Son rises in the east

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By Khasi men, long derided as the 'weaker sex' in their matrilineal society, have launched a men's liberation movement. Debaashish Bhattacharya on their fight for equal rights Pic: Debaashish Bhattacharya
  • Published 10.04.11

Raymond Sunn sees his fate inextricably tied to his father’s, his memory a searing presence in his scarred mind.

The 33-year-old Meghalaya government employee, born to Khasi parents, was raised by his mother Mabel Sunn in her own house in Shillong under a tribal tradition.

Under that ageless custom, he uses his mother’s surname and he has no right to her property or to any parental inheritance.

As far as he remembers, his late father, Moses Basaiawmoit, had no rights either, as a parent or a husband. He says Mabel presided over the household while Moses, who had moved in with her after they were married, hovered in her shadows.

“We have been discriminated against for ages and it is high time things changed,” says Sunn, a graduate who works in the state police headquarters.

In an effort to usher in a new era, Sunn has joined the Syngkhong Rympei Thymmai, a “men’s lib” movement gaining momentum in the hilly state. SRT — the name means “stabilising home in a new fashion” — demands equal rights for men and women in Khasi families.

Clearly, Khasi men — long derided as the “weaker sex” — cannot take it anymore.

Few Khasi men disagree, even though they acknowledge that bringing about a change is far from easy.

The Khasis — a scheduled tribe of about a million people that make up nearly half of Meghalaya’s population — are a matrilineal community, where ancestral descent is traced through the female line. Not surprisingly, women rank above men in social hierarchy, unlike in patriarchal societies elsewhere in India.

It is not the birth of a son but a daughter that brings joy to a Khasi family. Khasi children take their mother’s surname and sons have no right to property, which goes to the youngest daughter. A family must adopt a girl if it has no daughter to provide for an heir.

That’s not all. A man is expected to move into his wife’s home after marriage and live with his mother-in-law who invariably calls the shots in the house she owns.

The men — largely left out of clan meetings, dominated by a web of matriarchs — have little say in family affairs. What all this has added up to for Khasi men, however, is “a lot of frustration and dejection,” says SRT president Keith Albion Pariat.

“They have no responsibilities. All they do is eat, drink and play the guitar,” says 58-year- old Pariat, who uses his father’s surname.

To many Indian males, it may seem a perfect existence. But Khasi men are far from happy. “This lack of responsibility is killing us. Listless boys are dropping out of school and frustrated men taking to drugs or drinking away their lives, often dying much before they reach middle age,” Pariat, a former hotelier, says.

Legend has it that Khasi men of yore were often away for long periods, fighting battles with neighbouring kingdoms. So Khasi ancestors thought it prudent to vest the rights of running families and homes in the women who stayed behind with children.

Indeed, Khasi women are seen as “the biological and social continuator of matrilineal descent”. This explains why women still have paramount importance in Khasi society, says North-Eastern Hill University sociology professor A.K. Nongkynrih.

But times have changed and many Khasi men moan that the social customs have not kept pace with contemporary India. “Equal rights for men and women should have been implemented here a long time ago,” says a Khasi bank employee in Shillong.

But there is a legal catch. The Indian Constitution, while favouring equal rights for men and women, recognises the traditions and cultures of the Khasis and other scheduled tribes in the country. In fact, the community’s way of life has already been protected under the Khasi Social Custom of Lineage Act of 1997.

SRT wants that law amended. “This is necessary to empower the men and give them a sense of responsibility,” says SRT general secretary Teibor Khongjee.

The movement wants children to take their fathers’ surnames and families to distribute land or property equally among all children.

Though the goal seems distant, the movement has come a long way since it was first conceived by a group of Khasi men in the hills of Cherrapunjee in the early 1960s. Then called Iktiar Longbriew Manbriew or roughly “the authority of the race”, it died out in less than a decade for lack of public support.

“People were against it and there was stiff resistance from the women who were loath to give up control,” says 80-year-old A. Lyngwi, a Cherrapunjee-based physician who was a part of the movement.

Once, a group of angry women, some of them wielding knives, chased the men from a public meeting in Cherrapunjee. “We ran for our dear lives,” Lyngwi says with a smile.

The SRT, launched on April 14, 1990, in an effort to “resurrect” the old movement, has been gathering momentum in recent times. The leaders say that’s because they have shifted from “awareness” to “action-oriented” programmes.

In fact, the SRT, with its 2,000 members and hundreds of “silent” supporters, has already drawn up an “action” plan to hold debates, seminars, workshops and street dramas, among other programmes.

Come April 14, it will launch a website on its anniversary. A signature campaign will also get rolling. Short of taking to the street, the SRT will do “everything” to press home its demand, says a movement leader.

“Things are changing everywhere and the old world order is giving in to the new one. It is time for Khasi society to change too,” Pariat says.

But few Khasi women lend credence to the movement. Patricia Mukhim, the editor of The Shillong Times and an authority on the Khasi system, refuses to call the SRT a movement. “It is limited to a few men in the city of Shillong who come from elitist backgrounds and are perhaps deeply influenced by patriarchal societies around them,” she says.

Mukhim says matriarchy is “too deeply entrenched” in the Khasi psyche for “anyone to change it overnight.” She adds: “However, it is not sacrosanct — it does not prohibit its adherents from taking the father’s clan name.”

Nongkynrih, too, argues that using the father’s surname is a matter of “personal preference, not social.” He says children could be given equal share of property but stresses that it is for the parents to decide that.

Clearly, Pariat is in for a long, lonely battle ahead. “We know it may take a generation or two before we achieve our goals.”

But for Lancelot Ross Lyngdoh, a cement factory worker at Cherrapunjee and a “part-time” poet, time is running out. “It is time for us to change the system and embrace the modern times that we live in. Or else, we — the Khasis — will become a museum piece,” he says, reading aloud from a poem he penned a few months ago.