Indian Meghalaya state flips gender norms
In a country where brutal rape cases have turned the spotlight on gender discrimination, one Indian state has seen men demanding more rights. In Meghalaya, the native Khasi people still live in a matrilineal system.
A different social model
The Sanskrit word "Meghalaya" means "abode of clouds." It is the name of a northeastern Indian state whose socio-economic system might seem utopian to some at first glance. The Khasi people, who make up the largest ethnic group in the state, live in a matrilineal society where titles and wealth are passed on from mother to daughter.
Like mother, like daughter
In practice, this means that in Khasi families the youngest daughter gets the largest share of the inheritance and is responsible for taking care of the parents, unmarried siblings and the upkeep of property. Called the "Khatduh," the youngest daughter becomes somewhat of a social institution whose home is open to the whole family.
An eye for business
The Khasi Social Custom of Lineage Act, which was passed in 1997, protects this matrilineal structure. In Meghalaya, women run local markets and manage most economic enterprises.
Transformed by war
Some local accounts trace the origins of the matrilineal system to the time when Khasi men went to battle and entrusted their households to their wives, thus raising the status of women in the community. However, other sources claim that the system emerged due to difficuties in determining who had fathered children, as Khasi women used to have several partners.
Nowadays, Khasi men work on farms and engage in housekeeping instead of going to battle. But in recent years some men have been campaigning to dislodge the matrilineal system. Some 3,000 men have joined the Syngkhong Rympei Thymai (SRT), essentially a "men's liberation group" which was formed in 1990. SRT members usually choose to remain anonymous for fear of being marginalized by the community.
What's in a name?
Khasi children are given their mother's clan name, rather than their father's. This protects both women and their offspring from social rejection, even if women remarry or have children out of wedlock.
It's a girl!
While there is a high preference for male children in India, SRT men's liberation activists complain that in Meghalaya state, the birth of a boy is not celebrated as joyfully as the birth of a girl. Many men are demoralized and feel devalued as a result of the unusual social norms, becoming lethargic and often taking refuge in alcoholism and drug abuse.
Seperate spheres of power
Even though women in Khasi society hold most of the social and economic influence, political power still eludes them. The heads of Khasi village councils, such as the leader of this one in Kongthong, are always men. The 60-member state legislative assembly has only four female lawmakers.