The forces of modernity have brought tremendous change in the attitudes and values of the Khasi in the last few decades which finds the most visible expression within the family organization. The advent of Christianity and the forces of modernization such as education, industrialization, urbanization, literacy, communication, transportation etc have played a key role in changing the ways of life of the Khasi society which has undoubtedly weakened the matrilineal system. Unlike many other matrilineal societies across the world, a unique feature of Khasi matriliny is that it has survived the test of time. It is today one of the oldest surviving matrilineal communities in the world. The proposed the Khasi Inheritance of Property Bill 2021, by the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council (KHADC )that will enable all siblings to get equal share of parent’s property will certainly be an important catalyst in bringing about a transition in Khasi matriliny.
By Dr. Rekha M Shangpliang
CHALLENGES TOWARDS KHASI MATRILINY AND GENDER RELATIONS
The Khasi have come a long way from the traditional normative way of living based on cultural expectations to that of modern urbanized living. Forces of modernity have brought tremendous changes in the attitudes and values of the Khasi in the last few decades which finds the most visible expression within the family organization. The advent of Christianity and the forces of modernization such as education, industrialization, urbanization, literacy, communication, transportation etc have played a key role in changing the ways of life of the Khasi society which has undoubtedly weakened the matrilineal system. What is more striking is the fact that such external factors have not only imposed a severe strain on the matrilineal system but also made women the center of attack for all the supposed ills of the system. Therefore there is a need to explore the redefinition of the traditional normative roles within the family organization. The following are a few areas in which such challenges and strain are visible :-
1. Declining Function of the Clan
The clan or the kur is the nucleus around which the whole Khasi social structure revolves. While the basic functions of the clan are socio-political, socio-economic and socio-religious, in nature, what is visible today is the declining role of the clan as an elementary functioning religious and economic unit of the society. Many rituals which required the function of the clan are slowly losing ground with the advent of Christianity. One such ceremony is the ‘Jer-khun’, (naming ceremony)which emphasized one’s duty towards the clan (symbolic meaning attached to each article that was offered such as bow and arrow, sword, conical basket). The intricate death rites have been replaced by burial among the Christians. With intermarriage taking place with other communities the patrilineal influence is flowing into Khasi culture as a result of which independent conjugal families are taking the father’s title or clan name for the children. The close knit clan which functioned as a binding force for the whole clan members as ‘shikurshikpoh’, is losing ground basically due to changes in religious belief systems that has eroded some important clan based ceremonies and rituals that required the unity of all clan members. One of the distinctive determinants that have made the conjugal family a viable option in the modern context, resulting in the elevation of the father’s role ,is the issue of economics(Khongwar 2018 :116). The Khasi family as a domestic unit today functions more closely as a single individualistic family having implications for the unity of the sibling group as a corporate entity.
2. Role of Mother’s Brother
As is evident in many Anthropological literature, within the matrilineage family, authority is predominantly, if not exclusively vested in males, similarly among the Khasi, avuncular authority which is vested on the mother’s brother or maternal uncle known as Ukni is one of the basic principles underlying their matrilineal set-up. The maternal uncle or U kni is the spiritual and moral guide for his sister’s children and even provides for them. He is the centre of authority and economy, the pivot around which the family revolves, is a highly venerated personage of vast importance upon which the decisive and unhindered authoritative role is exclusively vested. The maternal uncle’s role and responsibility towards his matri-kins is implicated by his economic duties in which he is in a position of power and control over the lineage property where women are simply custodians and trustees of such property. However this system of male authority governed by the mother’s brother over his sister’s family matters is today challenged by paternal authority as other members of the family(elder sisters of the khadduh) have branched out of the ancestral home of the khadduh to create separate nuclear families thereby limiting the role of the maternal uncle to only the khadduh’s home. There is an increasing role of paternal authority today in Khasi conjugal households where the father U Kpa exercises an important influence over the wife and children. The Khasi dictum “U Kpa u ba ai ka longrynnieng” spells out the potestal authority of U Kpa within the conjugal Khasi household. Furthermore, the father in a Khasi household has a reputable position as the Khasis believe in the saying “U kpaubalah ban iai ai, U kniuba tang ha ka iap ka im, which may be translated as ‘the father who supports everything, but the maternal uncle comes in only in times of life and death. This has overshadowed the role and importance of the ᷃Kni as an a vunculate in his sister’s house. Thek᷈ni no doubt continues to enjoy a revered position whose decisions are still considered important in matters relating to marriage and engagement ceremonies of his nieces and nephews.
3. Role of Ka Khadduh
The position of women in the Khasi society becomes clear when we examine the role of the khadduh (youngest daughter), who is the traditional heir to the ancestral property of the household. As an heir to the family property, the youngest daughter is not only expected to be closely guided by the counsel of her mother’s brother who controls the property but also obliged to look after her aged parents and other dependent members of the family. She is the custodian of ancestral property, though not the full heir, she performs the religious ceremonies as she holds the religion(ka bat ka niam ). She is the pivot and cementing bond for family and clan relationships and her home functions as a social welfare centre for all members. She therefore faces conflict of roles more particularly conflict of loyalty to her kur and to her husband in areas of decision-making. The institution of the khadduh is a vulnerable one because any mismanagement, abuse or loss of property can pose a threat to the economic stability and continuity of the maternal group. Today the khadduh enjoys all privileges attached to their position but most of their responsibilities are neglected by them, even matters regarding decision making over land and property matters are not consulted with the clan members and maternal uncle. Moreover in cases where the khadduh marries a non-Khasi she loses her right of inheritance and privileges associated with her position.
4. Gender Roles in Khasi Society
The gender roles in Khasi society are clearly spelt out in a popular phrase among the Khasi which says “u rangbahkhatarbor” which means a man has twelve strengths and highlights man’s superior power whereas the woman is the nurturer and the holder (ka nongbat ka nonglum). The cultural ideal of a Khasi woman is that of a keeper (ka nong-rinong-kdup) of the domestic household. Her position within the family organization is based upon her being the perpetuator of the Khasi kinship and traditions.(Khongwar119: 112) Describing the Khasi dance form where male dancers surround the female dancers forming a protective ring around them holding a sword or weed brush in their hand symbolizes protection and defence, and the female dancers dance gracefully within the ring, Tiplut Nongbri in her book “Gender, Matriliny and Entrepreneurship: The Khasi of Meghalaya”, mentions the fact that although matriliny promotes economic pursuits among women, the ideology of gender which views women as agents of reproduction, do not augur well for their development. As perpetuators of the family lineage Khasi women have an important role of producing heirs inorder to maintain the continuity of the family, lineage and clan which has come in the way of their economic pursuits. This has resulted in marginalization of daughters in their choice of careers as compared to sons. Therefore we see a gendered ideology which views women as not capable or not suited to certain tasks and even if they are employed they are treated as secondary workers in the production system.
5. Assertions for Patriliny
In recent times there has been an upsurge of new challenges against matriliny imposing a demand for patriliny. This has been primarily projected by two local organizations championing the cause of patriliny among other demands. The Mait Shaphrang is a movement carried out by a group of Khasi men who propagate the use of fathers’ surnames and also demand for equal division of ancestral property and self acquired property, between sons and daughters. A Khasi married man in his wife’s house maybe loved and respected but he still remains an outsider with no rights to decision making over family matters nor any inheritance rights. Therefore one of the primary objectives of the Mait Shaphrang movement is to do away with matriliny so as to transfer power and authority to a Khasi male. Another organization working along the same principles of asserting Patriliny is the Syngkhong Rympei Thymmei (SRT) which was formed on the 14th of April, 1990 with the motto La Jait Bynriew Ban Kyntiew (to uplift the Khasi community). This organization came into existence in the wake of the weaknesses of the Meghalaya Succession to Self-Acquired Property(Khasi and Jaintia Special Provision) Act 1984, which does not allow the equal distribution of self-acquired property, though it permits the same. So the Act is often seen as baseless and having no relevance at all. The SRT since its inception has been working along its principles of bringing change in the Khasi matrilineal system by focusing on the lineage system that has to be followed along the father’s line and property to be divided among all the children.
However strong the objectives of these two organizations have been, they have not been able to generate collective support from the major population, considering the fact that they have by and large been confined to the urban populace and have not infiltrated the rural areas. The question of preference for patriliny or matriliny has become a matter of choice and individual preference. The Khasis today have also reasoned that such debates are healthy, since it is essential for a community to retrospect from time to time.
Exclusion of women from taking part in political matters is perhaps another example of male superiority in decision making process. Women do not take part in traditional political institutions like the Village Dorbar (Village Council) nor can a woman have her say in any such meetings which goes with an old Khasi saying ‘yndakynih ka lar kynthei ka pyrthei ka la wai,lane la jot ka iing.” (If the hen crows the world including the family has changed for worse) This exclusiveness of males in the Khasi dorbar makes it an exclusive male domain.
The Khasi society today displays a complex interplay between kinship, matriliny, and gender along with the forces of change and modernity. Inspite of new challenges that are facing Khasi matriliny, what is noticeable is that it has survived as a valued institution in the society. Unlike many other matrilineal societies across the world, a unique feature of Khasi matriliny is that it has survived the test of time. It is today one of the oldest surviving matrilineal communities in the world. The proposed the Khasi Inheritance of Property Bill 2021, by the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council (KHADC) that will enable all siblings to get equal share of parent’s property will certainly be an important catalyst in bringing about a transition in Khasi matriliny. Besides uprooting the age-old tradition of inheritance rights through the female line, there will be a visible change in codifying inheritance rights among the Khasi. However the Bill is yet to be approved and its provisions are yet to be made public. In a broader sense what seems to be the question that probes everyone’s mind is whether the implementation of the bill would pose a threat to this age-old customary practice that is so unique among the Khasi.
What's Your Reaction?
Dr. Rekha M Shangpliang is Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, NEHU, Shillong. Her specialization includes Sociology of Environment, Gender, Family and Kinship. She has 3 books to her credit and has a number of articles published in National and International journals. Some notable contributions are her work on Matriliny, Forest and Khasi, Gender and livelihood interventions etc.