Meghalaya’s matrilineal tribe Khasis offer lessons in gender parity

Social status, but little political power still an aspiration

Society

November 22, 2022

/ By / New Delhi

Meghalaya’s matrilineal tribe Khasis offer lessons in gender parity

Khasis have the highest regard and respect for ka longkynthei or womanhood

Amongst the Khasis in Meghalaya, in north-eastern India, women enjoy control over property and inheritance in one of the world's last surviving matrilineal societies, and they continue to occupy public spaces. Unlike other parts of the world, children of the Khasi community are given their mother's last name, husbands live in the homes of their wives, and the youngest daughters are given the inherited property.

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The 2022 Gender Gap Index, released by the World Economic Forum (WEF) puts India at 135th position of 146 nations. Women continue to face an uphill battle for rights and survival in most parts of India, suffering from widespread discrimination in terms of nutrition, education, economic and social independence and leadership in business or politics.

But for centuries, a small tribal community in the north-eastern state of Meghalaya has been led by women, who exercise control over property as well as family matters. Women in Khasi communities enjoy full ownership of the ancestral or clan property. The inheritance tradition amongst Khasis makes the youngest daughter of the family, or khatduh, the custodian of the ancestral land and properties and bestows all responsibility associated with the land, including taking care of aged parents and unmarried or destitute siblings.

“Unlike in other parts of India, it is our woman, not our man, who passes down the family name to future generations. She also inherits and takes custody of her parents’ legacy and tribe. And if she is the youngest daughter, her husband comes and resides in her house,” Nartiang Lei Shillong, a member of Meghalaya’s Khasi tribe, residing in New Delhi, tells Media India Group.

The Khasis are one of the most ancient and vibrant tribes of the north-Indian state of Meghalaya. Their faith in the women as the progenitor and preserver of the race makes them one of the few matrilineal and matrilocal societies in which lineage and kinship are passed down through the female line.  They along with the Jaintia, Bhoi, and War, are collectively known as the Hynniewtrep people, known to be one of the earliest ethnic groups of settlers in the Indian subcontinent.

Tracing the Roots

There have been many myths about the origin of the Khasi tribe. However, a popular folklore recounts that the Khasis come from the Seven Divine Clans. In her 1967 book, The History And Culture of The Khasi People, Hamlet Bareh, an Indian author and historian, traced them to an ancient Austric race in South-East Asia who descended from a Mon-Khmer group of people in the remote Burmese jungles.

In another book, Ka Niam Khasi noted scholar Homiwell Lyngdoh says that the Khasi lands were called ‘Khasdesh’ or the land of the ‘Khos’. Khos comes from the Sanskrit ‘kho’ meaning mind and ‘so’ meaning unwavering, depicting the Khasis as a sturdy warrior people or Agni Kshatriya in ancient Indian writings.

Another belief, according to Valentina Pakyntein, an anthropologist at North-Eastern Hill University, is that the matrilineal system goes back to a time when Khasis had several partners and it was hard to determine the paternity of children.

Matrilineal is not Matriarchal

“People confuse matrilineal structure with matriarchy, however, they are not the same. My tribe is not matriarchal but matrilineal,” Hep Naki Rani, a member of Khasi tribe currently, studying at Delhi University, tells Media India Group.

“Matrilineal denotes kinship with mothers’ or female lines, while matriarchal denotes a form of social organisation in which women are the head or the boss. We firmly believe that, if you take your title maternally, it helps the tribe not vanish from the planet, as women know how to take care of the family, whereas men hardly care about family. A man always goes out for work and any business, while a woman always stays in the house and takes care of everything. A woman gives birth, not a man, so a woman has the right to everything,” he adds.

Though the society is matrilineal, the Khasi women do not hold positions of power in the community. The former rulers of the tribe left their thrones to the son of their youngest sister. Most of the chief government ministers are men, and only a few women serve on village councils.

In this aspect, the gender gap remains perhaps as wide as in other parts of India. Out of 60 members of current Meghalaya Assembly, there are only two women MLAs in Meghalaya, or about 3 pc, while the highest representation of women in this powerful body was a mere 8 pc in 2013 Assembly. The current government also lacks a single woman minister and the previous governments have hardly been any better in giving adequate representation to the women. And the tribal state is yet to have a woman chief minister.

Yet, the Khasi legends are full of stories of women who were known for their power and strength. According to one, the Hindu Warrior-God, Lord Parasuram decided to wage a war against Khasdesh. The Khasis were no match for Lord Parasuram’s armies. Many were killed and many more had to flee.  When the Khasi women saw this, they were incensed and armed themselves to fight back. Lord Parasuram could not bring himself to fight women and returned to his kingdom. The Khasi women thus saved their nation from defeat and subjugation.

Faith and the cultural legacy

The Khasis are a people filled with deep faith. They believe in a Supreme Being, the Creator – U Blei Nongthaw and under Him, there were several deities of water and of mountains and also of other natural objects. By observing patterns in nature, they draw parallels between women and the earth and conclude that it is the Creator’s will to accord her due dignity. This is one of the most important reasons for which the Khasis have the highest regard and respect for ka longkynthei or womanhood.

With the arrival of missionaries, a significant portion of the Khasis have converted to the Christinaity. This has further changed their concept of marriage. Usually, the marriage within a clan remains a taboo. Rings or betel-nut bags are exchanged between the bride and the bridegroom to complete the union. In the Christian families, however, marriage is purely a civil contract.

In Khasi society, the woman looks after home and hearth, the man finds the means to support the family, and the maternal uncle settles all social and religious matters.

Writing about the Khasis, David Roy Phanwar Who wrote his famous collection of essays “The Megalithic Culture of the Khasis” observed A man is the defender of the woman, but the woman is the keeper of his trust.

Though unique in their traditions, the Khasis are not the only matrilineal society. Besides Khasis, there are other tribes including Jaintia in Meghalaya, as well as some others in states like Assam, Kerala, and Karnataka. Though matrilineal families in Kerala and Karnataka have been urbanised, the north-eastern tribes have managed to retain their age-old traditions.

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