Are (or were) Meghalaya and Kerala matriarchal societies?
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.
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.
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.
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 large 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:
• Killer Whales
• Spotted Hyenas
• Naked Mole Rats
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.)