The myth of matriliny



“Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.”

~ Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Women empowerment in India, even in this 21st century, may sound oxymoronic to someone who is keenly following the current developments. The onus of maintaining the sanctity of society is on women, and it is all but a natural process or societal pressure if one may call it. Men enjoy the liberty of basking in the glory of masculinity. They remain the custodians of tradition, which is nothing but a blatant show of domineering character, and protectors of women, which is but a way of crushing the confidence of a section of the society.

Having said that, one has to acknowledge the fact that it is the members of the so-called ‘weak’ gender who have patronised men, and made them superior creatures rather than their companions. This is typical of a patrilineal or patriarchal society.

Though single gender empowerment in Meghalaya gets more media mileage, traits of patriarchy in the society here are always visible. Matriliny is defined as the way of reckoning descent and belonging through the female line. It is then natural to concur that women enjoy utmost power under such a practice. However, the myth of matriliny has been busted time and again in rejection of basic rights to women and denial of an equal world to them in every sphere of life.

Activist-turned-journalist Patricia Mukhim has remained an incisive critic of this fallacious understanding of matriliny. Through her essays, articles and editorials, Mukhim has always tried to show the naked truth behind the make-believe concept of matriliny and voice the concerns of women belonging to northeastern tribes. Her debut book, “Waiting for an Equal World: Gender in India’s Northeast”, is a collection of her energetic and bold writings published over the years.

Being part of the same matriliny, Mukhim, who is the editor of The Shillong Times newspaper, has held the mirror to the society at the right angle, exposing the inherent weaknesses of the tribal communities in this region.

Mukhim writes in ‘The Social Pervasiveness of Misogyny’, “Coming to the status of tribal women in North East India, one of the significant markers is their lack of a collective voice.”

The voice that she refers to is still missing in administration, both at the local and state levels, and the author strongly criticises this “greater discrimination”. Women’s political power remains elusive even to this day. In Meghalaya and in other parts of the region, female representation in politics has remained abysmally less. As a result, problems afflicting women have gone largely unheard.

As she analyses the problems, the author also points out the reasons behind such predicaments. Education, she says, has always been a man’s advantage and a recent phenomenon for women in the region. “In the academics tribal women lag far behind. While women in general do not rise very high in academics due largely to the fact that they are unable to doggedly pursue research and post-doctoral studies due to family pressures, tribal women suffer greater discrimination because in most cases their history of education is recent,” she asserts.

Also, politics here has traditionally remained a male bastion and there has been little or no effort from their side to create level playing field for women. In fact, some of the prominent local leaders have abhorred the idea of women’s participation in traditional administration. Not an iota of change has occurred over time.

Despite such deep lacunae in the societal structure, matriliny has always been “romanticised” creating an aura around women in this society and concealing the patriarchy that is silently at work. It is the men here who are the decision-makers in the family. The management of land, which is the identity of a tribal society, is also vested on men and women have little power in related decisions. They remain mere custodians of property, reduced to puppets in the hands of male members in the family or clan.

Mukhim has tried to explain how men in this society have cried victims and “publicly expressed their loss of masculinity”. In ‘Exploring the Fears of Khasi Society’, the author explores the different layers of matriliny and criticises the high-handedness of the autonomous district council in curtailing women’s freedom of choice.

In ‘How to Detect Gender Biases’, Mukhim treads a bigger diaspora by not only projecting the skewed sex ratio in the North East but also in the entire country. She writes that none of the northeastern states has positive sex ratio despite the absence of sex selection at birth. Nationally too, the high rate of female child mortality is a cause for concern. “India remains the most unfriendly place for women,” she says. 

Mukhim’s writings have always questioned the muted existence of the over-glorified female gender in Meghalaya in particular and the whole of the region in general. Her book presents a completely different perspective of matriliny and women empowerment. At the same time, she builds a platform where women, not only in this region but from across the country, find a unified cause to fight their way forward.

‘Waiting for an Equal World’ is a comprehensive book that will help young scholars and journalists from outside the region understand the social make-up and gender-based problems here. It would have been more complete had the dates of publication of the essays and editorials and names of publishers been mentioned for readers’ convenience.