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Men in Indian matrilineal society demand more rights

Manasi Gopalakrishnan
November 23, 2020

The tribal Khasi community in India's northeast is famed for its matrilineal heritage. But men are increasingly complaining that the tradition has left them neglected and devoid of motivation.

A Khasi man working on a farm in Meghalaya state
Image: DW/Bijoyeta Das

In India's northeastern Meghalaya state, the Khasis have been considered the best example of a society where women call the shots. In a state of around 3 million people, the Khasis constitute nearly 35% of the population and together with the Jaintia and Garo tribes follow the matrilineal tradition.

In other words, in Khasi tradition, the family name and ancestral property are passed through the female line of descent, Margaret Lyngdoh, researcher at the Department of Estonian and Comparative Folklore, University of Tartu in Estonia, told DW.

Lyngdoh, who is herself a Khasi, said that the tribal conception of clan and kinship had mythical origins in the past, when men had to go to battle and women were left to look after the household and the clan.

"Inheritance is organized so the youngest daughter becomes the custodian of ancestral property. Originally this did not mean that she can sell it or dispose of it because she owns it. It simply means that she is the custodian of clan heritage," Lyngdoh explained. "Inheritance can consist of land, gold, or coral ornaments, precious clothing, and even traditionally responsibilities towards clan ancestors."

In a sense, women rule the roost in Meghalaya. Often, they are heads of families and take on leadership roles even in the public sphere and in many cases, also support their families financially.

'Women everywhere'

For many men, however, the matrilineal tradition is a heavy cross to bear. "Women are everywhere, in the bazaars, at the government offices," Keith Pariat, a former president of the men's rights group Synkhong Rympei Thymmai (SRT) lamented.

The SRT, which in English literally means "a wedge that stabilizes the shaking home," traces its roots to a similar organization formed in the 1960s, when a group of tribal elders, which even included doctors and teachers, realized that the male members of their community were completely lost. They found that it was the social customs of the Khasis, especially its matrilineal practices, which were bringing them down, Pariat said, admitting that this explanation is, at best, only a theory.

The matrilineal traditions of the Khasi are also the exact opposite of the patriarchal customs practiced elsewhere in India.

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If a Khasi man marries the youngest daughter of a family, he is expected to move in and stay at his in-law's place and with his wife's extended family members. Pariat believes this is one reason why many families don't invest much in their male children; they feel that the boys will eventually take wealth away to their wives' homes.

At his wife's place, the man has little say because his wife's maternal uncle and other male relatives run the show.

Furthermore, the man does not have any rights over the children, who get their mother's name and belong to her clan.

If he finds himself in trouble and in need of help, he can only turn to his sister, who as the traditional custodian of the family is supposed to look after him. Pariat is irked by the tradition. "If I fall into problems, my youngest sister, who has inherited the ancestral property… has the duty to take care of me," Pariat said, adding: "If I've been married and have children and suddenly there's a break up in the marriage, would I like to go back to my younger sister and live with her in the parental house?"

Pariat's sister has married a non-Khasi man and lives outside India. "Would I feel comfortable in going and living with my brother-in-law? My brother-in-law wouldn't like that. It's impractical."

More power to men?

Nevertheless, responsibility is a foreign word for the Khasi man: "The man feels that … he is a free bird and he can do what he wants," Pariat says, adding that this leads men to a wayward life of drugs, alcohol and women. "He's married and when he sees another good-looking girl somewhere, he'll move towards her, get children from her too and he can leave them because the children are taken care of by the clan."

Read more: India: A 'prostitution village' breaks with tradition and tries to go digital

While many men might consider this a dream life, the image of the local wastrel has resulted in Khasi women rejecting men from their community and marrying more eligible bachelors from outside. For people like Keith Pariat, whose grandmother was British, this not only means a danger to the ethnic purity of the Khasis, it also poses a threat to their way of life in an ecologically and culturally fragile environment that faces constant onslaught, culturally and economically.

Essentially, protecting the Khasi culture and its way of life and motivating men to take charge seem to have emerged as two major goals of the mens' rights campaign. The group's 5,000-odd members, including around 50 women, are now advocating for changing inheritance laws and rules for passing on the father's family name to the children.

Life in a matrilineal society

The facade of women's emancipation

Women's rights activists in Meghalaya, meanwhile, criticize the idolization of Khasi society, especially its matrilineal practices and the way the community brings up its girls to lead. Eminent journalist and activist, Patricia Mukhim, in an academic paper called "Khasi-Pnar matriliny: Reclaiming lost spaces" describes the lack of representation of Khasi women in politics and how women are dissuaded from having political opinions because it is considered improper.

The very tradition of women being in charge of their own children has led to a high number of single Khasi mothers who are struggling to make ends meet, because modern life has severed many traditional ties.

Several activists have also pointed to the increasing incidence of rape in Meghalaya, a surprising occurrence in a state where women are supposed to call the shots.

Women in Khasi society "do not have the upper hand," Lyngdoh says. "They never have. In political and administrative governance, they have no role. They are in charge of bringing up children, they create the clan and are responsible for furthering it. Men govern. They make political decisions and provide for their families. Women have their place around the hearth in a home. This is their traditional role."

Manasi Gopalakrishnan
Manasi Gopalakrishnan Journalist and editor from India, compulsive reader of books.
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