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Are (or were) Meghalaya and Kerala matriarchal societies?

March 19, 2008

One hears a lot about matriarchal societies. One hears about Kerala and one hears about the north-east, Meghalaya in particular. The fact is that neither of these states ever practiced Matriarchy.

Matriarchy is not just about descent and inheritance being traced through the female line. The matriarchal system means a system where women have power in “all activities relating to allocation, exchange and production, as well as socio-cultural and political power…” It is the very opposite of a patriarchal system where men “take primary responsibility for the welfare of the community as a whole, and also act as representatives via public office.” It believed that no society in the world has ever had a matriarchal system. The Indian states of Kerala and Meghalaya are no exception.

When descent and inheritance are traced through women it’s called a matrilineal system, but the matriliny is only a sub-system of matriarchy…and does not mean that the women hold any power except in domestic matters (including control over children). In this case the society is termed as a Matrilocal or even a Matrifocal society, but not matriarchal.

However, women in the matrilineal/matrilocal system have a higher status in society than women in a patriarchal system, even if matriliny is not practiced anymore and even if women do not hold more power than the men. Traditionally, in Kerala it was communities like the Nairs and Ezhavas and Warriers and in Meghalaya it’s the the Khasi, Jaintias and Garo tribes (majority of the population of Meghalaya) who practice or used to practice this system. The Tulus in Karnataka have also been known to be traditionally matrilineal. However, the matrilineal system has declined considerably.

meghalaya.jpgMeghalaya
Women in traditional matrilineal societies like Meghalaya in the north-east of India do not have matriarchy (as mentioned earlier). Take the political power. In the state legislature, there don’t seem to be any women at all. The 2 Lok Sabha MP’s from Meghalaya are men and so are the Rajya Sabha MP’s. At the level of the local self-government a village head is a ‘headman’. Clearly, no matriarchy here!

However, the traditional matrilineal system has empowered women in other spheres. In Meghalaya (and in fact much of the north-east), there is no purdah system imposed on women, there is no restriction on women’s physical movement, nor their attire. There is no bride burning, female infanticide or foeticide and no dowry (there are instead cases of a bride’s price) and there is no social stigma attached to a widow re-marrying. So, women in Meghalaya are in a better situation than those in other states in India.meghalaya-women.jpg

A study was conducted to find out the gender disparity in Meghalaya and one question the researchers wanted to answer was:

Was the higher status amongst women in Meghalaya due to the matrilineal system or because of the Christian religion that most practiced?

The Census 2001 data has revealed this about Meghalayans:

  • Christians – 70 percent (most local people)
  • Hindus – 13 percent (most non-local)
  • Tribal Religions – 11 percent (local)
  • Muslims – 4 percent (most non-local)
  • Other Religions (Buddhist, Jain, Sikhs) – the rest (most non-local)

The local people tended to be either Christians or of the Tribal Religions.

This is the Religion-wise results of the study regarding the status/deprivation of women vis-à-vis men:

  • Christians: gender-wise uniform
  • Muslims: Varied.
  • Hindus: Varied.
  • Tribal Religions: gender-wise uniform

The conclusion of the report was that it was indeed the indigenous culture which had led to gender equality and not religion.

kerala.jpgKerala
In Kerala (Southern India) women enjoy a higher status as compared to many other states in India. The sex ratio and high literacy rates show this.

The matrilineal system is believed to have covered almost “half the population of old Kerala” The census of Travancore in 1891 counted 530,000 families, of which 56 percent were classed matrilineal and 44 percent patrilineal. Today however matrilinear system is almost non-existent and not legal either.

When it comes to matriarchy, it is clear that there never was any matriarchy in Kerala. However, women in Kerala seem to be more politically empowered than their sisters in Meghalaya. An article in The Hindu says that a largekerala-women.jpg number of women from Kerala participated in the freedom movement. This tradition has stood them in good stead today and there are not surprisngly, 7 women in the Kerala Legislative assembly. However, there seem to be few women in the Lok Sabha. Overall women are in a minority even in politics.

A study conducted by Ammu Joseph for the Media Foundation amongst women journalists from five states (Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu) reveals that women constitute hardly one per cent of journalists in the Malayalam media. True these statistics are a decade old but the situation could not have dramatically improved.

There are other states which are doing well in terms of women’s participation in politics and in other spheres but if one takes into account the status of women in the family and the sex ratio then certainly both Kerala and Meghalaya stand out as shining examples to the rest of India.

What’s the future for these states?
One wonders however if the change to patriarchy which is the ‘modern’ way will affect the status of women in a bad way. It may not happen in Meghalaya as the state is surrounded by other other states where women are relatively free and heinous crimes against women are not practiced, but Kerala is surrounded by strongly patriarchal societies. In fact even within the state of Kerala itself, amongst the present population, the communities that used to practice matriliny are in a minority.

Another point I wanted to make: If women in patriarchal societies get a raw deal, then men in a hypothetical matriarchal society would get a raw deal too. I guess the men are lucky that there aren’t any matriarchal societies around!

Just some interesting information from the wikipedia about animal societies that are matriarchal :) Humans may never have had matriarchal system but various animals have it! They include:

• Ants
• Bees
• Bison
• Bonobos
• Elephants
• Killer Whales
• Lions
• Spotted Hyenas
• Naked Mole Rats
• Termites

More articles on the North-East can be read here.

Related Reading on Women: Daughter-in-laws badly treated in India
India’s skewed sex-ratio
Side-effects of the shortage of women
Why men batter women
The devaluation of cooking
How women are portrayed in the Indian media
The historical reasons for women fasting during Karva Chauth

(Credits: Photo of the women in Kerala is by Maya and linked to her blog. The photo of the Meghalaya women is from india.netzone. Maps are from the Wiki.)

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31 Comments leave one →
  1. March 19, 2008 1:24 pm

    I had seen (on TV) that ants, termites, bees and elephants live in groups controlled by the female

    also that black-widow spider and praying mantis are two species in which the female is capable of and at times does devour the male …

    but, you may like to check your facts about lions … Their prides are largely made up of females, who do most of the hunting….. but once the prey is killed the dominant male takes the “lion’s share” .. I wonder if their social system can be called matriarchy

  2. Tara permalink
    March 19, 2008 2:09 pm

    a very informative and interesting post. ^_^ Always confused matriarchy with matriliny. Now I know.

  3. March 19, 2008 2:40 pm

    I really thought that Japanese and Chinese had matriarchal society. but wikipedia proved me otherwise.
    I dont know if you remember about a chinese serial in Doordarshan long time back. I forgot its name. It had a old lady as the man (oops woman) of the house. :)

  4. March 19, 2008 2:49 pm

    I don’t know too much about matriarchy in Meghalaya but from what I’ve been told by friends from there, the matriarchy there is quite weak. For example, daughters there may own / inherit property in the way in which sons did in much of the rest of India but in order to sell or otherwise that property, they’d have to get permission from uncles / fathers / older brothers etc. so the ownership of property in itself didn’t mean too much.

    • Benny Lyngdoh permalink
      May 27, 2013 4:30 am

      Firstly, matriarchy doesn’t exist in the human realm. Secondly, the situation has changed since the writer penned this article. As we have over 4 Autonomous bodies, 4 state, 1 Raj Sabha and 1 Lok Sabha female legislators representing the people. The latter was also the youngest female union minister.
      To clarify on the inheritance system of my people, I would put it in this way. Being a tribal community within a small state, and with resources being scarce, we have a unique sharing system in a family, Whereby the youngest daughter becomes the custodian (not the beneficiary) of the family’s wealth; it falls upon her to look upon the welfare and the unity of the family with the maternal uncle being her guide and her husband supporting her in this effort. When she fails this duty or becomes selfish enough, the uncle or even the clan has the right to step upon and intervene. Other than that, she is free to do whatever is necessary for the family’s wellbeing.

  5. March 19, 2008 5:16 pm

    Nita,

    This is a great article about matriarchal societies.I have a slightly different opinion about these societies and others :-)

    I don’t think I can imagine a true matriarchal society :-) But I don’t know why you say that men in such a hypothetical society would get a raw deal.In such a society,I think there would be no horrible crimes against men as there are against women in many societies around the world today.

  6. March 19, 2008 6:42 pm

    Hey thanks all for responding to this very serious article. :)
    Baawara, I shall certainly try to find out a more authentic source of info than the wiki, but I remember seeing a documentary on lions. It’s the female who hunts and get the food…

    Tara, thanks.

    Xylene, no I haven’t seen that serial. But it’s a myth that women in China/japan enjoy a high status. In China they are as bad as us or maybe we are worse.

    Nandita, thanks for that perspective. I think the women must be feeling some sort of moral obligation to take the permission of the males in the family. Which just shows that women aren’t powerful, but they do have a higher status. But I wonder if women in Assam for example are better off than women in Meghalaya? I couldn’t find any authentic info on the same.

    Raj, you do have a good view of women. :) Thank you. :) Well, I too believe that in a matriarchy men wouldn’t be as badly off as women are in a patriarchy (they wouldn’t be commit horrible crimes as you said, either perhaps because of a man’s greater physical power or because of a woman’s softer nature) However men would tend to get less respect and some men who are weak could get ill-treated.

  7. Padmini permalink
    March 19, 2008 7:35 pm

    I don’t know much about Meghalaya. However, I know that there is one very lovable humanitarian in Kerala who has been very influential in uplifting the lives of the poor and needy in that state (and elsewhere too). This is Mata Amritanandamayi (or Ammachi or the “Hugging Saint”) who has created Brahmasthanam temples in India with priestesses conducting pujas. What could be more matriarchal than that! Traditionally, women have never been allowed to even get close to this haloed spot. See attached for pictures and more info. Way to go ladies!
    http://www.amritapuri.org/cultural/temple/wpriest.php

  8. March 19, 2008 8:47 pm

    @Nita
    with web one never knows which websites can be considered reliable ..
    So to take my hair-splitting a little further … I agree (have never doubted) that lionesses do the hunting … but its the dominant male who eats first …
    in a true matriarchy one would expect the females ,who killed the prey, to eat first and then leave the remains to the males. hence my argument that lions do not have a matriarchal society.

    A not-so-reliable link which supports my assertion that dominant male eats first.
    http://www.lions.org/

  9. March 19, 2008 8:50 pm

    Nita,

    I hope you did not misunderstand my views about women :neutral:

    Personally,I would not mind sacrificing a little respect if it would lead to stopping the horrble crimes.About weak men getting ill-treated,I am not exactly sure.As you surely know,women may be emotionally stronger but men too have a few emotions.It is just that men tend to destroy the emotions in them through different means :-D

  10. March 19, 2008 9:10 pm

    Padmini, yes I have heard of that lady and she is indeed quite a woman! btw in maharashtra too we have women priestesses…

    Baawara, well I am not an expert on lions but I don’t doubt that they eat first. But why evaluate lions in the same way as humans…maybe eating first is not preferred by the female! :) I mean, how do we know exactly? Anyway, I am not really arguing with you because I don’t really know.

    Raj, I am not sure I understand you when you say I didn’t understand you! :) Anyway it’s great that a man himself feels that he is willing to live in a matriarchal society, even if it is a hypothetical situation! I personally would prefer an egalitarian society where both men and women stand shoulder to shoulder and face the world. I think this is possible. Matriarchy and Patriarchy both are not healthy situations as one side gets left out.

  11. March 19, 2008 9:14 pm

    In Meghalaya, from what I’ve been told, the requirement to get permission from male relatives to deal with land isn’t just an innate moral obligation but a societal requirement forced on to women. You’re right, they aren’t accorded as high a status in reality as they are in theory.

    Women in Assam: that’s a subject I know little about. From what I do know, Assamese women can broadly be categorised as non-tribal and tribal. I’m not sure what the position of tribal women is — and I suspect it’d vary a great deal depending on the tribe — but as far as non-tribal women are concerned, their position isn’t radically different from women in the rest of India. Specifically in reference to Hindu women, their position was once marginally better simply because of the kind of Hinduism followed in Assam and the general culture of the people but with the advent of rampant consumerism etc. they have increasingly begun to face problems related to dowry etc. which women in other parts of the country face.

  12. March 20, 2008 9:54 pm

    Kerala has not fully given up matrilineal system as yet. My family for example still follows matrilineal system and my kid will ideally have my wife’s surname.. thats unless I marry a north Indian! :-)

  13. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    March 20, 2008 10:12 pm

    Xylene,

    Are you referring to Oshin? I think that was Japanese, not Chinese.

    Vivek

  14. March 21, 2008 4:16 pm

    Balu,

    I sincerely hope the matrilineal system does not disappear from Kerala.My own state is learning so many things from its Western neighbour when it comes to giving women the respect that they deserve.Women in Kerala are treated so much better than their sisters in Tamil Nadu since (many of) you still follow the matrilineal system.The government of Kerala must take steps to safeguard the matrilineal system since it is a much better option than the patrilineal system.

  15. March 22, 2008 1:43 am

    Brilliant blog, nita. Just wanted to add my bit that there are reports coming out that sex ratio is also taking an impact in Kerala. I couldn’t find the news I read but here is a related news story:
    http://www.hinduonnet.com/2004/06/06/stories/2004060611220300.htm

    Will continue to visit you for your future posts.

    Regards

    Thanks Roop Rai. Yes, I too have heard about what you mention. Thanks for the link and look forward to more comments from you. – Nita

  16. March 22, 2008 11:55 am

    A well researched piece, though it does not go into why or how the matrilineal systems evolved. The system was possibly willed by a patriarchical community to ensure that the inheritance went to their own genetic stock.

    Note that the inheritance does not go to the daughters from mothers but from man to his sister’s sons. Nair community in Kerala was a warrior caste. Men used to be away from homes for long to wage wars and they had no way of ensuring that their progeny was really their own. Liaison by Nair women with upper caste Namboothiris was common. When that changed with social reforms, matriliny also ended.
    True that it accorded a higher status to Nair women. They had property and almost equal choices with men in sexual relations.

    Did the system had a different background in Meghalaya?

  17. December 4, 2008 10:07 pm

    I guess the answer depends upon ones views. For Example; the answer depending upon a macro view may differ from the answer depending upon a micro view.

  18. February 6, 2009 11:24 am

    Lovely Post.

    I have always been asked about/ talked to regarding the Matriarchal society which is there in Kerala, and I have always failed to understand except for the freedom which I have always seen amongst the women in Kerala.

    This too in a way has been reducing I must add. Nowadays the crimes against women are more heard of, something which would graze the newspapers only once a year has become more frequent now.

  19. Nubin permalink
    February 26, 2009 2:45 pm

    Hi All,

    Matrilinear system is still practiced in many parts of Kerala, Especially in northern district Kannur. But a pure matrilinear society is no more existing in Kerala Anymore, but hunderds of year’s matrllinear system made Kerala “Women State” status in the world.

    Even now many new women empowering stories are coming up from Kerala, Remembering Maradu (a village near Kochi) panchayathu started all women bus service, where women are doin everything from driving/ticket collection/cleaning/maintenance et al. This is indeed a good sign. I see many women autorikshaw drivers all over Kerala.

    Crime against women are rising in Kerala like anywhere in India, but one thing I noticed most of the crime against women in kerala are reported, but rest of India that gets unnnoticed.

  20. vasudev permalink
    February 26, 2009 10:12 pm

    nita… i think only the nair society in kerala is so-called matriarchal. however the name does not suit the nairs. only the property passes on to the women and her children. the woman has no seen powers otherwise. she is confined to the home and all decisions are taken by her eldest brother. the guy usually is a crook. by the time he finishes with the business anyway there is pretty little to pass on to the women or their children. everything is either transferred to his own name or sold off on some pretex or another.

    in my opinion the true matriarchal society should be of the bengalis. those women are really powerful and solidly assertive and are ardent worshippers of ma durga and kali (real epitomes of male submissiveness before female power)! their men shiver before them and are generally too weak to object. unlike the poor nair women who suffer everything and whimper in the dark recesses of their ‘tharavadus’.

    i do not think matriarchal society (marmakkathayam) exists anymore among the nairs. from tharavadu we moved on to unit families and today wealth is equally shared by all.

  21. Alison permalink
    June 9, 2009 10:53 pm

    I think it is a mistake to look at today’s society in previously matrilinial societies and deciding from that that the early civilizations in the area could not have been matriarchies, which, in contrast to patriarchy, do not necessarily mean subjugation of the opposite sex. In the Chinese Mosuo & Yaxi and Native American tribes that maintained their matriarchal systems men are not subject to the same servitude that full-blown patriarchy demands of women. Indeed, many authors believe that in a matriarchy men, relieved of their burden to be the alpha male, are more relaxed and happy than their harried counterparts in patriarchy.
    About lions. The male eats first, and he has a role to play in defending the pride. But the sister-lionesses who make up the pride will not hesitate to drive him out of the pride if they see he is getting weaker and a stronger, more appealing male shows up to challenge his “reign”.

    Alison, when you say that “matriarchies, which, in contrast to patriarchy, do not necessarily mean subjugation of the opposite sex” that is exactly what the experts (not I) are saying, that there has never been matriarchy in its true sense ever in the word!! One has to go by the meaning of the word matriarchy which is basically similar to the word patriarchy, one for women, one for men. You are arguing that this is not what matriarchy means and I am afraid I cannot go by that argument because the way the experts interpret matriarchy is different. Maybe lions have a different type of partiarchy, but humans are different. – Nita.

  22. Chandan Deb permalink
    July 13, 2009 3:21 pm

    It is highly informative; i was aware of matriarchal societies in Meghalaya (in fact still it exists); but I never that it also existed in Kerala too (does it exis now).

    Cheers !
    Chandan

  23. Vinod permalink
    July 14, 2009 9:04 am

    Very informative, Nita. I liked Alison’s comment too.

  24. Candace permalink
    July 28, 2009 3:05 am

    Interesting thread. I was intrigued since I’ll be visiting Kerala for a couple of weeks, and heard tell of a matriarchal culture…so I wanted to verify. I appreciate the important distinction between matrilineal and matriarchal.

    But as my name is Candace, derived from biblical and historic references to queen leaders & warriors, I wanted to look a little further into false assumption made that there have never been matriarchal societies on the planet. Allison has clearly pointed out a few cultural constructs, the Native American side of which I am somewhat familiar with.

    I’ve pulled some references from an academic article written on the Kandake traditions. While this does not explain the fundamentals of a matriarchal society (I think a look at the Sioux tradition would fit better for this), it does indicate that the modern vestiges of matrilineal tradition are likely the remnant of more egalitarian ancient political societies that were not uncommon to the Afro-Asiatic diaspora, especially where the divine feminine has been exalted (in line with vasudev’s comment about the worship of ma durga and kali).

    “The following cultural-historic patterns are suggested as possible points for further study and comparative analysis of regnant queens in northeast Africa, including Nubia, and southwest Asia Matrilineal succession of regents (descent traced through a feminine line, mother to offspring) Matrilineality and regnant queens associated with non-hegemonic states Queen mothers and other high ranking women associated with matrilineal succession c) brother-sister co-regency a feature of matrilineal succession 2) Feminine Origin Myths, Foundresses of Cities and Dynasties 3) Warrior Queens; Women at the Battlefield; “Lady of Victory”
    Regnant queens—those ruling in their own right– including women from kingdoms in Arabia and Southwest Asia, the northern tier of Africa, the Nile Valley (the Blue as well as White Niles) constitute a remarkable chapter in world history. For about 1500 years, from the 10th century BCE to about the 5th century CE, an impressive number of ruling queens reigned.
    The Chronological Table of the Sovereigns of Ethiopia (requested by C.F. Rey and conveyed to him by the Ras Tafari Haile Selassie in 1922) establishes the royal mythology and was translated as the “Ethiopian King of Kings” (Rey 1927, 262). This official Chronicle of the Ethiopian monarchy of dynastic succession descends from Menelik I (957 BC, lunar calendar) includes six regnant queens referred to as Kandake , comprising what appears to be a Kandake line. The first is Nicauta Kandake (730-681 BC), with five subsequent Kandake-line queens ruling between 332 BC to 50 AD.”
    http://www.nubianarchive.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=169:queens-in-the-nile-valley&catid=46:nubians-women&Itemid=54

    • nvs permalink
      October 29, 2013 1:02 pm

      @Candace,
      U don’t have to go back that far in time to find Regent Queens. In Kerala, Travancore Royal Family, had 2 Regent Queens & 1 Absolute Female King/Maharaja(even the Regents were called Maharajas) with total power!!! For eg; the title of the last Regent was as follows: “H.H SREE PADMANBHASEVINI VANCHIDHARMA VARDHINI RAJA RAJESHWARI RANI POORADOM TIRUNAL SETHU LAKSHMI BAYI MAHARAJA REGENT OF TRAVANCORE”.

  25. Candace permalink
    July 29, 2009 12:03 am

    A little lead on the Sioux follow-up:
    http://geeks.pirillo.com/profiles/blogs/patriarchy-vs-matriarchy

  26. kyrshan khasi permalink
    March 4, 2011 12:46 pm

    guys i’m from meghalaya a khasi.yes the women here dont get as much power as they should have in a matrilineal society but still its much better than the rest of india.in fact the whole NE women status is better than india(rest).

  27. kyrshan khasi permalink
    March 4, 2011 12:52 pm

    But someone wrote that women here have to get permission from men in property matters, thats BS cuz it only happens when its a shared property of the clan(yes its very strong in meghalaya and very proud of it too) that too the elders(both females and males) will decide. don’t know much about Kerela but its good to hear that women there are somewhat empowered .(I’M A MALE NOT FEMINIST THOUGH)

  28. precluder permalink
    August 8, 2013 2:05 am

    Some interesting thoughts

    Attempted Co-relation 1 (suggested by author) : Christianity’s prevalence in these states is linked to matriarchal tendencies.
    Attempted Co-relation 2 (as a counter) : Patriarchy in humans is the thing which gave them some kind of advantage when compared to their bestial counterparts (lions,elephants etc)

    In my view both the above co-relations are meaningless.

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