Meghalaya: Where women call the shots Many Indian women cry out for equality, but a matrilineal culture thrives with little parallel in the northeast. by Subir Bhaumik
Shillong, India - In a far corner of India, a country where women usually cry out for equality, respect and protection, there's a state where men are asking for more rights.
Meghalaya - "Home of Clouds" - is picturesque state with its capital Shillong a regional hub for education and the trend-setter for the Westernised culture that's accepted by most tribes in the country's northeast.
The two major tribes of Meghalaya, Khasis and Jaintias, are matrilineal with a vengeance. Children take the mother's surname, daughters inherit the family property with the youngest getting the lion's share, and most businesses are run by women.
Known as the "Khatduh", the youngest daughter anchors the family, looking after elderly parents, giving shelter and care to unmarried brothers and sisters, and watching over property.
The Khasi Social Custom of Lineage Act protects the matrilineal structure.
Some trace the origins of the system to Khasi and Jaintia kings, who preferred to entrust the household to their queens when they went to battle. This custom has continued to provide women the pride of place in the tribal society.
"Matriliny safeguards women from social ostracism when they remarry because their children, no matter who the father was, would be known by the mother's clan name. Even if a woman delivered a child out of wedlock, which is quite common, there is no social stigma attached to the woman in our society," says Patricia Mukhim, a national award-winning social activist who edits the Shillong Times newspaper.
Mukhim says her society will not succumb to the dominant patriarchial system in most of India.
"We have interfaced with several cultures and our women have married people from other Indian provinces and from outside India. But very few Khasi women have given up their culture," says Mukhim. "Most have transmitted the culture to their children born out of wedlock with non-Khasis."
Anirban Roy, a Bengali married to a Jaintia woman whom he met as a fellow student in a veterinary college, says he faced no problem adjusting to the matrilineal culture of his wife's family.
"Everyone in the wife's clan made it a point to come and introduce themselves, and invite me to their houses either for lunch or dinner to know each other better. Whenever we face a problem, the members of my wife's clan rushed to our help," said Roy. "As a groom, I enjoyed great respect and privilege."
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