Friday, July 23, 2010
Status of women in the contemporary matrilineal Khasi Pnar Society
Earlier during the late eighties and early nineties, I remember Khasi Pnar society was described as a matriarchal society, l personally made this mistake when a student at a seminary in Manchester who was then studied about the status of women in Christianity, asked me how does women in your matriarchal society react to male oriented Christian church? The question caught me off hand and I was not able to provide her the answer which can be of help to her study. It was this lady during one of our long discussion who helped me understand from my own account that we are matrilineal and not matriarchal society, because the female enjoy no special status than the fact that she merely carries the lineage or the family line.
Does a Khasi Pnar women share the same status with her male counterpart? The argument is that Khasi Pnar women share the same status with man because both enjoy equal rights as per Khasi Pnar custom and traditions. It was also argued that in the Khasi Pnar society women were never barred from competing with her male counterpart in whatever field of work or for whatever position in the societal hierarchy. In that case one can use this same parameter and conclude that the Tribals in India do not need a reservation because they were never barred from competing with other community in the country. Is this a fair argument? The question is not whether women is given equal rights and privileges in the society or not, but rather why very few women succeed in politics or why very few Khasi Pnar women occupies high offices?
The answer is though we all share this false perception, the fact of the matter is Khasi Pnar men still have this prejudice against women that we inherited from our ancestors. Woman is still a second class citizen of the society.
Women have no political power or no role in politics for that matter. Traditionally, from grass root politics to the top echelon of the political authority woman has very limited or no role whatsoever to play. In the Khasi context the very name U Syiem connotes a male entity; the limit that a woman can achieve is the preordained position of ka Syiem sad. The Myntris the Laskor are reserved and can only be occupied by the dominant half- the male species of the Khasi Pnar homo sapient. In the Pnar of Jaintia context; women do not even have the right to vote in the election to the Daloiship not to mention entering in the fray which is traditionally a taboo and is a reserved male bastion. This bigotry is obvious even in the grass root level of the so called Khasi Pnar democracy (if we can call it democracy), when by tradition only person who sport a moustache can take part in the community deliberation (dorbar shnong). Even the highest office in the local council is preordained for male species for the title of the office itself is biased towards man and it provides no opportunity whatsoever for a woman to become u Rangbah Shnong. It should always be a man- u Rangbah. So much about the about the so called Khasi democracy.
Status of Khasi Pnar woman in Religious context of the society. During one of our debate a friend who is the editor of a Khasi biweekly published from Jowai, argued that in his church women have equal rights and opportunity like any man. He elaborated that they even have their own wing or organisation, where they can do things at their own pace and understanding. Does that mean equality? I doubt it. When I ask him can a woman preside over the offering of a mass? Then he answered except that. Is that equality, when women were not given the same right as man? How many churches allow women to become a deacon or member church committee when by definition only a man can become a Tymmen Basan or a Rangbah Balang? How many churches have ordained pastors or minister and gave woman pastor equal rights and opportunity to those of her men counterpart? How many churches had had a woman as the head of the church? Sadly not even a liberal church like the Unitarian has a history of a woman President, although the church since its inception by virtue of its tenet women were given equal rights and status and had ordained a woman minister (who was trained both at Meadville in Chicago and Harvard) since 2002 and that woman has rose to occupy some higher position in the Unitarian Union but still not the president. My editor friend then said, it was written in the Bible you know, that women should bow before her husband he meant to quote Paul letter to Ephesians (5:22) “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.” Then I ask him was it Jesus who said that or Paul the apostle. We can quote many such anti-woman saying from the Bible, and it is always someone else and not Jesus who was recorded to utter those saying. Till now in many churches particularly those in the villages one can see women attending church covering their head as a sign of submission while a man no matter how young or old, does not have to do so. I am no trying to say that submitting to the Almighty is wrong, but the question is why is this disparity, this double standard even in the church which is supposed to liberate the souls and that too in a matrilineal society?
Even in the traditional Niamtre religion all the top slots on the religious hierarchy is by ‘divine ordination’ meant for men folks, every top post be it, u Daloi, u Pator, u Sangot or any other position other than ka Langdoh the Priestess, is always occupied by a male candidate. It is indeed ironic that in spite of the fact that in the contemporary Khasi Pnar society; any religious gathering be it Christian church services or other, it is always the fairer sex who are in majority yet, they still have to satisfy with the position that their male counterpart and the tradition had pre-determined for them without contesting. Why our women folks readily accept this status as if it is preordained by the Creator for them?
Is it because we still have this archaic mindset against women that our thought process is still very much influence by ancient adages like “hens do not crow, or if and when hen crow then the world is destined to doom?”
A friend who is a leader of one big organization in Jaintia hills, asked in one of our debate, why should we allow women to wield more power when she already enjoy the right to the lineage and property? As for lineage as per the Pnar traditional belief, women earned that right because during the whole birth process for nine long months she fought a lone battle. The Pnar saying have it that she carries a double edged sword “ka wait samen,” with the same sword she can help bring new life to the World and it can also kill her in the process. Legend also has it that during one intertribal feud, the enemy conducts a surprise invasion on the Pnar settlement, while all the men folks were out in the field. The women who were in the village had no other option but to fight to the last to defend their children and property. The men folk on arriving realized what their mothers, wives, daughters, sisters and nieces had accomplished; arrived to a sensible conclusion that women naturally have the right to lineage and property. Is taking lineage through a female line a status or a burden for a woman?
It will not surprise me if the 2011 census comes up with a startling revelation that the numbers of single parent families is growing in the contemporary Khasi Pnar society, and by that I mean a family in which the mother is the head and the sole bread winner of the family. Single parent family in the Khasi Pnar society only means one thing and that is mother having to take care of all her children, why? Because it is very easy for a man to leave his wife, the children do not belong to him, because they do not take his family name. Many factors which are obvious even to the naked eyes indicate to the grim reality of a growing number of single parent families. In a way giving a lineage through the female line is a burden than a status for a woman, but a burden that every mother cherishes even if she had to face the challenges of doing the parenting single handedly.
Much hue and cry was made about the fact that Khasi Pnar women also enjoy the sole rights to property. A friend remarked that the double edged sword really means that female of the society had both the lineage and the property in her custody and left man bereft of anything. This is also the argument of the SRT. But the question is what property? How many families in the Khasi Pnar society really own property? In fact if by property we mean land, as per Khasi Pnar tradition, land belongs to the community. Individual or the family owns the land only while one is using it, the ownership of the land return to the community the moment one stop using it. Even in the contemporary society only middle class people has property and such family share their property equally among all the siblings. So this argument is also not free from flaws.
My appeal to our male-chauvinist leaders both the CM (I means DD Lapang because on the last count there were four of them) and one of his Deputy BM Lanong, who had started the ruckus (if they are still holding the posts by the time this piece is published) to shed one’s prejudice and try to understand the fact of the matter before one jump to conclusion. It is the general expectation that our leaders should educate us makes us wiser and come up with informed views whenever they made any statement in the public. Public space is not their private domain to be use as an opportunity to vent personal vendetta against anyone. Nobody has that right because public space is sacred.