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IN ALL UNFAIRNESS

When men begin to curse feminists, you know the tide is turning. The gender equation is becoming lopsided and the keepers of patriarchy are feeling, if only a little, insecure. In Nagaland, the band of men opposing feminist thinking is rapidly growing. This itself is a good portent for the women’s movement for rights, both within and outside homes.

“Feminism has become a handy way of life for those who wish to have live-in relationships — for gays and lesbians. Feminists do not address genuine issues confronting women,” says Jeffrey Yaden, editor, Nagaland Post. It is a familiar lament of men when they feel the women’s movement is getting “out of hand”, that is, moving into paths that could stray from the domain of families and institutions that feed patriarchy.

So they choose to rake up the much damned “bra-burning” incidents of the past — as if feminism has not gone beyond that — and paint it as a vile ideology which has less to do with empowering women and more with harming men. Naga men, used to treating Naga women as an essential part of the political and civil movements but prone to keeping them out of the crucial decision-making bodies, are becoming more and more loud in denouncing the “out of control” feminists.

In many ways, women in Nagaland are better off than their counterparts in the rest of India. The incidence of dowry deaths, female foeticide and infanticide is not heard of. Traditionally, there has been a convivial gender equation in Naga society. If the sight of a boy and girl holding hands provokes intemperate comments in north India — here it is accepted as a natural way of life. There is an easy camaraderie between the sexes that many in the rest of India would envy.

But scratch the surface and the ugly face of patriarchy turns to face you with a vengeance. “If you look at Naga history, it has always been ‘his’ story. Women are only mentioned as victims,” says a teacher of English at the Kohima University. She says that women have been the backbone of Naga society through the decades of political strife — during the siege by the Indian army and in the movement for a Naga identity. But their story ends abruptly in the “footnotes” of history. Naga women are still waiting to cross that important threshold which will make them equal shareholders with men in the political decision-making process.

Exclusion of women begins at the roots. Public life in Nagaland begins with the village councils which make all the important economic, social and political decisions. The Village Council Act, on paper, mandates one-third representation for women. But barring some tribes, most village councils are exclusively male institutions. “Women, after all their contribution, still find it difficult to get space in these councils. If I want to contest elections today, I will have to get the permission of my village council,” says the proprietor of Nagaland Page. “The absence of women in village councils reflects the real status of women in Nagaland,” she stresses.

The tradition changes from tribe to tribe but, by and large, women have remained invisible in the crucial domain of public life. Take the case of ancestral property. Here too, women do not have equal rights. There are some exceptions though. Some tribes give men and women equal rights to property. But in general, ancestral property still cannot be inherited by women. They can only have rights to acquired property but not to the land that belongs to a tribe.

“I have two daughters. If anything happens to my husband, everything will go back to his clan. But if I had a son he would have got the property,” says Nagaland Page’s editor. However, another member of her tribe and a strident critic of feminist thinking says, “It is not all that bad. If a father wants to leave property for his daughter, he can build a house and give it to her.”

Here is an indication of reluctance to change the patriarchal set-up. The real issue of gender discrimination is brushed under the carpet. But Naga women are questioning institutions of patriarchy more and more vociferously. They are refusing to be consoled by the misconception that Naga women share equal space with the men in social and political domains. Women have been angered by the biased interpretation of the customary law which rules Nagaland.

Most Naga men have a routine explanation for the invisibility of women from significant official positions. They echo the argument offered by P. Shmirang of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah). He holds that women are still to prove themselves worthy of such offices. “We do have a women’s wing. Women campaign for our cause. But, yes, they are not in decision-making positions because so far we have not come across women competent enough to be in these positions,” says Shmirang.

The explanation does not fit the highly political role Naga women have played in the making of Naga history. Traditionally, Naga women have been peacemakers in inter-tribal and inter-village feuds, which had been their preserve. According to Dolly Kikon of the Naga Peoples’ Movement for Human Rights, “During inter-village feuds, it was rare that a particular village would volunteer to act as a mediator between the warring villages. In such a situation, women played the commendable role of mediators (demi).”

Their role was so important that it was a taboo to kill a demi. “However the Semei, Liangmai and Rongmai women were prohibited from taking active part in social and public affairs. The presence of these women was considered a bad omen for the whole society,” writes Kikon.

On the one hand, Naga patriarchy boasted of its militant women, on the other hand it kept them on a tight leash in order to preserve the male domination — one way to retain its exclusive hold over institutions that decided the fate of the people.

How did the demis get lost in the labyrinths of history' The political stage in Nagaland has been without woman actors for decades now. The last time that Nagaland sent a woman to Parliament was in the Seventies. It is now more than three decades since Nagaland has had a woman member of the legislative assembly. “They are never given tickets by political parties even though they are the most tireless campaigners. Even those who try for tickets are denied,” says the Kohima University teacher.

Nidenou Angami, president of the Naga Mothers’ Association perhaps has a more cogent explanation. “In this political conflict, women have suffered more than men. And when you are so affected directly and indirectly — you are so caught up with the trials of life that you do not have time to fight elections,” says Angami.

As in every war unleashed by the state or independent groups, women in Nagaland have ended up being the most vulnerable targets. Rape has been one of the most common weapons used to humiliate the woman and through her the entire community. Naga women, for decades, have borne the brunt of state oppression in rural areas. They are also the worst sufferers at home, with the destruction of infrastructure — of electricity, water supply and the public health system.

For official historians therefore it has been easy to depict Naga women as the “victim” rather than agent of change. But Naga women want themselves to be seen not as passive victims but an active constituency which is now claiming its long overdue share in public life.

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