Of the non-indigenous woman and her plight in urban slums of Shillong

I am currently involved in a research project - Evidence based policy planning for women in poor urban areas in an indigenous context Case Study: Shillong, Meghalaya State India - which is actually focused on indigenous women in the urban slums of Shillong. However, we also talked to number of non-indigenous women who reside in the urban slums. One of our discoveries through the course of this research is that these non-indigenous (or non-tribals) women are comparatively more disadvantaged than the indigenous women and I would like to highlight their plight in this blog.

Most of the non-tribals living in the urban slums of Shillong hail from Bangladesh, Bihar and Nepal and share similar sense of nationality to this place as the tribals or the indigenous residents living here. However the larger indigenous community seems to be hostile towards them and label them “Dkhar” (outsider), which creates a sense of alienation in them. I met a wonderful woman named Maya with whom I had a wonderful interaction. I was overwhelmed by what she had to say about herself as an outsider, Maya who also interestingly speaks fluent local language Khasi, says -

the headman here have told us to leave so what can we do, we have to leave, but how can we leave this place, we were born here, my parents also died here, my children were all born here, how can we leave this place, here the Bihari people will go back to their Bihar, but us, we don’t even know our village, I was born and brought up here I don’t even know my origin, where will I go”

Maya reflects the story of many other non-indigenous populations who share parallel misery, they are not a part of the social or political sphere in the community and they feel small. They live with the constant fear of being knocked out from their home and asked to return back to where they came from, but where would these poor people return? They belong here, they have been here for ages, I feel it is ethically unfair to chase them away.

They are marginalized and have an inborn sense of inferiority and isolated feeling. A non-tribal woman cannot be a part of the community women’s group called the seng-longkmie or seng-kynthei. The fact that she cannot speak the local language creates a barrier for her to access health-care services in the hospitals, as most of the staff in the hospitals would not entertain her language. She feels belittled because of her non-tribal status and some women have also mentioned that they are treated rudely because they are non-tribal and are neglected.

When it comes to decision making, it’s her husband who takes all major decisions, including decisions regarding her sexual reproductive health. Indigenous women also have certain tribulations but they enjoy more authority and status in the community as it’s her native land. They have the back- up of their people in every endeavor they take and have seng kynthei who particularly addresses to issues regarding women in their community. They can raise their opinion in any matter in the society, be it social or political. But non-tribal women are voiceless in every sphere of life, their role is degenerated to just a child bearing entity.

I do not mean to imply here that each and every non-indigenous woman is going through the same affliction. There are, of course, some better-off, educated non- indigenous women who also holds up-standing position in society. But what I highlight here accounts for the majority of poor non-indigenous women in slums who I came across. 

I as a young indigenous researcher foresee a matrilineal-matrilocal society to be a bias-free, happy haven for all women whether they are indigenous or non-indigenous. I am sure that strong and industrious Khasi women in this society have the capacity to address the hardships of non-indigenous women to make her matrilineal society more proud.

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