The end of February heralds the time for my next monitoring visit to India. This upcoming trip will take me to 2 of the North Eastern states known as the Seven Sisters. The area itself is wedged between Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar and is only linked to the Indian mainland by a small 14 mile strip of West Bengali territory. For this reason, the demographics of this region differ vastly than that of the rest of India and are home to a large tribal population.
In Meghalaya, one of the states I am due to visit I was surprised to learn that the Khasi population who are indigenous to this region are one of only a few dwindling matrilineal societies still in existence around the world. Matriliny is the practice of descent through the female line whereby property and inheritance are passed from mother to daughter. Within the Khasi tradition wealth and surnames are passed down from mothers, and husbands are bound to live with their wives family after marriage. At first glance it’s easy to testify to some sort of feminist utopian existence in which women control household finances and have decision making capacity of what this is expended upon. However, the more detailed the analysis, the more cracks begin to appear.
A slow onset of patriarchy has been observed and is reported by women as experienced through exclusion within the political decision-making process of their communities. Khasi women in recent times have continued to express a frustration over being crowded out of the process whereby decisions are come to at the society level. This is exacerbated by exclusion from participation of local grassroots governing bodies who determine the future of the communities they preside over. Unfortunately, this is a scenario that is seen the world over and it seems not even traditional systems of matriliny are enough to mitigate this entrenched discrimination based on gender lines.
At the household level in which women seem to be the most empowered, there are nuances which challenge this idea entirely. Many families in Meghalaya have confirmed that even though women are the custodians of family wealth and inheritance, they are very rarely able to influence control over these resources. The presence of latter day colonialism, Christianity and modern day globalisation has heightened the practice of latent patriarchy in which male members of the family assume supreme decision making capacity.
So as I prepare to embark on this trip I am wary not to romanticise the practice of matrilineal societies within the state. I will constantly need to remind myself that the inherent, systematic challenges that face women in communities worldwide is still in existence even in places where matriliny is embedded. Ironically here, as the world over, women have to continually strive to prove themselves as capable beings who are able to contribute to the mechanisms which determine their lives. And so the fight for equality, freedom and justice continues.