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The Khasis from Meghalaya are one of the well known tribes from North-east India. The hills of Meghalaya are inhabited by the Khasi, Jaintia and Garo tribes. The Khasi mostly inhabit the east and west Khasi hills, Ri Bhoi and Jaintia hills. They are considered to be unique as they are one of the few tribes which follow matrilineal system of descent. Amongst the Khasi lineage, title, inheritance, residence and succession are traced through women. A host of myths and legends revolve around the creation of the Khasi people and are entwined in the daily life of the people, often as a means of reaffirming their identity. The most common misconception about Khasi society lies in the inherent idea that matrilineal descent equates to higher status of women, that the society is “ruled by the women” but the reality of Khasi women is far from this commonly held misconception about them. Even in the case above, the subaltern in question i.e the women, are spoken for by others.

The women don’t inherit property in the traditional sense, although property is passed on to the youngest daughter, she is only a “custodian” she can’t sell or claim the property to be her own. The maternal uncle takes all decisions regarding the property. The above influences the agency exercised by Khasi women in a very specific way. By allowing her to be the ceremonial custodian it bars her from exercising any real power, therefore working in a way to limit avenues of her influence. In other words, it is a position which works in a specific way to disempower and limit agency. Hence the Khasis function to a considerable extent like any other society with the same elements of parochialism and misogyny that women from any other society would be subject to, but in this case, the exoticization of the people in the recent past as a “matriarchal” society has resulted in a rising perception of threat amongst Khasi men. They now wish to “reclaim” their place in society by discontinuing matrilineal descent. The feelings are evident from newly formed organisations like Syngkhong Rympei Thymai which means “men’s liberation group”. They advocate for “better” status of men. There is a widespread perception amongst the men that Khasi masculinity is under siege. They have to “reclaim” their place in society by firstly taking their paternal surnames.There has been a rise in people assuming their paternal surname. While this is not at odds with Christian and western values, it is at odds with traditional Khasi values.

Over the years various elements such as introduction of Christianity have come to interact with the traditional beliefs creating a society in transition, constantly attempting to recreate itself. While a majority of the people follow one of the other sects of Christianity and there is also a rise of newer sects from within these, but a sizeable portion of people still follow the indigenous religion. In recent years there has been increasing animosity between the religions with many Christian converts emphasising on the importance of recognised religions and referring to the others as “those without religion”. The heady mix of the sudden advent of proselytising Christianity on the people, combined with the traditional beliefs and attempts to accommodate these into wider circle of beliefs and systems newly formed- has resulted in a society grappling with concepts thrust upon it without context. Without allowing for the gradual process of acculturation, many of these elements become stand alone features contending with older traditions without becoming an organic part of the society. Presently, Khasi society is in a state of flux trying to come into terms with its own systems of identity built over time, and the Khasi woman is at the centre of it.

Recently a bill seeking to amend The Khasi Social Custom of Lineage Act 1997 has come into crossfire for a number of reasons. The bill proposes to strip Khasi women of their Khasi and Scheduled tribe status if they marry a non-Khasi. Consequently, the children borne of the marriage would also not be considered Khasi or tribal. In effect the bill attempts to ostracise Khasi women in the event that they marry a non-Khasi. In a society where property is passed through the maternal line such a Bill has the potential to unfold disastrous ramifications. The Bill needs to be questioned on a number of levels, first being on what basis can a woman born Khasi can be stripped of her Khasi identity, by someone else, for any action committed by her ? In a democracy such as India, who is to determine someone else’s commitment to their own identity ? if someones actions don’t conform to the larger wishes of the society, then it makes them a person not conforming to customs. But technically, in no way can that result in them undoing their identity. We are born into our identities, they aren’t clothes that can be discarded. The fact that one can’t strip themselves of their identity is what has caused the greatest wars in history. If we could abandon our identities, all the races persecuted through the years would do so to survive. It is ludicrous to think that someone would propose to strip others of their identity for not conforming. Even more ludicrous is the fact that the sole purpose of the Bill is to force Khasi women to only marry Khasi men. Moreover, the Bill isn’t logically sound or adhering to Khasi customs itself, because lineage is traced through the maternal line, hence a Khasi woman’s child will be Khasi regardless of who she marries. Unfortunately, the Bill doesn’t sound like an attempt at preserving custom but rather at controlling a woman’s choice to marry. It is steeped in racial and gender bias. In that way, how is this Bill proposed in a ‘progressive, matriarchal’ society like the Khasis, any different from cases of forced caste marriages which were rampant in ‘other, less progressive parts’ of the country ?

Lastly, this kind of parochialism has no place in a fast globalising world where we are attempting to blur boundaries, end racial profiling and come in terms with differences. Racial, gender or caste violence works in both ways, when it is a larger group attempting to control the identities of a smaller group or when it is a smaller group attempting to segregate or disempower their own people from attempting to merge with a larger group.

Binita Kakati is a former researcher and independent writer based in the Northeast. She can be reached at binitakakati15@hotmail.com

One Comment

  1. K SHESHU BABU says:

    Male hegemony pervades khasi society like most other communities. But the scale of oppression is more than most other social systems