters, political participation remains low, with women accounting for only four out of 60 state legislators.
“The reason the property is left to the youngest daughter is because she has the responsibility to look after the parents until they die,” said journalist Patricia Mukhim.
“Parents feel like they can always depend on their girls.”
The state’s gender ratio currently stands at about 1,035 females for every 1,050 men, higher than the global norm of 1,000 women for every 1,050 men.
Misogyny remains widespread in many parts of India.
The gang rape and murder of a female student in December on a bus in New Delhi fueled angry nationwide demonstrations.
Pesundra Reslinkhoy, a 25-year-old nursery school teacher in Shillong, said she appreciated the matrilineal system all the more after the Delhi attack.
“I think it is a good tradition for Khasi, that all the power will stay with women because it will keep us from many evil things,” she said.
The SRT has no plans to mount a legal challenge to the tribal customs, hoping instead that an informal campaign of brochure distribution and public meetings will convince more Khasis of the need for change.
But there are few signs of the group’s influence in the state’s tradition-bound villages, suggesting that the balance of power is unlikely to shift anytime soon.
“In most of Meghalaya, people only know the old ways and they like the old ways just fine,” Mukhim said.