Monday, May 29, 2023

ULBs and Gender Politics in Naga Society – Part 2

(The Issue of the Urban Local Bodies (ULB) elections in Nagaland, along with women reservation and gender issue, had earlier attracted vehement, even violent, reactions from the Naga public and further divided the Naga society. Even lives were lost. Another attempt was made to impose these elections, but thankfully, this time the State Government withdrew the legislation before things got out of hand and the matter has died down for now. But this is sure to rise up again in some form in the near future. Sadly, after so many years, a lot of the issues under discussion still seem to be in a state of confusion. This is an attempt to bring some clarity as the writer sees them).
Gender equality is an emotive issue, with everyone having an opinion, very often strong ones. And they are usually very different, depending on the cultures people come from because that is the prism through which we all look at the issue. Therefore, this is one issue where it is best for everyone to respect each other’s views, tolerate our differences and learn to co-exist and co-operate.
For Nagas, “Gender-Equality” is basically a foreign concept and not according to Naga culture. The little I have seen of what gender-equality is as promoted by feminists seem mostly promoted by Western women and has more to prove that women are not inferior to men or even to prove, in certain cases, that women are superior to men! Women empowerment is fine and we must all strive to do this but numerical equality for its own sake is neither possible nor makes much sense!
Naga Society not Patriarchal
But first of all, let us try to clarify whether Naga society is “patriarchal” or not? In the wake of the election of Mrs Salhoutonuo Kruse in the Western Angami Assembly constituency, someone from Khonoma, in a social media post, boasted that well-known patriachal Khonoma has set-up and voted a woman to power! This is factually wrong on all counts. Although Salhoutonuo comes from Khonoma, she was not a candidate of Khonoma village alone; she represents all the villages in the entire Western Angami assembly constituency and originally came from Peducha in the same constituency.
But more importantly for our discussion, Khonoma village and its people cannot be termed “patriarchal” in any sense of the term. The trouble is, feminists and women activists, including Naga women, have given themselves such a diluted and broad definition of the word in order to suit their own vested propaganda and points of view that the meaning of the word itself has become confusing to most people. But no Naga tribe that I know of, in the past or now, is ruled by an all arching Patriarch, not even among the Semas with their chiefships or the Konyaks with the absolute rulers, the Anghs – the systems are different. Certainly, there is no such thing among the Angamis and the Tenyimia group of tribes. Indeed, the “pure democracy” of the Angamis is the very opposite of Patriarchy. In the case of the Angamis Hutton said that “it is difficult to comprehend how, in view of their peculiar independence of character, their villages held together at all before the coming of the British Government”. The Angami also exercised a kind of veto power where the individual himself was concerned. Patriarchy denotes the presence of an all-powerful patriarch to whom everyone pays allegiance and blind obedience. Democracy and patriarchy are anathema to each other; one cannot exist/survive in the presence of the other.
Naga society is not patriarchal but patrilineal. The family name and the family tree are passed down through the male children. So here hinges the very important issue of identity. This is where issues of ancestral property distribution etc comes up. But let us come back to that a little later and first discuss Naga culture and how we look at the entire gender issue.
In Naga (Angami) society, we look at the man-woman relationship as a “partnership” and there is no competition about being “equal”! They complement each other and one without the other is incomplete – together they complete one another and form a whole unit. Each has a different role to play which the other is not naturally gifted to do so. For example, child-bearing and early rearing cannot be done by a man, or as capably as a woman, however much he may try. Likewise, there are other areas in which both a man and a woman have natural abilities to play their own roles. In this sense and context, “equality” is neither wanted nor useful. On the other hand, the search for equality for equality’s sake, can and usually end in unhealthy competition between the two. Even the celebrated Naga Feasts of Merit cannot be performed without the woman at the man’s side. If the wife had pre-deceased the husband, it cannot be performed! Or even if performed, these cannot be used for live occasions by present/future generations. This is the reason why the Hiekha Khwehu (Dahou) in Khonoma village is the only one that can be used by the Age-groups for their annual song fest and group competitions!
But “ability” is a different issue. And each one, man or woman, must be enabled/empowered to contribute to the best of their ability and such abilities should not be stifled. In many societies, for whatever reasons, women have largely been relegated to the “home and kitchen”. There is nothing wrong with “home and kitchen” for this is from where every child, including statesmen and rulers, come from. But most societies have given it a slanted look as if these were somehow “inferior”! Will we have hate-filled and violent societies if we have warm, cooperative and harmonious/loving families?! I don’t think so. The unity, cohesiveness and caring that the mother can inspire and engender in the members of the family cannot be replaced by anyone. Even in Angami society, there are stories about how only because of their women, the clan had stayed together and united. On the other hand, many of today’s women tend to think that a public role, such as in visible public meetings, speaking and leading or earning from outside of home and hearth are somehow more important/superior than “home and kitchen”. They are not. They are important only because we conceive them as important. Covid-19 has recently sent many office workers packing to work from home, as opposed to working from office, and giving a different perspective.
Another example, there have been a big hungama recently about not allowing hijab in India and the forcible imposition of hijab in Iran. The issue is not about robing or disrobing a woman. The main issue is about the power to control and police free-will! Such fetters are not healthy. There should be free choice of the person in such matters.
Many champions of gender equality talk about various issues of suppression of women’s rights especially in Naga society. Due to head-hunting and constant warfare in Naga history, a preference for the male child had grown up around Naga families and society traditionally. At the same time, as the man was usually doing the warrior/guard duty even in the fields almost the entire workload slowly and unjustly fell on the woman! Such practices had also given a slant in perception beyond what is true.
On the other hand, if we examine different societies today, Naga society is one of the safest places for women. In Naga society, culturally, if a woman is not safe the man’s honour is at stake – how many societies are there in the world where this can be said?! But, true, physical safety alone is not sufficient. Security has different connotations and they need to be satisfied to the extent possible. Women should be allowed, and be free, to pursue any field of endeavour they choose to follow. Many also point to Naga women not being in politics. This is not just Naga society but elsewhere too and it is a question of personal/family choice. The point is Naga women are not disallowed to enter the field. Traditionally, the women did not take part in community decision-making in public meetings. Hence, the slant in perception. If we exclude the women from decision-making in society, we are excluding about half the population and that will surely result in loss. Very often womenfolk are also more practical and bring new ideas that work. They ought to be included at all decision-making bodies/levels. However, it is also wrong to impose the women on the society – here we will again be forcing them! Why should we or anyone reduce women to mere statistics to fill up a certain quota or percentage? Having the backing of the State and legislation do not make a wrong thing right. For instance, one has seen in many Village Councils in Nagaland, women representatives are nominated but their task usually are to cook and serve the other members and guests. I don’t think this in any way promotes women welfare. Although this may satisfy Government need for statistics one thinks such practices only suppress and demean women instead of empowering them. Meanwhile, if there are women who are able and willing to enter elections, and join public life, let everyone become blind to anatomy and vote ability. That way, all will gain.
Many also talk about the issue of inheritance. Here many misunderstand without even making the effort to objectively look at the issues involved. In most Naga tribal societies, there is a difference between acquired property and inherited ancestral landed property. In the tribe communities I know of, acquired properties can be disposed off by the couple (husband-wife) as they wished. This means they can gift any acquired property, landed or moveable, to any child, boy or girl without discrimination. If there is any discrimination regarding acquired properties, it is an aberration and a fault of the individual family and not that of the tribe community or society. Another example from Khonoma. An ancestral woman of Chasie clan, a refugee who took shelter in Tunjoy village along with other family members, following the 1879-80 Battle of Khonoma and British persecution, returned and married a man from another khel. She was good at making hair bands for women. She used her talent and earned enough to purchase a jhum field on the outskirts of the village. This she gifted to a son of her own choosing without any interference from her husband. One of her grandsons, who became a Naga wrestling champion, was still living in this plot till his death last year – this same person was kind to take me to meet with the family in Tunjoy who had given shelter to our ancestors in 1879-80.
In the case of ancestral landed property, it is inherited by the male children. They are usually only landed property exclusively in the village. This involves the patriliny system involving the ‘family tree’ and the name of the clans. Here one’s identity is deeply embedded. Therefore ancestral landed property in the village, obviously, cannot be distributed to both male and female children as the female child will marry outside the clan (intra-clan marriage is prohibited) and take a different name. If ancestral landed property were distributed to both male and female children, absolute chaos will result for the community and village society, when the woman’s children from outside the village or tribe, come to claim landed property of the family/clan in the village. Identity issues will also become blurred. This cannot be allowed. What also needs to be remembered is that these inherited landed properties in the village by the male children are not to be sold or disposed off as they (inheritors) are mere temporary custodians. The properties are meant to be kept, used during the life span of the person, improved upon and handed down to his progeny so as to sustain the clan and its traditions/history etc. (It is also incumbent upon the male child/children, inheritors of the landed properties, to look after the parents and other dependents in the family, including the female children.)
The same may be true in a matrilineal system such as those followed by the Khasis and Garos etc in Meghalaya where the female children inherit the properties and perpetuate the clan name. But I have not heard of anyone fighting for the gender-equality of the males in Meghalaya?! Why did the Khasis adopt matriliny and the Nagas patriliny? Or why some are born tribal and others are not? Questions can be endless and even unhelpful. The rational common sense, therefore, is for everyone to learn to respect our differences so that we can all co-exist peacefully and even meaningfully through cooperation. This is possible if we all believe that our cultures, however different to one another, are given to us all by God for a purpose.
Charles Chasie
D’ Block, Kohima

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