The Captivity of Tribal Women in Northeast India

LOOKING AT HOW TRIBAL women in/from Northeast India (NEI) freely move, travel, or migrate to the cities, they are seen as a liberated community. Considering their attire, they are seen as outgoing; those who are not bound by traditional norms. Further, the absence of dowry practice seems to suggest that they are not oppressed, captivated, or dominated by the patriarchal society. For similar reasons, NE women are seen as enjoying a place of position in society. This is in comparison to women in other parts of the country i.e., they seem to enjoy a higher status. However, as an example, a closer look at the role and position of Tangkhul women will show that they are held captive by a rigid socio-religious system. Some of these unsaid religious rules, social norms, and customary laws for women are not found for men. This short article aims to highlight the reality and struggle of Tangkhul women suggesting the need for a gender-sensitive approach – and moving to gender advocacy.

Gender Sensitivity

Culture, whether traditional or contemporary, is a human construct. It is not sent from heaven to guide our daily affairs. As you begin to read, some of you may ask “why do we have to import the discussion of Western feminism to our context?” However, I would push back and suggest that our faith and practices are brought and shaped/influenced by the West, including feminism. While some elements of this piece are informed by the discussion in the Global North, the reality that is portrayed here emerges from our context, our socio-religious reality. The goal for us, then, is to do a contextual reflection and ask and understand whether our socio-religious systems are oppressive to women or not.

I begin this piece with the notion that there are some good cultural practices, while some are oppressive and destructive. As our society practices oral tradition, most of these practices do not have a written text. However, it will be found that the following reality of women is subtly practiced in our society. Let us look at how our socio-religious systems are oppressing women even in the contemporary context.

In the family setting, shushing women on important family discussions are not uncommon. Mother, wife, or sister is asked to stay silent because they are a woman (e.g., “shanaona kasaikha pamlo” is the common expression used by men). In such contexts, their voice is silenced just because they are “a woman.” This is not because their opinion is not sound or invalid, but they happen to be women.

While it is very subtle, there are cases of preferential treatment. This is evident in their schooling: some parents send their sons to private schools and their daughters to government schools. There are cases of heavy investment on sons – and not daughters. Men are given the choicest option for further studies, while many women are neglected. The rationale behind such preferential treatment comes from the assumption that whatever women learned will be taken to their husbands. Yet, such thinking is simply unbecoming. It limits a person’s wellbeing and education, for fear of their daughter moving to another home, clan, or village. This is not very different from disowning one’s daughter.

The tribal community of NEI does not practice dowry. However, it is naïve to assume that women are not oppressed during the time of marriage. As indicated, some oppressions are straightforward, while others are subtle. When a woman gets married, there are several social expectations that are not there for men. For instance, a Ph.D. research by Kamei Khamguilu (2018) in Manipur informs that women are expected to bring gifts when they get married, and they are abused when they do not. It is found that 50% of women experience some form of abuse from their husband and his family in the first week of marriage.

When women marry, there is a default assumption that she will adopt the husband’s surname. It is unlikely to hear of a man taking his wife’s or mother’s surname. While many women have happily taken their husband’s name or hyphenated their surname with his (if you did it without much thinking, you need to ask why). However, for many informed women, this is simply a snatching away of their identity. Without consent, some people would go to the extent of changing women’s names in public places and platforms. But they do it without recognizing that their act is an infringement of women’s rights and individuality.

After marriage, the other immediate expectation is the expectation of children. Interestingly, such questions are rarely posed to men. If the couple is without a child after some years, the question of infertility is again directed towards women. A communitarian society fails to understand that it is nobody’s business to inquire about having or not having a child.

At the extreme end, some fathers/husbands think that it is their right to beat their wives – not realizing that it is unlawful. They seem to think that it is their responsibility to discipline their wife, by beating them. While it is unlawful to beat one’s wife, the percentage of domestic violence is as high as 65.9 percent in Manipur. Wife beating is rampant in our society, even in the twenty-first century. According to the Manipur State Commission for Women (MSCW), domestic violence remains the biggest crime against women in Manipur. Unfortunately, many cases remain unreported because of social shame, financial dependency, fear of retaliation, etc.

Also read: The Crisis of the Divide between Secular and Sacred

In the social setting, most prominent positions and roles are set apart only for men. For example, in many villages, hangva (the village council) is a men’s club. Women are not given a seat amongst the village administrators/counsellors. The important decision of the village/community is still made by men alone; women are excluded in other such bodies.

This is not just in the village council. Women are underrepresented in politics. As a case in point, in one of the NE states, the call or fight for women seat/reservation in the urban local bodies caused social unrest in 2017. Such demand and felt need are not an isolated event. A recent study in 2019 suggests that Tangkhul women play a significant role in society, and more than 50% of women want to participate in traditional local governance.

If we do not call this a neglect and oppression of women and their rights, what is? If such reality should not disturb us, what should? This exploitation or lack of opportunity to exercise women’s rights is found not only in patriarchal settings; there is also telling evidence in matriarchal settings in the NE region.

In the ecclesial setting, we see a similar situation, if not worse. Since it is a religious setting, one can assume that women will be well treated. However, my more than a decade of experience with Tangkhul churches informs me that the concerns of women are neglected. Even in today’s context, some churches do not allow women to be a part of the yearly general meeting. While most churches encourage equal women participation, they are not appointed beyond the position of deaconess, chairperson, Sunday school teachers, etc. Almost all the Tangkhul churches are run by a male pastor with his associates. In our context, it may not be wrong to suggest that women are ignored for the leadership position of pastoral ministry. This is not about capacity, ability, or talent. But it is a gender issue/injustice. The higher leadership positions largely remain a men’s club. For instance, many women feel that they are appointed as a deaconess or some ecclesial position to serve men (e.g., make tea, cook, etc.). Their voice is yet to be heard in the decision-making of the church or church associations. Their positions are manipulated for the benefit of some men in power.

Just because a person is born a woman, she is not given an equal opportunity to the role and position of leadership. While proof-texting the Bible, the role of women as a pastor or leader is discouraged. Consequently, they remain unwilling to ordain women. To this day, we do not have a single ordained woman.

Gender Advocacy

In the past, I have talked about the equality of wo/men. Such conversation takes the direction of gender inclusivity in all areas of life. In my public speaking, I have spoken about equality and women’s rights. These talks focus on injustice towards women in the context of family, church, and society. In my profession, maintaining “gender sensitivity” is a must. We value the concerns, interests, and opinions of one another, both wo/men. Unfortunately, that is the furthest I have reached to date.

However, my continual exposure (and reading) to/about gender issues tells me that more should (and can) be done – and by more men (not just women).

To be aware, to do self-study, to speak up, and to write about the concerns of women in the Tangkhul context is an ongoing conversation. My suggestion would be not to stop from just being aware of the struggles of women but move beyond gender advocacy.

Also read: Tangkhul Language or Languages?

It is likely that you were already aware of what I wrote above. It is likely that you are more informed than me. It is also likely that you have been fighting for the rights of women.

But, considering the above reality of women, we need further conversation. This is to suggest that subtly practiced –toxic, oppressing, and domineering – concern of women needs to be made common knowledge. More people need to be aware of the reality of women in the Tangkhul context.

If we are already aware of the captivity of women, it is meant to encourage you to take baby steps to move away from your state of oppression. If you were not aware, my intentions were to open your eyes to this reality. If you are a man, and it makes sense, may this piece encourage you to advocate for women’s rights. To begin with, you can start with the understanding that the role and position of women in our socio-religious settings have a deep presence of gender stereotypes. There are deeply preconceived notions about who or what gender should do or not do certain things.

I would also give you a word of caution. Fighting for the rights and privileges of men as a man is like swimming down the river. For women, to fight for their rights and privileges is like swimming against the running river. 

Dr. Taimaya Ragui is an independent research scholar based in Bangalore, Karnataka.

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