Debunking deniers of patriarchy in Naga culture

Dr. Libenthung E Yanthan,
Senior Gynecologist, DoH&FW, Nagaland


(Let me start with a disclaimer. I am just a layman with no formal training in law, politics, or ethics and therefore if some of my arguments may seem invalid and facts inaccurate, I would like feedbacks so that the ongoing debate can arrive at meaningful and coherent conclusions.)


The recent political crisis, if I may say so, has brought up interesting debating points and profound questions that seek honest and rational answers. Hopefully, these recent event will also allow us an opportunity to use our rational faculty to gain better insights into the current social, political, legal and ethical conundrums that have cropped up and help us arrive at solutions to the problems at hand. Contrary to popular opinions, I also would like to posit that misogyny is entrenched and endemic in our culture and that affirmative actions are necessary beginnings to fight this social menace. Even if, for the sake of discussion, we all agree to the idea that women should have equal social, political and economic rights and opportunities, our commitment to create a level playing field that respect the voices of women remain inadequate. Through this column I would like to first draw attention to some general opinions expressed by various individuals that have appeared in various dailies in the last few weeks. I’ll try to summarise some of them and hopefully show why most advocates on both side of the fence – those who are for and against women reservation – have failed to identify or address the core issues in totality.


In an article titled, On women’s reservation – letter versus spirit of the law by Kahuto Chishi Sumi, G.B. Hevishe Village (Dimapur), the author appears to shift the onus of resolving the problem on the women folks by asking a series of rhetorical questions. The implied suggestion being that, women have not been prudent enough to see through the profound issues and the adverse implications of women folks plunging into politics. He even appears to think that women’s call for reservation is morally suspicious. He calls their effort a “self-gratification exercise” and also as trying to “take advantage of the genuine suffering of Indian Women, in mainland India, in their effort to gain easy entry into the various civic bodies in Nagaland”. Finally, he employs a guilt trap to buttress his argument by calling JACW “a group of radicals who are willing to sacrifice the future of all women in Nagaland so that some of them can ENJOY the benefits, TODAY”.


Another article titled, Why politics of reservation? And why it is so dominant in our state? by Thepfusalie Theunuo , appear to deny that gender discrimination exists in Naga culture and that patriarchy is a myth. She denies any cultural roots to the problem. She writes that “apart from patriliny, the concept of patriarchal (male authority) is an ideology that we have created ourselves in the process”. She considers reservation policy an extension or a by product of political expediencies and not a genuine socio-economic instrument to undo systemic oppression against women. She says that the “33% reservation policy in the state is highly a political project of the ruling party and does not deal or engages with inequality of gender in any form”. Her grand solution to “engage on the ontological and the epistemological construction of gender and inequality within the specific context of Naga culture” appears vague and inadequate; an observation that seems to ignore the actual exploitations faced by Naga women on a daily basis. Gender discrimination is real and the nature of oppression against women, which is usually demeaning and enslaving, is similar across cultures, though the degree and experience may differ.


The above two opinions provide different perspective to the same issue – whether to allow women in decision making legislative bodies – but fundamentally contend that the reservation policy is not applicable to Naga society. I have also taken the above articles for analysis, as they seem to reflect the general sentiments prevalent among Nagas vis-à-vis women’s reservation issue. The common assumptions on which the anti-reservation arguments are based upon are basically of three types, which are: Naga society is not a caste based society; Naga society is inherently enabling for women; and Patriarchy is a myth and that Gender discrimination is non-existent. I’ll try to show that the conclusions drawn from and based upon these three (or similar) assumptions are invalid or irrelevant as they seem to ignore empirical evidences or/and are logically flawed. Since the investigations and diagnosis, as exemplified above, are not thorough, the solutions they prescribe are bound to be inadequate.


The main areas of disagreements between the pro-reservation and anti-reservation groups that are commonly expressed, both in print and in the common public online platforms can be enumerated as under:
1.    Cultural: Tradition vs. Modern culture, Indian vs. Naga culture
2.    Legal: Article 371(A), Nagaland’s Autonomy and Article 243T
3.    Ideological: Patriarchy vs. Feminism
4.    Ethics: Religion, Justice, Equality, Freedom etc.


Cultural: Traditional versus Modern: The current discussions, around the reservation of women in urban local bodies (ULB), give us an opportunity to re-evaluate the way our tradition is interpreted within modern political and ethical framework that cherishes ethos of equality, freedom and justice. The overall goal is to identify and subscribe those values that are conducive to human flourishing. The value propositions inherent in our culture need honest analysis and thorough exposition. That way we can understand the dynamics, impacts and consequences of our socio-political and cultural institutions, processes and actions. It will also allow us to judge whether the social edifice that we have built are beneficial or detrimental for the growth and health of a society. Understanding the values that a culture subsumes can allow us to elaborate a rational and enabling value system to cherish, live and stand for. The process of evaluation has to start with an honest appraisal of the value system of the society. And, the merits of women empowerment actions have to be judged on those foundations.


A society that values dynamism and vibrancy is better than a society that values stagnation and mediocrity. Within our Naga context, tradition is synonymous with status quo, mistrust of exo-cultural values and discomfort with the idea of change. Whereas, modern culture is more open to new ideas, unafraid of criticisms and is dynamic. Naga tradition is still considered inviolable and static. The ancient and the old are of value, because they are so. It is time we discard aspect of our culture that are exploitative and those that create disparity within the society.


The tradition-argument, that something is good because it has been in use since eons, is a dishonest appeal to history and past knowledge and experiences to give credence and legitimacy to archaic socio-political institutions and power structures that allow the continued subjugation of women in the society. Patriarchy in Naga culture is one such instance of rationalization based on the tradition-argument. Systemic oppression against women is considered as given or ignored, and the illiberal status quo remains seriously unchallenged. Patriarchal mode of thinking is so deeply internalised in our tribal subconscious that we fail to see the obvious bigotry. This mentality is crystallised in the pronouncement of the President, CNTC, Hokiye Sema while demanding the annulment of the provision of reservation of seats for women in the civic polls. Here is what he says: “In Naga society a woman is not considered to be equal to men. She is not even allowed to speak in Panchayat until and unless she is summoned by it. Providing 33% reservation to women amounts to giving her the same status as men and it gives men inferiority complex”. Such attitude is embarrassing and reflects a deep seated and systemic misogyny. It reflects a failure to appreciate the principle of autonomy with respect to women, which is the basis of human rights, freedom and justice. Women’s right are also human rights to begin with. She has a right to her person and to do as she pleases as long as the same right is respected and acknowledged in others. Women are beings with dreams and aspirations and not automatons with brains and body that belong to men or to be controlled and used by men, as most would like to imagine. A tradition that violates the right to life is immoral and therefore should be discarded.


Many perspectives, seen online and in prints, also seem to conflate the issue of oppression in a caste stratified Indian society with that of women’s right issues further muddying the water in which we are fishing for solutions. Another risible sentiment that affirmative action policies are being imposed upon the Nagas by the Indian establishment is without any factual or rational basis. Firstly, women’s rights movement is not a particularly Indian phenomenon. In fact modern feminist movement is a continuation of the women suffrage movement that began in mid 19th century in the US. Secondly, oppression of women is not a by-product of the caste system. Prejudices and discrimination against women is not unique to societies with caste based stratified social structure only. Though the caste system may aggravate the degree of oppression experienced by a women belonging to a lower caste, caste-systems per se does not create exploitative structures peculiar to women. In fact, suppression of women’s right is not uncommon in upper class societies or in developed countries. It is a fallacy to assume that women are not oppressed just because they belong to a particular privileged or dominant group. While the notion that Naga society is not a caste based society is true, it is not true that ONLY caste based society is discriminatory and oppressive against women. Men still are the decision makers, enjoy more freedom and are less likely to be sexualised in all societies. Even in developed countries women are not free from discrimination of all kinds. The whole argument that reservation of women is not applicable to Naga society just because caste based stratification does not exist is a non-sequitur. The assumptions fail on thorough empirical and logical analysis.


Legal – Article 371 (A) and Nagaland’s Autonomy: According to Pious Lotha, former Advocate General, “unless the state cabinet first resolves the September 22, 2012 Nagaland Legislative Assembly resolution which exempt Part IX-A of Article 243(T) on 33% women reservation in civic polls from applicability; holding civic polls cannot be enforced, as it would be going against the spirit of Article 371(A) as enshrined in the Constitution of Indian.” He makes clear that unless the assembly resolution on 22nd september 2012 is revoked, article 371 (A) will make holding civic polls invalid. The urgency with which the DAN government went about revoking the 22nd September, 2012 Assembly resolution is suspect and is the root cause of the entire current logjam. The tribal bodies and Nagas in general are not being paranoid, when they say that Article 371 (A) is being compromised. There is a real possibility that the federal government would use such legislative ruse to assert her cultural dominance. But, the government has done little to allay the apprehensions expressed by the tribal bodies. The press communiqué from the desk of the Principal Secretary, Department of Municipal Affairs instead stresses for the need to give mandate to Article 243 (T).  It also tries to downplay the concerns by stating that it “has already been in force since 1993, and since it has been found in the last more than two decades that Article 243 (T) has NEVER infringed on the rights of the Nagas as enshrined in Article 371 (A) and that holding of elections to the ULBs with 33% reservation for women too, would not infringe on Article 371 (A) of the Constitution of India”. Such apathy to the general anxiety and apprehensions is undesirable and reflects a tyrannical and authoritarian way of dealing with grave issues of public importance.


Nagas have a valid reason to be apprehensive about the federal government’s attempt to undercut special autonomy guaranteed under Article 371 (A). We, Nagas, are a proud nation and we consider it vital to preserve our unique identity. Nagas’ desire to exist as a nation-state is a reflection of a deep rooted conviction in our rich tradition that cherishes freedom. It is a conviction in our intellectual capacity to formulate our own values and principles and a desire not to live as slaves under foreign values and edicts. India’s attempt at cultural and political hegemony through such clandestine legislative machinations need urgent expositions so that we are not forced or tricked into accepting any legislations that are detrimental to our survival and flourishing. Article 371 (A) also need to be interpreted carefully and applied consistently and not only to garner short term gains or suit narrow agenda. Given the above situation, the fear that the central government may use similar legislative instruments to undermine the special protection guaranteed under article 371 (A) is warranted and need to be thoroughly deliberated and proper measures taken to pre-empt any future legislation from violating the sanctity of the special autonomy status. Here is what a possible solution as suggested by Khekiye K Sema (IAS) should be: “ …. if we follow the rational route of FIRST amending our customary law that has become obsolete or out of tune with our present through customary amendment process by nobody else but our customary courts, the Constitutional empowerment of Article 371 A will remain as effective as it was meant to be.” Can we expect other solutions from intellectuals, constitutional and tribal law experts and government?


Ideological – Patriarchy vs. Feminism: Interestingly the current crisis has also brought us to a debate between patriarchy and feminism. Patriarchy is a social system and mentality begot by needs and compulsions of prehistoric societies and Feminism has brought to light the exploitative nature of the various social arrangements and economic structures inherent in such primitive societies. Discrimination against women may not be so openly visible in our society. But unfair bracketing of women into certain social and vocational roles and functions do exist. Fortunately, gone are the days when women were considered undeniably inferior – education were not considered important for women, math as beyond a women’s capacity to understand, kitchen as solely a woman’s domain, and considering women as men’s or social property. But some remnants and variants of those sentiments and attitudes still remain. Naga women with modern education are as good, if not better, than most men. But subtle subjugation of women is still prevalent. Women are still confined to what is known as ‘feminine occupations” such as hospitality, teaching, sales & services, clerical and entertainment. Sexualisation of women in media, sexual harassment, male-child preference, contracted reproductive rights, domestic violence and discriminative inheritance laws are still prevalent. Dr. Yelhi Mero in an article (NP), titled, “Empowering Women: Indispensable for human well-being”, notes that “ domestic chores such as cleaning, washing, cooking, taking care of children and sickness are mostly done by women folks”.


Sexualisation of certain occupation is premised on the unsubstantiated notion about psychology that women are inherently docile and submissive and therefore need to work only as sub-ordinates or in servile positions while men, being the dominant and aggressive kind, should lead and boss around. Women and men are biologically different with nature fixing bio-sexual function i.e. maleness (XY) or femaleness (XX) is given and so unalterable. But gender (masculinity or feminity) and the roles attached to them are social constructs and learned conceptions. Breast feeding is a sexual role determined by biology while child nurturing is a learned gender role. In fact, various studies show that psychological and intellectual differences between members of a particular sex are greater as compared to the differences that exist between the sexes.


That our Naga society is enabling for women is another myth perpetrated by cultural and male chauvinists. It is true Naga women are better off as compared to their Indian counterpart. But it does not mean that Naga women are enjoying equal status as men. And, definitely Naga women deserve a better benchmark against which to measure their rights and aspirations. Biased inheritance laws, denial of authoritative role in village polity and the church, prevalence of gendered profession, and restricted social roles are some examples of discriminative practices against women in our society. One opinion by a GB of a village that featured in NP – “that the lack of women in our various elected bodies is not due to any suppression on the part of the males in Naga Society; but due to a lack of confidence on the part of the women to face men on a level playing field” – is a glaring counter-example to the thesis that misogyny is alien to Naga culture.  See how women are blamed for a situation they did not create for themselves. Naga culture is practically a male dominated society where all important decisions are taken by and for the male folks. Such kind of attitudes and arrangements have the effect of entrenching the exploitation of women even further.  When oppression and suppression of women’s rights and aspirations are prolonged for generations it make psychological cretins out of them and have the unkindly effect of making women feel inadequate and diffident. Most men (and women) fail to appreciate that Affirmative Action policies can be positive legislative instruments to undo ages of injury against women folks. It is a reparative mechanism and creates a powerful platform that can allow women to assert their rights and pursue their aspirations as human beings.


Ethics – Religious (and Biblical text), Equality, Freedom, and Justice: Religious’ notion about the position of women in the divine schemes of thing has only reinforced the belief of women’s inferiority in the society.  The common refrain is that woman should be subservient to man as commanded by God and as revealed by god through various religious texts. And that, it is our bounden duty to obey the Divine Laws. Such deontological view of rights is in direct conflict with liberal ethos – the concept of equity – that prescribes that women and men be treated as morally, socially and politically equal and be given equal opportunities to pursue their aspirations. Co-opting religious orthodoxy to explain contemporary issues is disingenuous, given that one can also site contradictory passages from religious texts to dismantle the argument. I personally feel that any religion that is prone to misinterpretation in view of its inherent contradictory moral contents or one that propounds illiberal ideas should be discarded. I believe religion as a whole should be a personal affair and its tenets not be (ab)used to inform public laws. Dubious religious morality may be discarded for better ethical systems that are based on equality, justice and freedom.


Another debate concerning ethical implications is whether Affirmative Action policies actually benefit the target group and whether justice is ensured in the long run. The contention that Reservation Policies (for women, SC, ST etc) may deprive more capable and meritorious people of opportunity is logically possible and is also empirically supported. Affirmative Action policies does seem morally ridiculous and as violating the principle of justice. But if we see Affirmative Action as restorative justice to undo generations of injury to a particular section of society, we may be persuaded to be a bit lenient about the whole issue. It is factually true that job reservation policies for underprivileged groups improve the standard of living in the long run. Nagaland’s job reservation policy is a good example. Research has also shown that empowering women and increasing participation of women in policy making has the positive effect of accelerating socio-economic progress of a given society.


When it comes to electoral politics and reserving seats for women in political institutions, it gets a bit interesting. The common notion that women are not capable and that they’ll become tools for men who will then ultimately assert their power may be partly true. But then it is also true that even some elected males are tools of other men. So the argument is moot. It also FALSELY assumes that ALL men into politics are capable or moral. How preposterous can we get? The assumption that women would be easily manipulated to suit men’s patriarchal project is based on male chauvinistic perspectives that regard women as without autonomy and a rational faculty. Nothing can be farther from reality. Such attitude equates women as property of men, to be used or discarded as situation demands. It is a morally despicable idea and should be condemned unequivocally. It is an assault on the sanctity of womenhood and a serious breach of the principle of autonomy that underlies the higher concept of right and justice. It is a direct assault on the right to life.


Let the capable women contest, most proclaim! Modern elections are not contests of who is better but a battle of numbers – based on clanism and tribalism and won through money and muscle. Most capable men are not even elected. So, capability has never been a criterion to contest or get elected in elections. So why the double standards? Logically, this reservation policy being unfair to men is possible but given the systemic way in which many capable women have been denied opportunity due to the entrenched patriarchy and its exploitative institutions, the legislative action appear morally legit.  The loss for some ‘capable’ men seem miniscule compared to the benefit that will accrue to women and the society as a whole. Researches show that women are inclined to support policies that are more humane and those that improve social security. It is true that statistics and numbers cannot decide matters of justice and desert but, given the evidences, ensuring women’s right is the most prudent thing to do at this juncture.


Conclusion: Only a society that values liberating and enabling ethos can create a conducive environment and ensure, for all members of the community, an equal opportunity to flourish. Naga society is still a highly masculinised one, where force replaces reason to arbitrate disputes and also to achieve her social goals. May be we can take cues from the Motto of the APO that “RIGHT is MIGHT” to make things right for tomorrow. A review and overhaul of our value system, on which the entire edifice of Naga culture is built is also urgently needed.  In view of the historical injustice perpetrated against women, restorative justice is needed as a reparative process to undo generations of suppression of their rights and aspirations. Affirmative action policies may eventually need re-analysis for empirical evidence of the benefits and to assess its social utility. But till such time, women’s reservation in political institutions definitely promises to add value our socio-economic capital and raise the moral stature of our society. Women’s reservation in civic bodies will also certainly neutralise some of the ill effects of only men running the show in contemporary politics. Refusal to acknowledge women’s right is a symptom of general obscurantism and will need a thorough treatment protocol involving all domain of human knowledge and a concerted team of enlightened people committed to cure the disease once and for all.