Tribal women in India’s Meghalaya become leaders, but are dominated by male relatives.
Aleya is a Muslim Bengali living in Meghalaya, where the second largest tribe, the Garo, have a matrilineal system of inheritance and descent. Even though the position of village head – the ‘Nokma’ – is typically passed from mother to daughter of the same family, it is the male relatives who actually perform the duties and wield power. The village head is required to chair the local village council meetings, act as an authority on disputes, pass judgments in the local court, and make important decisions for the village. The current Nokma herself never does any of these things, instead her son and son-in-law act in her place.
In the village next to hers which is a Garo village, Aleya discovered that the women, including the Nokma herself do not oppose this misogyny; they have long accepted that it is the men who have the authority to make decisions on their behalf. Aleya, who comes from a patriarchal system herself, decided to find out more about this inconsistency and why it is perpetuated. “The women are capable of doing all the duties the men are doing now. Why wouldn’t they be? But they don’t fight for their rights, it doesn’t seem to make a difference to them.”
Aleya told us that it was very difficult to interview the Nokma, who was unwilling to talk. After a few questions, Aleya was told to leave. She says the women in that village do not speak up. Not a single Nokma has stood up against this system in the past. It is almost as if they are unaware of the injustice, they are so used to it. The tradition of Nokmaship will pass to the present Nokma’s youngest daugter on the day she gets married – there is a public declaration. In case there is no daughter, another female relative is adopted and given the title. Traditionally, the new groom moves into the house of his wife. Land also gets passed on to the daughters. But all these matriarchal traditions are in name sake only; in reality, women are as powerless as in any patriarchal system.
Aleya thinks only education will open these womens’ eyes to their rights. Until that happens, men will continue to usurp the power that was never theirs to have