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How some men want to change Meghalaya's matrilineal society

A men’s rights group called Syngkhong Rympei Thymmai (SRT), meaning a wedge that stabilises the shaking home, has been advocating equitable division of property to all children irrespective of gender. Broadly, SRT has been striving to overturn mat...

ET Bureau|
Nov 30, 2019, 11.15 PM IST
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Khasi
Among the Khasis, the youngest daughter is the steward of ancestral property, which had passed down to her mother from her grandmother and so on.
By Smita Pranav Kothari

Marbakynsai Marbaniang, 37, guffaws as he recalls the time he moved into his wife’s mother’s house in Sohryngkham 10 years back. “Even the way you press Colgate is different,” he says. Before getting married, he used to press the toothpaste from the bottom. Now he presses the tube from the top.

Marbaniang is among some 1.7 million people belonging to the Khasi-Jaintia Scheduled Tribes (ST) of Meghalaya, who follow the matrilineal system. Unlike most of India, where a sobbing bride moves into her husband’s house, a man in Meghalaya “adjusts” in his wife’s house after nuptials. Apart from the Khasi-Jaintia tribes in the state, the Garo tribe, which comprises nearly 30% of the state population of around 3 million, also follows the matrilineal culture of passing down the family name and ancestral property through the female line of descent. “Clan’s lineage and custody of ancestral property are the nerve centres around which the matrilineal system exists in Meghalaya,” says Banrida Langstieh, associate professor at the department of anthropology at North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong.

This way of life, dating back centuries, is facing challenges as some men say it is not working for them, and the centrality of the maternal uncle disappears. It is becoming common for people to pass on acquired property (as against inherited assets) to male children. The problems faced by the men in these tribes are not dissimilar to what women face in the patriarchal norm elsewhere, and shines a light on the centrality of inheritance in gender dynamics.

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There are close to 500 matrilineal societies in the world, with Minangs of Indonesia being the largest of them with a population of over 4 million. The common denominator among all of them is that lineage of its members is traced through the mother’s side of the family. Their cultural practices (for example, post-marital residence and inheritance of property), however, vary.

In India, Nairs in Kerala practised matriliny till 1925 when it was terminated by law. In contrast, although 80% of the tribal folk in Meghalaya have converted to Christianity and the state’s neighbours practise patriarchy like the rest of India, matriliny is the norm among a majority of the tribal populace in Meghalaya. Langstieh says the matrilineal culture in Meghalaya is the only surviving system of the sort in India on this scale.

Shariti Syiem, 36, wife of Marbaniang, is the only daughter of her parents. The tribal tradition of the region prescribes that when a man marries the youngest (or only) daughter of a Khasi family, he has to settle in his mother-in-law’s house. “As Shariti is the only daughter, there was no escape for me but to join her family,” Marbaniang says.

Among the Khasis, the youngest daughter is the steward of ancestral property, which had passed down to her mother from her grandmother and so on. But increasingly, acquired property doesn’t necessarily pass on along matrilineal lines. Syiem, who says she loves her son as much as her daughter, wants to give “something” to her son. Syiem runs a three-room bed-andbreakfast (BnB) in Sohryngkham (a village in East Khasi Hills, some 21 km from the capital Shillong) on the same premises as her ancestral house where she lives with her family. “I’ll give the BnB house to my son whereas the ancestral house will go to my daughter,” Syiem says.

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‘They Die at 40’
A men’s rights group called Syngkhong Rympei Thymmai (SRT), meaning a wedge that stabilises the shaking home, has been advocating equitable division of property to all children irrespective of gender. Broadly, SRT has been striving to overturn matriliny and establish patriliny in the Khasi tribe since 1990. Keith Pariat, former president of SRT, argues that the Khasi men have been languishing because of matriliny, as they don’t have a sense of belonging either in their parents’ home or in their mother-in-law’s. “The Khasi boys drop out of school in Class V-VI, make merry with friends, drink and do drugs, play guitar, and die by 40,” Pariat says.

The condition of Khasi men has degraded to such an extent, Pariat says, that Khasi women do not want to marry them.

According to the National Family Health Survey 2005-06 data, 25% of Meghalaya citizenry marries inter-caste, compared with the national average of 10%. He says the tribal women of Meghalaya end up marrying immigrants from Bangladesh, for example, who may be lured by the income tax exemption accorded to STs under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India. Because of the union of Khasi women with non-Khasi men, the purity of the Khasi tribe is on the path to extinction, he argues.

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In addition to the matter of property, SRT has also been demanding a change, which is at the core of matrilineal culture — they want children to take the surnames of fathers rather than mothers. Pariat, who along with his three sisters and two brothers uses his father’s title, reasons that a father would feel more responsible towards his children if they belong to his clan. Across the country, Meghalaya, with around 22% single mothers, according to Census 2011, records the highest rate of abandonment of women by their husbands. While this is not a taboo in Khasi culture, it has an undeniable impact on children — they are twice as likely to drop out of school to help their single mothers earn, compared with kids raised by two parents.

Sometimes though, material considerations come in the way of ideology. A Khasi is deemed to be one only if the person takes the name of the mother’s clan, according to the Khasi Lineage Act passed by the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council. This is the key that unlocks reservation quotas for STs in jobs and education. “I allowed my daughter to use her mother’s title to collect the governor’s scholarship,” Pariat says. He adds that he also did not want his daughter to lose out on the ancestral property from her maternal side on account of using her paternal surname. Pariat’s son, however, retains his father’s title.

SRT’s supporters are mostly concentrated in Shillong. The influence of the group’s ideology is limited in rural areas, which constitute 80% of the state. Smit, a village in the district of East Khasi Hills, is the cultural centre where the royal family lives. Arun Lyngdoh, 67, who dons a black Columbia Sportswear jacket, married the present queen mother 35 years ago (In Khasi royalty, brother of queen mother is the king). “In a Khasi family, a father may be the head but mother is the neck and the head turns wherever the neck turns,” he says. After marriage, Lyngdoh relocated to the royal woodand-straw hut. Adjoining the royal residence is a brick-and-mortar house where Lyngdoh’s daughter lives with her husband. Lyngdoh listens to transistor radio in the royal hut, which has no electricity. But when he wants to watch TV, he visits his daughter’s house. “No, no, no shift to patriliny here,” Lyngdoh attests about the 5,000 subjects living in Smit.

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When a movement for patriliny similar to SRT erupted in 1961 in Cherrapunjee, the epicenter of Khasi culture, the three-dozen men of the group were chased by women in the bazaar with knives, old-timers recall.

Langstieh says there is no written script suggesting the origin of matrilineal system in the tribes of the region. However, she adds that folktales suggest that their tribal ancestors were warriors from Southeast Asia who fought feuds with other tribes. Since there was no certainty of men returning from these battles, they gave entitlement of land and lineage to the women (whom they had left behind) so that their identity did not perish.

The Vanishing Uncle
Moreover, the maternal uncle, who was a central figure in the original matrilineal structure, has been taking backstage in the region. Earlier, the maternal uncle would spend most of the day at his sister’s house, disciplining her children, and his earnings from cultivation would also go towards her household. However, as author and priest Sngi Lyngdoh wrote in the preface to the 1994 book The Khasis and Their Matrilineal System: “The present one is a system that has no root in history as a matrilineal system since the uncle as the centre of authority and economy, of discipline and of the government of the family as a clan, has disappeared from the scene… He does not live and work in his sister’s house anymore! He does not feed, clothe and look after his nephews and nieces anymore!”

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Marbaniang is a farmer who works and stays at the state government’s tea estate near Shillong for half of the week. Back in Sohryngkham for the remainder of the week, his wife and kids are his priority. “On some Sundays when I have to get a haircut, I visit my mother’s house in Shillong as the salon is next to the house,” he says. Marbaniang has four sisters. Although in the Khasis, the youngest daughter is supposed to take care of her parents while staying in the ancestral house, Marbaniang’s youngest sister moved to Prague after marrying a Punjabi. Therefore, his other sister is tending to their mother.

Marbaniang realises that like his sister, his nine-year-old daughter might also marry a non-Khasi one day and they (his daughter and her husband) may choose to live as a nuclear family in their own house. “In that case, Shariti and I are mentally prepared to move into an old-age home,” he says.

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While his future son-in-law may not inhabit his wife’s house, Marbaniang wishes that his sixyear-old son follow in his footsteps and conforms to the culture of their ancestors from time immemorial. “Now I drink with my father-inlaw,” says Marbaniang, as proof that he has adjusted to his in-law’s house and that life for a son-in-law like him gets better after a while.

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