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Is Naga Society really Patriarchal?

Naga Society lies wounded … Part 2

Charles Chasie

(Because impression has been created that ULB elections were about a gender struggle with Naga men using archaic customs to suppress Naga women rights, this discussion has been included to the earlier part already published).



Naga society has always been painted as patriarchal where women did not count and their rights were suppressed. This is more actively propagated by Naga women themselves without a thought to the veracity of what they were saying and if such impression may be to the detriment of the Naga image as a whole. People from the rest of India, and beyond, whose societies have experienced gender discriminations have only been too willing to accept whatever has been dished out. And hardly any Naga has bothered to oppose or contradict such views although now there are enough educated Nagas with doctoral degrees in sociology, anthropology, political science etc.


Why has this been so? There could be different reasons. Because Naga society is mostly male-dominated, which is why Naga society is vulnerable to the above view-point, there is a certain section of men that adopts a disdainful attitude of “eh! Maiki manu!”, without rhyme or reason even if the “maiki manu” (women) may be doing so much better than them. Or there could be other reasons. With all the prolonged fighting and violence that Naga society has undergone, there is often a willingness, even desire, to stay out of any kind of “trouble” or not to become embroiled in any fight or argument with anyone so long as the argument or fight does not touch you personally. Indifference has become a general Naga attitude, together with the practise of “make hay while the sun shines” in all its permutations – is it corruption, so be it! We must now ask whether our silence on the women issue has led to the tragic events of January 31 and February 2, 2017? Similarly, on other issues, we must ask what our silence may have cost our people and society.


Is Naga society really patriarchal? Are Naga tribe or village communities ruled by patriarchs who decide everything and the rest just silently obey? Personally, I think not. I don’t know about those tribes with chiefships. I am of the opinion that most Naga tribes are not patriarchal but, I cannot speak for other tribes. I can only share my views on the Angami, and Tenyimia to some extent. We never had a patriarch who decided everything, not even at the family or clan level. Indeed, Angami culture and traditions would not allow it.


In our village community, traditionally everything was decided by consensus, not even by majority. Respect was given to elders but every member had the right to voice his opinion. Once the clan, khel or community had made a decision on an issue that decision was final and binding on everyone of its members. Even then, there was still an exception which was available to the individual. He could always decide to go against the decision where he himself was concerned; the majority could not impose its will on him. This was the “veto” power of the Angami individual. But no one actually exercised this veto power because the consequences would be social stigma, ostracism and even exile. And for a Naga, if he is not part of his village community, he becomes a “non-person” and a non-entity. Because of such decision making processes, and other practices, people like John Butler wrote about the “pure democracy” of the Angamis. We need not give too much importance to what others have said about us. The point is that our customs and cultural practices make no room for the presence of an all-arching Patriarch. So, there was no question of our community being patriarchal.


So, if we are not a patriarchal society, what are we? Angami society, within the village republic, is patrilineal. The dictionary defines it as, “Relating to, based on, or tracing descent through the male line”. Gender-wise, the opposite is true of “matrilineal”, as in the case of the Khasis and Garos. Yes, our Family Tree is based on the male line of descent. In any case, every people have to have a line of descent, patrilineal or matrilineal, or else questions of race, identity, history etc will no longer matter but as we know they do matter and this is what differentiates human beings from animals.


This brings us to the issue of property distribution because some of today’s Naga women leaders seem quite bitter on this issue. The distribution of property, or legacy, from father to son is only regarding ancestral landed property which would safeguard the Family Tree or the line of descent. But, these ancestral lands could not be sold or disposed of. The beneficiaries were meant to make use of them during their life time, improve upon them and, in turn, bequeath to their sons. Even when ancestral property was given to the male children, the eldest and youngest sons were usually given the best fields and ancestral home. If the family happened to be a poor one with many children, the sons in the middle sometimes did not get their share or had to do with less prime lands. Those who received the ancestral lands were expected to take care of the others, including sisters and their aged parents.


On the other hand, whatever the couple acquired during their life time, they were free to do with them whatever they liked. They could give it to anyone. For example, I have cousins who received landed property from grandmothers who were from my Family Tree. These landed properties were purchased from out of their own personal earnings while married. One of these beneficiaries was a former Naga wrestling champion who, sadly, is no more but his children are still there living on this plot of their great grandmother. In recent times, most parents make sure that their daughters also are gifted with properties, including landed properties, which they have purchased or built during the life of their marriage. So, if there was/is a woman in the Angami community who did not receive anything, outside of ancestral properties, it was probably more an individual family issue than a tribe issue or a gender issue.


Those who are so bitter about Naga society being a patrilineal society and think it has suppressed Naga women may do well to study Khasi and Garo societies as well and compare if a matrilineal society would have served the Nagas better. In any case, as mentioned above, a human society has to be either matrilineal or patrilineal; there is no other way. And just imagine if ancestral landed property were to be distributed equally to male and female descendants, the colossal chaos that would result! Some symptoms of this we have seen in Khasi society. The women get married outside their communities, which cannot be stopped, and their husbands begin to inherit/claim these ancestral landed properties but their original communities could not allow this! Do these Naga women leaders want the same thing to happen to Naga society?


I must, of course, clarify that the traditional Naga democracy I have described above, to show it was not possible to have a patriarch, was basically about the male members of the community. This was in keeping with the situation in those days. Now, husbands and wives usually consult before the Man (is allowed to?) speaks!


Today, things have changed and Naga women must be included in decision-making. If we do not include the women, we will not only exclude half the population. This will be to our cost. But the women too must be clear about their role in society and not be affected by happenings elsewhere or try to implement those ideas here without proper reflection. Everyone knows that Naga society is where the female children are the least discriminated against.


A main philosophy of feminism is to prove that women are equal, if not more equal and better, than men. Antagonism is usually the engine that drives the feminists in their fight against men who are seen as the enemy. In Naga traditions and society, men and women have always mattered. It was not about men versus women. It was a partnership and both complemented each other. One could not do the other’s job and the one without the other was not complete.


One felt very sad that the Naga women leaders refused the offer of nomination for not just 33% but even up to 40% or 50% that the tribe Hoho leaders proposed. Obviously the tribe leaders supported inclusion of women in decision-making. Nomination would also ensure women presence as they would be “uncontested”. They would have avoided the problems associated with elections, including financial costs and enmities always involved in electioneering. They could also choose women of ability they know and place them where these women could make a difference, with more representation than they were asking!


Why did the women leaders refuse? It would seem that the women leaders were more interested in making a political statement instead of having women’s welfare in their minds. The women reservation leaders, it seemed, only wanted 33% reservation for Naga women, good, bad or ugly. And Nagas be damned if they get a bad reputation in the process or if there was more rift in society! Well, it led to tragedy for all.


The women leaders certainly failed to see the hand of friendship that was extended to them by the tribe leaders. The tribe leaders threatening ex-communication was unprecedented and not heard of. Personally, I do not support such steps in our times. But they were saying they were deadly serious and would not back down. It fell on deaf ears.


It became apparent that apart from drumming up an issue that was popular elsewhere in India, and the world, the Naga women leaders had not done proper homework and had no plan how best to promote women of ability and put them in decision-making positions so that the women could make a difference. This is where the Naga Mothers Association lost their footing and also failed to read the ground realities. But because of this obvious lacuna, local men election touts were going about setting up their own women candidates who would obey them and do what they want after getting elected. In at least one colony of Kohima, I have full knowledge where a woman candidate was unanimously chosen by the women of the colony but another woman was set up by some men and that candidate of the men, from all indications, was going to be given the party ticket.


Why did the Naga women leaders decide to go political and choose the politics of confrontation, quite contrary to what they have been doing all these years? If they want politics and confrontation, any Naga can do it! Nagas won’t need the Naga mothers or Naga women to do it. The Naga women, particularly the Naga Mothers Association (NMA), had built up a unique niche in Naga society after over 30 years of hard work. The NMA was non-political, worked to bring healing in Naga homes and in the larger Naga society. All Nagas had come to respect them and to listen when they said something. Even when people did not agree, they stayed silent because no one else could play their role. Sadly this time, instead of bringing healing, they have managed to bring division among Nagas and destroy their own years of hard work.


Some tribe leaders have asked their women bodies to withdraw from the NMA. This surely is a sign of displeasure at the present leadership. But we must not act too emotionally. As I have mentioned above, the Naga Mothers/women’s role cannot be played by anyone and should be promoted by all. Sure, there may need to be a lot of changes starting with transparent processes and with no politics. The mandate of the new NMA must be made clear-cut and there should be no areas of confusion. But the details we can leave to the women to manage. They will do a far better job than the men. One has made comments here only because this organisation is so important for Naga society. The main question, as I asked in the first part of this article, is who will pick up the pieces?