SHILLONG, INDIA – India’s remote northeast is home to an ancient tribe whose high regard for women makes it a striking anomaly in the male-dominated country. But 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 1 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,” said Keith Pariat, a men’s rights activist. “If families have a boy, you will hear things like, ‘Oh OK, he’ll do.’ But if it’s a girl, then there is joy and applause.”
Pariat is 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 maternal family name.
And, in a ruling that 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 in the area, but now activists such as 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 said. “You are just a breeding bull. No one is interested in hearing your views about anything — you have no say in any decision whatsoever.”
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 said in the state capital of Shillong. It also makes them unappealing to Khasi women, who exercise their right to marry outside the community instead.
Teibor Langkhongjee, a 41-year-old entrepreneur and SRT member, said 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.”
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 because India’s constitution guarantees the right of tribal councils 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 Patricia Mukhim, editor of The Shillong Times. “Parents feel like they can always depend on their girls.”
In a country where mothers often face huge pressure to give birth to sons, leading to a surge in selective abortions, Meghalaya has consistently boasted a healthy gender ratio. The state’s ratio currently stands at about 1,035 females for every 1,050 males, higher than the global norm of 1,000 females per 1,050 males.
Pesundra Reslinkhoy, a 25-year-old nursery school teacher in Shillong, said she appreciated the matrilineal system all the more after the Delhi gang-rape. “I think it is a good tradition for Khasi, that all the power will stay with women because it will avoid us from many evil things,” she said.
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 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,” said Mukhim of The Shillong Times.