Sunday, September 28, 2008

My Latest Letter

My letter to the Statesman, Calcutta was published today.

First the original article and then my letter.

Contortions in matrilineal Meghalaya
Patricia Mukhim

OFFICIAL statistics are unreliable as far as violence, rape and crime against women are concerned. Most crimes go unreported but the social grapevine is a reliable source of information about what happens to many young women in tribal families and why parents are diffident about reporting crimes against their young daughters. Among the eight North-eastern states, Meghalaya is known to be more gender just and equitable because of its matrilineal structure. Here is a state where lineage flows from the mother’s clan line and the youngest daughter inherits parental property, including ancestral. Recently there has been a spate of crimes against women in this tribal state. The brutality of the crimes and the manner in which they were committed left us all aghast. Last week two women who had gone on an outing with three male friends were found dead with their throats slit by a machete. The killers have been arrested and have also confessed to their crimes. What they said in their confessional is shocking. They killed the two women because they refused to yield to the men’s sexual overtures. Some months ago another young woman who had migrated from her village to Shillong was found murdered and her body was dumped in a drain on the outskirts of the city. The body lay unclaimed at the Shillong Civil Hospital for several days and was later buried by a women’s organisation. It was only after about a month that the relatives came to claim the body. For a close-knit community, this incident was a real jolt. It is not often that tribal families disclaim their own, no matter how wayward their personal lives may have been. This single incident actually led to a knee-jerk reaction from the state police. There was a clamp-down on night clubs and lounge bars which were told to close shop at 9 pm. There was a mild reaction from those who frequent these week-end chill-out places. But being part of a society that is at once in denial about the rapid onslaught of globalisation and its aftermath - the complex spin-offs such as drugs and HIV-Aids, and one that is also struggling to cling on to middle-class, tribal morality, the young who love their song and dance went into a different kind of entertainment mode. Meghalaya is also the only place where most vehicles have black tinted panes. These SUVs and other vehicles became make-shift bars where the young with disposable incomes freaked out on weekends. Now the district administration has ordered that no vehicles should have tinted glasses. The manner in which laws are implemented in Meghalaya show a complete vacuum of clear thinking. The reason for the crack down on bars and discotheques is simply because the murdered victim was ostensibly last seen emerging out of a nondescript hotel in downtown Shillong.In a city that has been the capital of the British overlords since 1897, and whose denizens have mimicked the Western way of life some five centuries ago, it is rather strange that some laws which can at best be archaic be imposed suddenly on an unsuspecting people. The Khasis have never been known to watch Hindi movies. They are ardent admirers of Western movies and music and, to a certain extent, western lifestyle. This is further accentuated by Christianity whose rituals of worship especially in certain denominations is very much western. Even the songs and sermons are highly Americanised, to the point that one often feels one is attending a church service in a Southern Baptist Church somewhere in Texas. Neither Christianity nor any other religion have however had their sobering effect on the people. Crimes of passion, rapes and domestic violence are on the increase. In 2007, the National Family Health Survey stated that Meghalaya has the highest incidence of domestic violence. The findings were hotly debated and people went into a huddle to rubbish it. “How could a matrilineal society known for according such a respectful space to its women be accused of a rising graph when it comes to domestic violence?”, the cynics countered. What many fail to realise is that matriliny only has a cosmetic effect. The other underpinnings of patriarchy are as strong in Meghalaya as they are in the rest of the world. Crimes like rapes have always been there but cleverly concealed by a societal mandate. Today the media is vigilant and so are human rights groups and women’s organisations which are trying to ferret out information about the real and not the perceived status of women in Meghalaya. Women’s bodies like the North East Network have been carrying out a sustained campaign to create awareness about crimes against women. While there has been considerable awareness by both sexes about the nature of crimes against women, this awareness is very city-centric. In the villages where rapes takes place almost everyday and girls as young as three years are sexually molested, in most cases the village canon takes precedence over the Indian Penal Code. The victim or her parents are asked to compromise instead of moving court. In some instances the parents and/or the victim are offered money as a compromise package. Since the police do not generally take suo-moto action nobody is any the wiser. Meghalaya is also known for its traditional institutions but these have remained largely male-centric local bodies allowing women no space for participation. Naturally their thinking on a range of issues is skewed. There is a strong denial about a host of things. Recently a church-based NGO conducted a sample study on 1,000 vulnerable groups of people such as drug addicts and sex workers. Eighty of them tested HIV-positive. Instead of looking the problem in the face there was a studied silence from society and an inherent denial that the problem exists. Matriliny is indeed under severe stress. It is no longer a safe haven for women, least of all the susceptible groups who migrate from the villages to the city in the hope of a better life. Civil laws are inadequate to deal with the current social challenges. The practitioners of the matrilineal culture need to readjust their lenses to see what needs changing and how to cope with the future instead of resting on a romantic past that is largely defined by men. Women have to redefine matriliny to make it more violence-free and gender-just. Today both the values are under threat. (The author is a Shillong-based columnist and activist, and can be contacted at

Meghalaya needs a strong women’s movement

Sir, ~ I was moved by Patricia Mukhim’s write-up, “Contortions in matrilineal Meghalaya” (22 September). Such brutal crimes against women in the picturesque state of Meghalaya, which boasts of a matrilineal succession to property, is shocking to say the least. Meghalaya is considered more gender-just and equitable. Then what must be happening in the other Northeastern states? It seems Christianity, with its message of love and compassion, is practised more in the breach than otherwise in this state. A robust and proactive women’s movement with women police officers and women-only police stations may be an answer to this terrible state of affairs. ~ Yours, etc.,

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