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Meghalese Women and Matriliny—A look into one of the world’s only existing matrilineal societies

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Delhi North chapter.

Have you ever wondered what a matrilineal society looks like or does anything of this sort even exist? Let me share an insight into one of the world’s last matrilineal societies. Meghalaya, a state situated in the Northeastern part of India, still practices matriliny. It is a social practice where the ancestral lineage passes through the female line. However, this shouldn’t be confused with matriarchy, as women are not the head of the family and their husbands and blood brothers still have an upper hold over familial decision-making and property.

A great deal is still unknown about the origins of matriliny in Meghalaya. However, a common saying is that in the primitive days, men seldom had time to look after their wards since they were busy fighting wars and hunting. As men weren’t there to look after their family and there were doubts whether they would return unhinged, they started giving up on their rights to inheritance, due to which women had to take up the responsibility of carrying forward the clan name and traditions.

In Meghalaya, the tribes of Khasi, Garo and Jaintia primarily practice this. According to their system, the property passes on from the mother to the youngest daughter (khatduh) and the husband moves to his wife’s place after marriage. If the family doesn’t have a daughter, then the property passes on to the mother’s sister and daughters, and if the mother doesn’t have a sister, then it becomes clan property. The youngest daughter or khatduh is not just upheld with the responsibility to look after the property but also her parents and siblings during old age. However, the khatduh cannot sell the property independently and has to consult her maternal uncle before doing so. In short, she cannot sell the property without her uncle’s permission. This tradition of inheritance applies only to clan or ancestral property. Self-acquired property can be distributed equally among the couple’s kids.

Last year in October, an autonomous district council brought the ‘Khasi Inheritance Property Bill, 2021‘ to the state. It aimed at ‘equitable’ distribution of parental property among siblings or gave parents the choice to decide the actual heir of the familial property. If implemented, the Bill holds the power to alter the age-old tradition of matriliny in Meghalaya. The Bill has evoked mixed reactions from different stakeholders, and as time passes, it remains to be seen how the case evolves.

However, the crux of the problem is women in these communities don’t have complete freedom in decision-making and inheritance is primarily subject to scrutiny by the male members of their families. Added to this, the participation of women in forefront politics is a mere figure and goes on to show the disparity looming in this space. In fact, in the 2013 Assembly elections, the representation of women as MLAs was a mere 8.33 percent. This indicates that even though the state has a matrilineal system, it is not free from the clutches of patriarchy.

Thus, the gender dynamics in Meghalaya are complex. The perception of matriliny isn’t free from deep-rooted problems. On one hand, the practice provides for a sense of empowerment for Meghalese women, but on the other hand, decisions of distribution and redistribution are guided and controlled by the male strata of the society. Thus, the deliberation on the practice still continues.

Alankrita Dutta

Delhi North '24

Alankrita Dutta is a final year student of Political Science at Indraprastha College for Women, University of Delhi. She is the current the Editor-in-Chief and Campus Correspodent of Her Campus Delhi North. Having interned with a Member of Parliament and the Assam State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, her broad areas of interest include international relations, policy research and gender studies. During her undergraduate studies, she has actively published academic papers and research articles in these facets. In her sophomore year, she also led her Department Council by being democratically elected as its Vice-President. Apart from her academic ventures, one can find her sipping chai (tea) on random hours of the day, obsessing over Kyle Hanagami's choreographies or playing Indian Classical ragas on her violin.