The facts and fiction of matriliny
Being a Khasi myself, I have always been proud of my matrilineal society. In this community the ancestral property of the family is usually inherited by the youngest daughter of the family. I believed that this is a place where women are more safe and secure. From the series of experiences I had in different parts of India, I would like to cite one such example from Perambalur in Tamil Nadu during my fieldwork there. Women and young girls there are never allowed to travel alone. Outsiders are told to be extra careful. Of course it is always good to be able to adapt with their tradition and beliefs, but it always make me feel insecure and unsafe when everyone keeps on reminding us about putting on our dupattas (shawls) to cover ourselves before we go out of the hostel. Maybe it is their belief and tradition, and I respect that, but I always feel uncomfortable when they mention that men will be attracted if we go outside without it (dupattas). It was then that I thought that our society is so different compared to theirs.
The Indian Institute of Public Health (IIPH) Shillong gave me an opportunity to interact with many women in different localities in Shillong, where I came to know and understand the other side of my matrilineal society. In one of the Focus Group Discussions on Sexual Reproductive Health, held with a group of six women, the discussion lead to sexual harassment and domestic violence against women. It surprised me when I came to know that all that I was led to believe is not true, and that many women from our own matrilineal society do not have the opportunity to even express themselves. The following story shared by a young mother who herself is a Khasi shocked me. She is being harassed by her husband physically, emotionally and sexually. She told me how her husband beat her and treats her as a sex object. In spite of all this, she is ashamed to come forward with her problems because she thinks that the society will look down on her. What makes her think this way? Is it because our society is only busy presenting a fiction to the world that all women are empowered and they do not have any problems. Facts regarding the experiences shared by women like this young mother are being neglected, which obstructs her from trusting the society and raising her voice.
After I heard similar stories from some of the other women I interviewed, it made me question - how can we be proud, and think of our matrilineal society as an example of a safe place or a perfect society for women?
I am surprised that a society in which I thought women are empowered and free with fewer problems also has women who are being ill-treated. This research makes me realise that Khasi women, too, face similar difficulties to women in a patrilineal society in terms of enjoying rights. Not all women are barred from enjoying their rights or taking their own decision but, I am only speaking of those women who are being mistreated and don’t get opportunity even to speak up or express themselves.
We need to speak often about all of these issues. The society itself should encourage and support women who cannot speak or raise their voice. A safe society for every woman may be difficult to attain, and helping them or supporting them might not solve all their problems, but, we must strive towards it making it a reality not just make-believe.