BBC – Journey – Khasis: India’s indigenous matrilineal society


Throughout my travels throughout mainland India, particularly in small cities and villages within the north, I hardly noticed any women-run outlets or marketplaces. In a sit-down eatery in Uttar Pradesh, I watched males make flatbreads and mash greens for curries whereas male prospects wolfed them up. Between Kolkata and Gorakhpur, I sat sandwiched between males in passenger trains passing via the agricultural countryside. On most events, girls have been absent from public areas.

In lots of locations in Meghalaya, girls not solely occupied house; they dominated them.

However within the north-eastern Indian state of Meghalaya, issues have been completely different.

In Lewduh, one in every of area’s oldest and largest open markets positioned in Meghalaya’s capital metropolis Shillong, girls lined the crowded bazaar streets promoting native greens, chopped meat and handmade crafts. Feminine elders referred to as mei walked via the aisles controlling the commerce and ordering males who labored for them to elevate baggage filled with recent produce.

I returned to Meghalaya 5 extra instances earlier than the pandemic halted my travels. Throughout these visits, I noticed that in lots of locations in Meghalaya, girls not solely occupied house; they dominated them. That is as a result of at present, Khasis – who account for state’s largest ethnic neighborhood ­– are one of many final present matrilineal societies on this planet. Right here, kids obtain their mom’s final identify, husbands transfer into their spouse’s dwelling, and the youngest daughters inherit the ancestral property.

However who’re the Khasis?

There are lots of theories about their origin. In line with native folklore, Khasis come from seven divine clans. Within the 1967 ebook, The Historical past And Tradition Of The Khasi Folks by Hamlet Bareh, the Indian writer and historian traces them to an historical Austric race in South-East Asia who descended from a Mon-Khmer group of individuals within the distant Burmese jungles. Whereas it is unsure when Khasis migrated west to the mountains and foothills of north-eastern India, linguistic proof exhibits that their language – Khasi – is analogous to Mon-Khmer dialects.

Right now, most Khasis dwell in Meghalaya, which grew to become an impartial state in 1972. In the course of the Bangladesh Liberation Battle in 1971, some Khasi households grew to become separated and now dwell throughout the border from Meghalaya in Bangladesh. One other significant slice of the inhabitants lives within the neighbouring Indian state of Assam.

Khasi historian Amena Nora Passah, who teaches at North-Japanese Hill College in Shillong, stated that Khasis are individuals of oral custom. However paradoxically, in line with oral historical past, they’ve patriarchal roots.

As warriors who typically battled with different teams for land, Khasi males typically went right down to the plains for clashes. Throughout these battles, some males died. Others settled for a brand new life within the plains. Left with out their companions, Khasi girls would remarry or discover different companions, and it typically grew to become troublesome to find out a toddler’s paternity.

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“Society may need labelled these kids ‘illegitimate’,” stated Passah. “In some unspecified time in the future, our ancestors thought that they did not need this slur on their girls or kids. So, they determined that kids ought to have one final identify: the mom’s.”

Khasi matriliny shares similarities with the world’s different handful of matrilineal societies, equivalent to wealth and property passing from mom to their daughters, and descent via the mom’s line.

Historically, Khasis dwell in close-knit prolonged households or clans. Since kids take their mom’s final identify, daughters make sure the continuity of the clan. Daughters have the freedom to dwell of their ancestral dwelling or transfer out, apart from the youngest daughter (referred to as ka khadduh), who’s the custodian of the property. Even after her marriage, she by no means leaves dwelling. She takes care of her dad and mom and finally turns into the top of the family after her mom’s loss of life.

A Khasi lady by no means joins her husband’s family, relatively he joins hers

Lauretta Sohkhlet is a type of youngest daughters from Tyrna, a scenic touristy village 65km from Shillong. Sohkhlet and her husband reside in her mom’s dwelling. Whereas she’s going to inherit the property after her mom’s loss of life, her brother, Edilbert, is the guardian of the household. Because the kni (maternal uncle) of Sohkhlet’s kids, Edilbert, who’s a college principal in Tyrna, offers cash to his sister’s household.

He lives away from his circle of relatives, which is widespread amongst some Khasi households. A Khasi lady by no means joins her husband’s family, relatively he joins hers, however at present, some males additionally dwell away from their spouse and youngsters, particularly when their spouse is away for work.

“My spouse and youngsters dwell in Shillong. I am going see them typically, however I additionally must take care of my sister and mom,” stated Edilbert, who’s torn between the 2 households. Lately, he determined to show a part of his mom’s dwelling into lodging for travellers to be able to earn an extra earnings for his sister’s household.

Passah defined the significance of the kni in Khasi tradition. “Because the guardian, he is in charge of the administration and distribution of the ancestral property. No determination within the household was taken with out the stamp of his approval,” Passah stated.

I all the time say that Meghalaya is a matrilineal society with patriarchal nuances

She additionally defined that previously, whereas fathers did not contribute financially to their kids and spouse, they would supply cash for his or her sisters and fogeys. “[The father] would come to his spouse’s dwelling late at night time. Within the morning, he is again at his mom’s dwelling to work within the fields,” Passah stated.

With colonisation and missionary schooling, nevertheless, some Khasis left their villages, searching for work in cities. When nuclear households emerged, the knis’ energy started to say no, and whereas villages nonetheless comply with the standard matrilineal construction, in some city Christian households at present, fathers are the top of the family.

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“I all the time say that Meghalaya is a matrilineal society with patriarchal nuances,” Passah stated, explaining that it’s completely different than a matriarchy the place girls rule society and authorities.

Regardless of that, it is easy to note variations in Khasi tradition in comparison with male-dominated areas of India. Whereas it is common for girls to be catcalled or face different types of avenue harassment in India, I encountered none of that in Meghalaya. Strangers did not drive conversations with me, but when I had hassle discovering my approach, they all the time helped me.

Ladies being born is as a lot a celebration as boys being born

In Shillong, I travelled with locals in crowded public taxis, and male passengers revered my privateness and made certain I used to be snug. Not like in different distant places in India, girls right here lead impartial lives, like my host from Mawsynram, a quaint village that is thought-about one of many rainiest locations on Earth. My host, who was in her late 30s, lived alone and was single – which is likely to be thought-about taboo elsewhere in India. When she instructed male drivers to take me to caves and waterfalls, they all the time listened to her. And whereas individuals in India all the time ask me if my dad and mom (principally my father) are okay with me travelling alone, this query has by no means popped up in Meghalaya.

So when Khasi writer Daribha Lyndem advised me lately that claims she feels safer in Meghalaya than in Mumbai the place she now lives, I understood the place she was coming from.

“In my expertise, I really feel males are respectful [to women] in a much less patronising method,” she stated. Lyndem added that in contrast to most elements of India, Khasi girls do not must take care of the pressures of organized marriages. “To not say that misogyny doesn’t exist, however in Meghalaya, girls’s voices could also be ignored relatively than stifled like in the remainder of the nation,” Lyndem added. “Ladies being born is as a lot a celebration as boys being born.”

Patricia Mukhim, an activist and editor at The Shillong Instances, an English-language newspaper, stated that in the remainder of India, patriarchy is embedded in all features of life, “from males making selections to girls not occupying a spot in politics, academia, enterprise and each different sphere”. Whereas women elsewhere in India typically face boundaries to review and work, Mukhim believes issues are completely different with Khasis. “Khasi girls take pleasure in social mobility and there aren’t any bars for them to [achieve economic mobility],” she stated.

I used to be reminded of one of many feminine elders I met who ran the wholesale vegetable market again at Lewduh. She’d advised me that in her youth she had left her husband, elevating her kids on her personal whereas buying and selling greens.

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“He wasn’t competent sufficient to offer for us. I did not want his assist so I requested him to depart,” she stated, noting that she’s had a number of companions since. Because the youngest daughter, she grew to become the custodian of her household property and she or he now manages a workforce of female and male merchants.

However as extra Khasis migrate to cities and transfer away from their giant, close-knit clans, there is a new burden on moms. “[According to the matrilineal tradition], males aren’t obliged to care for his or her kids when he leaves. This has led to a surge in women-headed households [in Meghalaya]. Prior to now, the prolonged household would assist the deserted mom, however now we’ve smaller households and the mom has to depend on herself,” Mukhim stated.

A contemporary-day males’s-liberation group is combating to finish the matrilineal system

As well as, some males in Meghalaya are campaigning for change. An organisation referred to as Syngkong Rympei Thymmai, a form of modern-day males’s-liberation group, is combating to finish the matrilineal system. One such man advised BBC Information, they “don’t need to convey girls down … we simply need to convey the lads as much as the place the ladies are.”

Accordking to Mukhim: “They really feel that as a result of kids carry the mom’s identify, they’re neither right here nor there. They maintain the view that males do not feel safe sufficient of their spouse’s dwelling nor their very own household as a result of they’ve left their parental dwelling.”

Passah stated that solely a minority of Khasis assist this concept to abolish matriliny. “Look, it is a society in transition. Some households are already giving an equal share of the property. The youngest daughter would possibly get the foremost share as a result of she’s accountable to take care of the ageing dad and mom,” Passah defined.

Though some Khasi fathers now head up sure households, Passah – like most individuals in Meghalaya – believes that age-old Khasi cultural practices via the mom’s line are so embedded of their lives that Khasi’s distinctive matriliny will survive for many years to return.

In the meantime, issues are additionally evolving for Khasi girls. The normal matrilineal society has all the time stored girls out of the bigger decision-making course of in social establishments just like the village council. However in latest instances, Passah believes that it is slowly starting to enhance, particularly in city localities. “I am one of many two girls on the village council in my colony,” she stated. “We have by no means had girls there, so this can be a step ahead.”

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