The Intensity of Patriarchy in Naga Society

A shot from Poumai Naga Perspective

Z.K.Pahrii Pou
BTC, Pfutsero

Swami Vivekananda once said, “All nations have achieved greatness by paying proper respect to women and a country can’t progress by neglecting its womenfolk, just as a bird cannot fly only on one wing”. 

Liberation of women became a catchphrase of today’s society. On December 18, 1979, the Commission on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly for the advancement of Women. The Indian Parliament has recently approved the Bill called Domestic Violence Bill-2005, which covers wide purview. Yesterday, domestic violence against women was a personal matter and confine to hearth. Today it becomes a social issue. One can go and file a case in court against any type of domestic violence. The Nagaland Government on August ss24 passed the Nagaland Women Commission (NWC) Bill 2006, to strengthen the status of women in Naga Society. There were hot debates (however without any consensus) over reservation of 33% seats for women’s representation in Parliament, State and Panchayat or village level. 

The Church is certainly not blind to the women’s liberation movement that is taking place both within and without. But so far the Church has not taken any concrete steps to uplift women except preaching that everyone is equal in the sight of God. If the Church is serious enough about bringing good news to the downtrodden and to the oppressed group of people as proclaim by our Lord Jesus Christ(Luke 4:18-20), then it is time to spend more time in educating its members and use its resources in liberating the womenfolk from various oppressive clutches and shackles. The mission of the Church in 21st Century must then aim at uprooting patriarchy which is the deeply rooted and is the primary cause of the violence in our society.  This will bring hope and liberation to half of the world’s population. 

I.     What is Patriarchy? 
We have knowingly or unknowingly allowed patriarchy to creep into our society and take a strong base. Patriarchy structured society consider women as the weaker sex, inferior, and subordinate, and debarred from active participation in the society. Patriarchy denies and restricts women access to property, to education, and other amenities, which regulates the division of labour and which uses violence and all sorts of social pressures to implement them. To counter patriarchy the word feminism has been used. Feminists such as Gabriele Dietrich, Maria Mies and others have define feminism as “ awareness of patriarchal control, exploitation and oppression at the material and ideological levels, with regard to women’s labour, fertility and sexuality within the family, at the work place, and in society in general”, and as “action by women and men to transform society”. (Emphasis mine. see Gabriele Dietrich and Bas Wielenga, Towards Understanding Indian Society, Tiruvalla: Christava Sahitya samithi: 2003-first CCS impression, p. 47). In short patriarchy has been defined as man’s control over a woman’s labour (means man get benefit materially from woman’s labour from both within and without household), her sexuality (women are obliged to provide sexual services to men according to man’s needs and desire. Women became sexual slaves), and her fertility (women have no freedom to decide how many children they want, when to have them, etc). [1] Patriarchy appears in many different forms. It is a power structure interwoven with caste and class hierarchical structures, the state, organised religion, colonialism, race, and ethnicity and ecological destruction (Gabriele and Bas, 2003: 47)   

II.     The intensity of Patriarchy in our Society. 

II.     A.    In Socio-Economic Life
The early Christian missionaries left untouched the social structure of the tribal, instead they affirmed the tribal customary laws which visibly had biased attitude towards women with regard to the question of property ownership, decision-making, inheritance and marriage relationship. This is tantamount to justification of Patriarchy. In most tribal societies, women have no right to inherit land barring the Poumai Naga communities who have certain access to land however it differs from village to village. Women cannot inherit house even if there is no male child in the family. Female infanticide and female foeticide were unheard of in Poumai Naga community. But, if we look carefully, the girl child has higher risk of getting sick than boy, because of unequal treatment in the family. There is no dowry or sati system. Agriculture activities, feasts and festivals provide women certain amount of free mobility. This kind of limited freedom of women in tribal society might have led Naga Scholars like M. Horam to declare that “both in the traditional as well as in contemporary society, the (tribal) women have the same status as men…suffer no discrimination …and therefore tribal women do not need liberation…” (M. Horam, North East India: A Profile (New Delhi: Cosmo Publication, 1990, p. 96). I feel it may be dangerous to go along with his view for certainly Naga women need liberation in certain areas. Women work harder than men in the agricultural work. They are solely responsible for daily domestic chores such as washing clothes, cooking, sweeping rooms, rearing animals, fetching water, chopping firewood and so on.  They usually eat meal when the male members finished their share. But all these strenuous works and sacrificial life of women are not recognized as work in patriarchal society. Also once divorced women have no right to claim the household properties like the husband even she forfeits the house (matrimonial home) itself although both the couple has built up the house and contribute together all the household things. Not only she lost household properties but also she has no full right to take children with her after divorced.  

In olden days, one of the factors for the exclusion of women from decision making bodies and treatment of women as subordinate to men was due to the practice of headhunting. (A. Wati Longchar, “Issues in Feminist Theology” in Transforming Theology For Empowering Women, ed. R.L.Hnuni (Jorhat: Women’s Studies, ETC, 1999, p. 20). Since most of the village administration revolves around the strategy of head-hunting, women were left out from all types of decision making. Head-hunting was done by men and considered a risky adventure. Men increased their social status according to the number of heads they brought from warfare. Bringing human heads was also considered a blessing to the family and village. The ideology of headhunting, its attached beliefs and property inheritance keep alive the parent’s preference for male child even today. The work of women such as child bearing, nurturing and caring,  providing water and fodder, preparing food, and performing other life-centered tasks which Indian Feminists such as  Chhaya Datar and Gabriele Dietrich called ‘production of life’( Bastian Wielenga, “Life-centered Production: Practical Steps Towards a Feminist Eco-Socialism” (unpublished material) documented at Centre For Social Analysis, TTS, Madurai, 1994, p. 6), could neither raise women’s status nor bring them to decision making body. Hence, in a patriarchal society those who work for life (women) are looked down upon whereas those who killed and destroy life (men) were highly respected. Look in the field of education. Majority of women do agricultural activities and earn the expense for boy’s education. Once educated, many men became very big-headed and look down upon women. 

The coming of modern development has, to some extent, devalued the worth of women’s knowledge and women’s activities in agriculture and fragment both nature and society. In traditional society, women have the knowledge of working in agriculture and maintain their living. In modern days, cash cropping is more preferable than subsistence economy. Cash cropping requires fertilizers, pesticide, insecticide, power, new technology, etc. Cash cropping needs specialized persons who are usually men. Even the markets which were in control of women are slowly taken over by men. In cash economy, things were mostly sold in bulk and usually the business people are men. Thus, modernization has not only destroyed the skills of women through compartmentalisation of knowledge system. The marketing of goods also goes into the hands of men which were in the hands of the women then. Hence, today, many women became unskilled workers and were seen as superfluous workers. 

II.    B.    In Socio-Religious Life 
Christianity was introduced to our land in the form of anthropocentric and androcentric religion. Anthropocentrism (human-centeredness) undermines other creation and androcentrism (male-centeredness) reinforces patriarchy both in the church and family. The Pauline androcentric texts of wife’s submission to husband (e.g. Ephesians 5: 21-33) is strongly emphasized in the sermons and is very visible in the administration of the church. This teaching became an obligation or a belief that a wife’s submission to her husband is the will of God. Most of the time, consciously or unconsciously, we have allowed patriarchal values and norms to take its roots through songs and sermons in our churches. Patriarchal values are then socialized and internalized by both men and women. It is generally believed albeit without reason or rhythm that woman has to obey men. A wise woman is one who obeys her husband whereas an unwise woman is one who disobeys her husband. This forced woman to obey man.  By doing this a woman is doing the will of God. This placed men and God almost in the same place and women below (God-man-woman). Hence, acceptance by man is like a prerequisite for a woman to reach God. A wife who refused to obey husband is not only disobeying God but is the problem maker in the family and society as well. It is also assumed that if the husband is bad it is because of wife; if he is good, it is also because of her. This appears to be praising women. But in reality, by doing this view, women were often blamed for all the unwanted things that’s  happening in the family, church and society as if they are fully responsible and men has nothing to do. In this way, women were forced to live according to the dictate of men. In patriarchal society, women are considered ‘good’ as long as they live according to the tune of men but once they revolted against and speak out their rights publicly, they became arrogant and stupid people.

In the traditional Naga tribal society women had certain roles to perform especially in religion as priestess. In almost all our Church such important posts were not given to women. Women participate in the church ministry as sweepers and decorators of the church, Sunday school teachers, looking after the collection (offerings) and sale of the handful-of-rice and activities within the women’s fellowships (R.L.Hnuni, “The Role Of Women In the Church” in Transforming Theology For Empowering Women, ed. R.L.Hnuni (Jorhat: Women’s Studies, ETC, 1999, p. 65). For instance, there is no woman pastor or deacon member in all the Poumai Naga Baptist churches. The Poumai Naga Baptist Association Executive Secretary and Circle Field Directors are all men. Theologically trained Poumai women served mostly as teachers and wardens in schools, as lecturers in colleges and missionaries, as they are not getting opportunity to work in the church except in women department. They were not given ordination and thus were denied the role of priesthood. Women were the listeners and men the speakers in any church council meetings. Men make decisions and take control of the church properties although women were the main contributors in terms of church economy.  Women are the bedrock of the church but they are discriminated in a most visible way. R. L. Hnuni has rightly pointed out: “A male-dominated society is mirrored in a male dominated Church” (R.L.Hnuni, 1999: 67).

Christian tradition has legitimised a restrictive spirituality for women. Domestic virtues of humility and selfless devotion were cited as evidence that women are naturally more religious than men. Male language portrayed God as a male being and thus justified women’s dependence on men. This restricts woman’s ability to utilize her own experience as a revelation of God’s qualities and activities. It instead alienates women and presumes that ‘the Holy’ is not at all like herself. The life saving ministry of women is undermined in the church because it is unritualised ministry. They did all the caring work, taking care of children and the old, visiting and helping the sick, giving counselling, praying and healing, etc.  It is often said that women carry faith and pass it on to the next generation. There is no doubt that the majority of the churchgoers, as well as of religious people, are women (Joan Wolski Conn, Women’s Spirituality: Resources for Christian Development (New York: Paulist press, 1986,, pp. 9-31). The church must recognise the spiritual quality of women and give them equal opportunity in the entire ministry. If the Church keeps on denying woman’s participation in ministry, it will collapse sooner or later from its roots.

II.    C.    In Socio-Political life 
Naga women were been misunderstood by many person especially by those who said that there was already pure form of democracy in Naga society. Democracy means rule of the people, by the people and for the people. People include both men and women. Observing that there was already democracy in its ‘purest form’ among the Nagas even before the modern democracy was introduced into Naga community, Asoso Yonuo, a prominent Poumai Naga scholar, wrote that “the Nagas have an efficient system of administration. Most of the tribes retain to a considerable degree, their ancient laws and customs and village organization which have lasted through centuries and this form an integral part of their life and once destroyed or allowed to decay can never be replaced by a system so suitable to them. Democracy in its purest form exists among the Nagas”. (Asoso Yonuo, Nagas Struggle Against the British Rule under Jadonang and Rani Gaidinliu(Kohima: Lino Printing Press, 1982, 135, emphasis mine). In the similar vein a renowned Naga scholar R. R. Shimray also observes that “…Naga village-state was an independent unit and accordingly enjoyed the right of sovereignty. Administration was just and equitable. Council of the village-state was represented by the ablest [men] from every clan, usually the eldest from the family. Customary laws were to be feared and respected….because every Naga knew that he himself had participated in the making of these laws…Social cohesiveness and ideals of a city-state had reached its perfection in the Naga village-state (R. R. Shimray, Origin and Culture of the Nagas, Delhi: B. R. Publication, 1974, 48, 50, emphasis mine)

The observation made by Asoso Yunuo and R. R. Shimray speaks volumes about the mindset of many Nagas which understood that there was egalitarian society and democracy in its totality in the Naga society. To certain extent, they are right because all the representatives of each clan were part in the decision-making and administration. Nonetheless, the fact is that this kind of purest form of democracy and the perfect ideals of city-state of the Naga village-state had denied the right of half of the world’s population (Women) in the administration. There was not a single woman in the village Elder’s Council who represent the clans. Women have no part at all in decision-making of the village. Male Clan-representatives who are in the village Elder’s Council took all decisions. Thus their administration system may best be termed as Clanocracy. (The term ‘Clanocracy’ is coined by the writer to mean ‘rule by the representative of the Clan’. Since in many Naga communities, it is not the Chief/King but the clan representative who has absolute authority in the decision-making. The term democracy is irrelevant because women were not included in any decision making body.  Women were always considered as the Other within the clan because of exogamy in many Naga society. Clan is form on the line of male and all male members take part in electing their representative. Hence, their system of administration could best be term as Clanocracy).