Traditionally, women of these communities — the Nair and Mappila of Kerala, the Khasi and Garo of Meghalaya, and the Nicobarese of the Nicobar Islands — stay at their parents’ home and inherit property. S. Anvar, a chronicler of South Indian Muslim heritage, notes Marakkayar Muslims of coastal Tamil Nadu follow the same system too. Why do some communities allow women to stay at their birth home? Why not others?
If it’s all to do with inheritance, what do nomadic hunter-gatherers do? After all, they have few possessions to bequeath.
The Irula here in Tamil Nadu have been forced to settle down over the years, but they haven’t given up their hunter-gatherer ways entirely. When Kali, an Irula tribal who works with us, got married, he lived with his wife’s family for a while. Then he moved to his mother’s settlement. When his widowed mother remarried, Kali and his wife lived with his step-father’s family for some time. At other times, the couple lived with the wife’s sister, aunts, uncles, and brother’s in-laws. If we had to pick up Kali before going on a hike, we had to first find out his current residence. Like many other tropical foraging communities, Kali and his wife didn’t move away from their parents permanently. I couldn’t find a comparable primate society.
If this is a reflection of the family life of early humans, then the boys-stay-and-girls-leave tradition developed later, when we made the shift from nomadic foraging to animal husbandry and agriculture about 10,000 years ago.
A team of anthropologists led by Kim Hill of Arizona State University says the level of cooperation and group organisation among our hunter-gatherer forebears is the reason for the exceptional success of mankind.
When members of early hunting-and-gathering humans travelled between groups, new ideas and innovations travelled with them and spread to a wide network of people. Such cultural exchanges gave our ancestors an edge over other primates and rival human species.
Although some members of a hunter-gatherer band were related by blood or marriage, several were unrelated to each other. Yet they all cooperated. No other primate appears to collaborate with unrelated individuals in hunting, gathering, and sharing food, and rearing children. This behaviour is unprecedented in the animal world.
By staking ownership of land and accumulating wealth, we changed the dynamics. According to a theory proposed by economist Brishti Guha, women stay home and till the land in societies that are at war. Besides, the Mappila and Marakkayar are maritime tradesmen, while Nicobarese are hunters. In all these cases, women stay with their parents and kin since their husbands are absent for long periods of time. The flip side of the situation is the husbands have no way of ascertaining the paternity of their wives’ children. Rather than invest in a child with whom they may share no genes, they invest in their sisters’ children with whom they definitely share some genetic affinity. Therefore, wealth passes through women in such communities.
If women lived in their in-laws’ households, paternity of children is not in doubt. That’s why girls are made to leave their parental homes. In such communities, assets are handed down father to son. This is not the last word on the subject and we can look forward to many other theories in the future.
It seems ironic we established our uniqueness as humans by evolving an exceptional collaborative lifestyle, but in dealing with property and assets, we relapsed into a non-human primate manner of dealing with relationships.
Once I became independent, I fledged from my parents’ nest. A few years later, my brother went halfway across the world, married, and settled down. Like urban, nuclear families everywhere, both sexes emigrated.
A few years after Rom and I moved to our farm, an interesting thing happened.
My parents dispersed — they came to live with Rom and me.