Matrilineal Societies in India

Traditionally, a majority of the world’s societies and cultures have been led by men or male members of a particular community. A family’s descent continues to be traced through the father’s or the oldest male member’s ancestry. In fact, there is a famous saying which goes “it is a man’s world” indicating that men are the primary members of society and they dominate most socio-political organizations. In such a world, women are denied equal opportunities and are under-represented in public spaces.

Many women have recognized the ills of living in a patriarchal society and consequently have led and actively supported three major feminist movements. These movements pioneered greater rights for women, such as equal wages, equal treatment, and equal voting rights, to name a few. However, all three movements have originated and occurred in the West in countries like the US, Canada, England, France, Germany and Austria. Feminist movements or associated concepts of gender equality and gender neutrality are modern concepts that have been credited to the West’s forward and progressive thinking.


It is an undeniable fact that Indian women still live in a patriarchal system, but there are also certain matrilineal societies scattered throughout the country. These matrilineal societies affirm that gender equality and feminism are not merely concepts that are practiced in the West but principles that are innate to the East as well.


KHASIS OF MEGHALAYA

The Khasis are an Indian tribe native to Meghalaya. This tribe makes up the majority of the ethnic population in Meghalaya and is listed as a Scheduled Tribe by the Constitution of India.


The Khasis are one of the oldest communities in the world to follow a matrilineal system. The earliest Khasi tribe used to fight constant battles with other communities surrounding it. Consequently, Khasi men were required to leave their homes, serve their families and fight the enemy tribes. In their absence, the women took charge of private property as well as public spaces, and a matrilineal system emerged in the community.

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Khasi women

The matriarchy amongst Khasis mandates that children born in the family take up their mother’s last name. The youngest daughter inherits ancestral property and material wealth, and the husband lives at his wife’s residence. Unlike patriarchal societies, where women members remain limited to the home and the hearth, Khasi women are adequately represented in public spaces. For instance, in Shillong’s huge markets, one can observe how a large number of the traders are women, assisted by male members who deliver goods and do menial tasks.

In the Khasis, the maternal uncle plays an important role too. Referred to as the kni in the native language, the maternal uncle advises the eldest female in matters related to property and wealth. In fact, the head of the community does not implement any major financial or household decisions without consulting the kni. The kni has to split time between his mother or sister’s home and his wife and children's home. If he decides to spend the night at his mother’s home, he must ensure that he is back home with his wife before sunrise. He must provide money to his mother/sister if they are unemployed or under working age.

Many Khasi women remain unmarried and choose to live alone. Having a matrilineal society implies that women get the opportunity to voice themselves in public and be a part of local governments and decision-making.

GAROS OF MEGHALAYA

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A Garo mother and child

Another tribe in Meghalaya that follows a matrilineal system is the Garo. The Garo tribe follows similar patterns of society as the Khasis. Clan members inherit ancestry from their eldest female, and property is passed down to the youngest daughter of the family. In this community, only the youngest daughter inherits all property and wealth. All elder daughters must follow the patriarchal system and live with their husbands at their residence after marriage.

Additionally, while women are provided opportunities to lead the clan members, male members of the tribe play an equally important role. They are involved in decision-making pertaining to the tribe’s internal affairs, administration, and governance. Without the presence of a male member, the tribe cannot pass any laws or implement important decisions. Even though Garo men have sufficient responsibility in steering the community, the female members have more autonomy and decision-making powers.

NAIRS AND EZHAVAS OF KERALA

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A group of Nair women

The Nairs and Ezhavas of Kerala began living in matrilineal arrangements long before India’s Independence. The eldest female member of the family owns a big house within which all male members reside. This house is known as tharavad and is home to a large number of the eldest female’s successors. The matriarch’s family name is passed down to all future generations, and her property is considered to be ancestral property. However, maintenance of the ancestral property, as well as the sustenance of all young members of the clan, is carried out by the karavan, the eldest male member of the family.

Since India’s Independence and the formation of formal states, the practice of matrilineage in Ezhavas and Nairs has ceased to exist. A majority of the clan members now follow a patriarchal system of living. Even so, it must be noted that Kerala has the country's highest literacy rate and a stable sex ratio which can be credited to ancient matrilineal practices. Even though matrilineage might not be widely practiced in Kerala, its previous occurrence has taught people to respect each other regardless of their gender and to provide equal opportunities to women in all fields.


BUNT AND BILLAVA OF KARNATAKA

The Bunts and Billavas constitute an integral portion of Karnataka’s diverse ethnic population. These caste groups practice matriliny which is believed to have originated from a story of their ancient king.

According to the tale, a demon asked the king to sacrifice his sons in return for good weather and prosperity. The king refused to do so, and in his place, his sister became ready to offer her son for sacrifice. Amused at the generosity and courage displayed by the king’s sister, the demon lets everyone go and makes the king promise that his nephew will inherit his kingdom. From that time onwards, the Bunt and BilLava groups consider the eldest sister of the household to be their true ancestor. Lineage is traced through her surname. However, the role she plays in administration, governance, and household affairs is limited. For these matters, the eldest male, her brother, must implement all decisions.

While the West may have named and formally introduced concepts such as feminism and gender equality, countries in the East, especially India, have traditions that provide women equal opportunities to become leaders. Matrilineal societies have been known to make women feel safer in their surroundings and expand their horizons outside of their homes. In a matrilineal society, greater decision-making powers rest in the hands of the eldest female, and descent is passed through the matriarch too. This ensures that a woman feels as much as part of her family as does a man. Finally, it creates an atmosphere of egalitarianism where both male and female members of the household and society can actively participate in activities within their communities.