Native girls of Meghalaya start to have their say in DarborShong
Inputs from Reyneil & Iba in Shillong
Decades ago where only moustache had the power to take decisions on development of the society. Information revolution has affected this aspect of the society as well. Now the better half of the population has the freedom to voice their opinions. I am talking about a society in India where women always had more freedom than those from any other part of the country except for local politics. Meghalaya, a small north-eastern state of India! The daughters and not the sons in the tribal families of the state inherit the property from their mothers, unlike in the other parts of the country. It invests them with financial empowerment and now they have started to have a say in the developmental politics as well.
The Khasi and Garosociety of Meghalaya has an age-old tradition which died during the British rule, but emerged afresh in the form of the modern dorbar-shnong.
Dorbar-shnong is a local form ofadministration or village council in Khasi Society of Meghalaya. It is an assembly of all adult males which functions under an elected headman or chief called RangbahShnong. The Dorbar Shnong looks after the welfare of the people and takes charge of the customary practices and imposes discipline among its members
Recently there was a huge issue about it being unconstitutional but a more significant and continuing debate has been on it being discriminatory towards women. Historically, only a man with a moustache could enter the dorbar which was considered sacred, with the passage of time, women have although gained entry into the dorbar but still have no voice in its proceedings.
It is just plain double standards and sheer hypocrisy to maintain that the ancient customs of the dorbarshnong should not be tampered with at all when it comes to gender equalitybut absolutely all right to bend, twist, fold and manipulate when it pertains to matters of charging people money. Read More
The irony here is that Meghalaya is end-to-end a matrilineal society where women do most of the work – inside and outside the home! It is outrageous to even think that only male members can ‘effectively’ deliberate on the needs and interests of the entire population even that of women’s when otherwise, women folks are doing all sorts of work.
This establishment has in many ways ceased to be a voice of justice and democracy. It is pathetic and traitorous on the dorbar’s part to (a) intentionally mislead people on the many schemes and public funding available; (b) influence or sway the electorate (especially in villages) to vote for a particular candidate in any election. Read More
However, all is not lost, the dorbar shnong can still be salvaged and revamped to be a force for good in the local communities of Meghalaya. ‘Change’ does not have to be a bad word.
The dorbar shnong can become a tool for the propagation of education in eradicating illiteracy and in promoting grassroots democracy.
In rural areas, some, if not all the members can be trained and then delegated to hold workshops and discussions in their villages to instruct their people in essential subjects as health, nutrition and hygiene to elementary financial education like expenditure, saving and investing along with some amount of agricultural lessons and farming instruction as per local needs. The dorbar can spearhead sanitation programmes as the condition of toilets in the state is poor and there is abysmal lack of them in many areas. The dorbar can also serve as a branch of the court by hearing and settling minor petty disputes fairly and justly. Read More
But in order to carry out all of the above work effectively, the dorbar’s obsession with barring women from active involvement in community administration should come to a stop as this level of governance is equally relative to the welfare of women.
Meghalayan Woman Vs Woman of the North – Irrespective of the limitations, some self imposed too, on women’s freedom in the region, she is still way more empowered than the North Indian abla(helpless woman) as we will see in the following section. Some of the major differences:
- In Meghalaya daughters inherit the property and also the surname from the mother while in Northern states, it is unimaginable yet.
- There is applause and celebration when a girl is born while birth of a boy is treated as nothing special – something unheard of in the northern parts.
- A Meghalayan woman is free to take her own decisions regarding who, when and whether to marry; whether to work inside or outside the home; how to utilize her money and what to name her children. In the North, all the above decisions are mostly taken at its worst by the parents/guardians/brothers even younger than the woman in question and with the advice of these people at its best; not that love marriages and live-in are scarce but that’s another story altogether.
- Women remarriage and out-of-wedlock births are common as the matrilineal setup protects them from social ostracism. There is virtually no social stigma attached to these actions.
- Both married and unmarried women in Meghalaya are free to come and go(out of the house/city/region wherever) of their own accord while in northern states, it is still a wild dream for a large number and even those in job and financially independent can rarely think of making a move without approval from the family.
- Significantly, whether urban, rural or tribal; all women cast their votes independently without the influence of family members in Meghalaya as against in the North where almost all rural and a large number of urban women vote as per the family consensus.
“We follow an unparalleled matrilineal culture not only in Meghalaya but other north-eastern states too. Our society has always accorded special respect to women, after all what can be the bigger sign of respect than the children taking mother’s surname instead of the father?” … Iba Marwein.
In this century when women in most parts of the world are still grappling with equality issues, our society since centuries has thrived under women’s sovereignty and I am proud of it, avers Reyneil.
Ronit Patel, a Gujarati who married his Garo classmate has ‘happily adopted’ his wife’s culture, I have faced no adjustment problems and do not mind that my children will take my wife’s family name.
But there are divergent voices too and several men’s rights groups are active in the region who are protesting against women dominance in their society. “Men have no significant roles here. All the powers rest with women. We are fighting to have more meaningful identity. Father is supposed to be the bread winner and head of the family but in our society there is no such notion,” complains Bitu Nangwiech.
Read more : Understanding the Tribes of Meghalaya