Its Time for Equality: Matrilineal Societies in India Might Be The Answer

In the past 2 - 3 years, especially after the Modi government coming into force in India and the Trump elections of the United States of America, many social evils that were swept under the carpet effectively - have come to be contested and oh, how. Many individuals have taken up arms against a lot of social corruption, be it violence or terrorism or suppression - today’s generation is quite vocal of its opinions and judgements. Social media sky-rocketed with multiple buzz words such that even their meaningless utterance could start a debate or a protest. One such buzz word that people from all walks of life began to band against was ‘patriarchy’ and mostly the practice of it. Now that elections are upon us once again, it’s time we take a quick history recap of how patriarchy was appropriated in many places through a culture of matrilineal societies in India.

Matrilineal Societies

Matrilineal societies in India have existed since time immemorial. The modernization of India after its colonial independence undeniably ruptured this practice as many towns and states came to be consolidated under the Indian Nation. Many tribes continue to practice this matrilineal social formation while others are subsumed under the larger patriarchal taste of our country. In India, states such as Meghalaya, Assam, Kerala and Karnataka stood witness to various tribes as they came to practice matrilineality in their families. Some of the most significant tribes are Khasi, Gora, Nair and Izhava. Though matrilineal families, in Kerala and Karnataka,  are urbanized to patriarchal controls, the north-east still vehemently refuses to give up its age-old traditions for favours from the nation.

1. Meghalaya: Khasi Tribe and Garo Tribe

Khasi Woman
Khasi tribe, which has become worldly known and appreciated as one of the matrilineal societies in India, gives primary importance to the women of the family where the eldest woman functions as the head while the youngest daughter inherits the property and the right to continue staying with her parents even after her marriage. Under this situation, the husband of the youngest daughter comes to stay with the girl’s family or stays nearby in a different house. In conditions where a daughter isn’t born, the family adopts a daughter, or it trickles down to the eldest woman’s sister’s daughter. But, the eldest woman’s brother plays a vital role in helping her govern the family - no decision is ever made without his consultation or agreement. Secondary to this, men still hold influential positions in politics; it is only the economic and domestic spheres that are left to the women. Otherwise, women hold limited or rare representation on a more practical and political field.

The Garo tribe, second-largest tribe in the hills of Meghalaya, is one of the few surviving matrilineal societies. Much like its sister tribe, Khasi, the Garo tribe also follows similar patterns of matrilineal inheritance and descent from the eldest woman, and they take their surnames after her, even the husband of the daughters. These two tribes have subsequently maintained a matrilineal society but it very rarely counters patriarchy as men, brother in case of husband or father, continue to hold the reigns over the matriarch figures.

2. Kerala: Nairs and Ezhavas

In Kerala, the Nairs are one of the matrilineal societies in India from before Kerala became a state. This group of castes and sub-castes lived under an older female member in a matrilineal household called tharavad. Tharavad consists of many descendants who share the same ancestor. The husbands usually stay in separate rooms or altogether different houses and holds almost little to no responsibility towards their children. This responsibility, along with taking care of the common property as well as other decisions, falls upon the eldest male member known as the karnavan. The karnavan is the superior authority even though ancestral lineage follows from the eldest female member. It is believed that the karnavan favours his nieces and nephews over his children because of this lineage pattern.

The Ezhavas, another one of the matrilineal societies, is also a community from Kerala. In northern Malabar, matrilineal communities have patrilocal arrangements while in northern Travancore, Ezhavas follow a matrilocal method of their property. Even in these communities, the importance given to the karnavan triumphs all the apparent power held by the matriarch. Since the Indian Nation was formed and Kerala as a State started to function, these communities have been suppressed and left with no other option but to align with the rest of the state and nation practices such that Ezhavas and Nairs are no more matrilineal communities in India.

3. Karnataka: Bunt and Billava

In Karnataka, two prominent communities of the Tuluva ethnic group, namely Bunt community and Billava community follow matrilineal descent known as Aliyasantana. Aliyasantana is based on the legend of how a king refuses to sacrifice his sons when a demon demands their sacrifice to lift the drought that plagued the kingdom. Instead, the king’s sister offers her son as a sacrifice. The demon then pardons them all, and the nephew then inherits everything from the king. It is this incident  which constituted the Tuluva group into one of the matrilineal societies in India. In the communities Bunt and Billava, the inheritance travels through the sister, i.e. the eldest female member. Apart from this, the sister’s brother is the primary decision-maker of the family and its members, and they follow a patriarchal living pattern.

This quick recap provides us with a few clues as to how patriarchy and women subordination had been adjusted in our nation before independence. The leaving of Britishers made us establish a homogeneous government where patriarchy became the song of most of our states in the country. But, it is also necessary to note that even matrilineal societies were patriarchal in many forms. This relooking at matrilineal societies in India does in no mean calls for matriarchy because both are equally evil in their manifestations. Let’s be conscious and aware citizens as we live our lives and  aim constantly for a more inclusive society.

This post was published by anjali.

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