The position of Khasi women in the matrilineal society of Meghalaya is being threatened with changing dynamics of land ownership

In a country where most women have faced inequity on grounds like property rights and social status because of their gender, Khasi women, having a long-established matrilineal background, you suppose, is in a position of envy. Well, it needs a Khasi woman to joggle you to reality.

Patricia Mukhim, writer, social science researcher and editor of The Shillong Times, has been hammering on the point for some time now — with changing times, Khasi women’s lot is no better than that of poor women in other parts of India. “In fact worse. She is poor, the marriage system is too loose allowing the husband to walk out on her any time and he is not bound to provide for her and their children even if he can afford it.”

A Padma Shri awardee, Ms. Mukhim, besides interpreting her Khasi society in the light of modernity on various platforms, including newspaper and journal articles and seminars, has also expounded on it in detail in her well-received chapter Khasi Matrilineal Society: Challenges in the 21st Century in a book on matriarchy by well-known German feminist Heide Abendroth Goettner.

She explains the catalytic point by drawing a strong linkage between limited land resources in Meghalaya and the deteriorating status of the women there. Khasis count roughly one million in a population of about 2,964,007 in Meghalaya, a small State covering an area of just 3,000 sq ft.

“Like other States, Meghalaya is also seeing changes in the name of development and land is always the first casualty. But unlike other States, land is not just a commodity for the Khasi society, it has been a common resource, a space for homestead given to an individual by the community.”

Traditionally, Khasis were not a very rich community. Property in a Khasi society meant a house to live and some jewellery passed on by the mother to the daughters, with the lion’s share going to the youngest one, locally called khatduh. The house goes to khatduh; parents in old age live with her. So can any family member in trouble. Therefore, even though khatduh owns the ancestral house, she can’t sell it. If she wishes to do so, she would need the permission of her siblings and also her maternal uncle.

Ms. Mukhim adds, “So that way, land has been looked as a common property. This has a history. In the old times, when a daughter other than the khatduh would get married, it is the community’s responsibility to give her a piece of land to build her own home. The couple and their children owned the land as long as they lived and cultivated on it. So you can see that ownership of land is a fairly a new concept in Khasi society.”

With land now gaining value today, there is a massive challenge staring at the Khasi society. “And women,” says Ms. Mukhim, “are bearing the brunt of it.” The society can be very disempowering for women. The community today has no land to give her, she has to buy it. She is often less educated, so earns less; the government gives her no financial or health security, and yet she has to carry out all the traditional roles she has been given by the society, like taking care of the children.

With many fathers leaving their families, the number of single mothers is high in Meghalaya today. “You will find many children out of school because the mothers can’t afford their education,” says Ms. Mukhim.

Ms. Mukhim who was recently in the Capital to take part in Cultures of Peace: Festival of the North East explains that in a traditional Khasi society, marriage was not prevalent until Christianity came in. “Co-habitation was the norm. With Christianity, they became men and wife.” Still, tradition has its traces, many men take more than one wife, “so there is also a lot of power game at times and it leads to a lot of abandonment of women by men.”

Ms. Mukhim runs Indigenous Women’s Resource Centre in Meghalaya for capacity building of such tribal women. “We are addressing the issue in Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh also,” she says. Also, she is writing yet another book on the subject. “It will be called When the Hens Crow. With changing times, it is time for the hens to crow.”

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