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Are North-Eastern matrilineal societies inherently patriarchal?

According to early evolutionary theory, most societies in the universe have evolved from a matriarchal system to their current state. It was easier to trace a relationship from the mother to the child due to biological factors. But this theory was later discarded, and it was asserted that both systems have flourished independently. The social structure of a ‘matriarchy’ which is a society governed by women has been fraught with critiques regarding its very existence with some contending that it is a myth. But very few matrilineal societies have sustained themselves amidst the formidable patriarchal societies. These are some of the few societies where the birth of a girl child is celebrated. Everyone born in these communities belongs to the mother and is recognized by their mother’s name, extinguishing the stigma of illegitimacy.

Radical Views

There has been a widespread assumption that matrilineal societies empower women at the expense of men, thereby, a vast majority of critiques stem from the men of these communities. Many organizations and collectives have been launched with the objective to dismantle the matrilineal system and establish a full-fledged patrilineal system. A prominent campaign for the same cause would be the Synkhong Rympei Thymai (SRT) which stated, “Men are the weaker sex in Meghalaya. They are not even entitled to take part in family gatherings. The husband is up against a whole clan of people: his wife, mother-in-law, and his children. So, all he can do is play guitar, sing, drink and die young”. The role of a man in the family as the breadwinner is a prominent part of masculine hegemony especially in patriarchal societies. This position of a man is altered when descent is followed through the female lineage and property is in the hands of a woman. If a man cannot contribute as much as his wife does, he feels disempowered because according to him, his family and society do not see him as the ‘ideal man’. Men in these communities think the system gives undue advantage to women and is biased towards them. On the contrary, feminists and researchers have critiqued that women empowerment is not necessarily a part of matrilineal societies as it creates a system of subordination of women. They highlight the inherent patriarchal elements and contradictions within these communities. To assess the reasoning behind these arguments, it is important to examine the gender relations and kinship especially the contentious patriarchal elements in these societies.

Practices in Khasi and Garo Tribes

The three main characteristics of the matrilineal systems followed in both Garo and Khasi’s  social structures are- 

1) Matrilineal inheritance- hereditary succession directly from the mother,

2) Matrilineal descent- person identifying with their matriline, 

3) Uxorilocal residence- a system in which a couple resides with the wife’s parents.

There is a famous saying among Khasi people- “Long Jaid Noka Kunthai” (from women stem the clan). Unlike Hindu family patterns, women are considered centric to the family and the identities of the children stem from their mothers. It is believed that men are only responsible for providing the initial form and stature whereas a mother’s blood is the life-giving force for the child. Younger daughters, known as Khadduh’ are usually the custodians of ancestral property and are expected to take care of the elders and children. But this should not be confused with the head or the proprietor of the family. The maternal uncle (kni) is the undisputed supervisor of the ancestral wealth and the father is the head and provider of the family. The role of a maternal uncle is elevated; it is said that he deals with matters of life and death such as performing religious duties, concerning issues affecting clan and kinship. The areas of politics and administration are reserved for men, and if women manage to become part of it, they become non-conformist. Women possess property but the authority to dispose and manage it lies with the maternal uncle or sister’s son. Just as motherhood is appreciated, a man’s strength gives him authority over women which is reflected in their folk dances, religious tradition and festivals. For instance, in folk dances, women stand in the centre with their eyes looking downwards, in an act of obedience, and men form a protective circle around them, holding a sword in their hand to symbolize their trope of ‘protection of women’.  In the Khasi tribe, where women’s domestic role is stressed in the same society, her role in matters of authority and power seems to be undermined.

A similar pattern is found in the Garo tribe, a matrilineal community which is concentrated in Garo hills of Meghalaya. Mahari is an entity of matrilineally related males who have substantial control over the lives of the women of their clan. Their role can be aligned with that of the maternal uncle in the Khasi tribe as they are responsible in areas of marriage, rights, property, and politics. A woman cannot divorce her husband on her own accord, she has to first consult the male elders and receive their approval. They are expected to always obey chra or male elders and can never raise their voice againstthem. There are some extreme customary laws in the Garo tradition, namely Akim and dokchapa which severely marginalize the position of women. According to dokchapa, upon the death of either the wife or the husband, the Chra or Mahari of the deceased shall have to find the next partner. In a case wherein the second wife is very old and cannot perform domestic duties, another younger girl is married to the man and vice versa.As per Akim law, a daughter who is Nokna (youngest daughter) must marry the son of  the elder or younger sister of her father. 

In the Khasi tribe, often the husband visits his wife only during the night and leaves for his natal house (home of his mother or sister) in the morning. Belonging to a different clan, he is recognized as an outsider and does not participate in kinship matters. Upon his death, his bones must not lie with that of his wife and children but are to be kept with the depository of his maternal relations which creates a wedge between the relationship of the husband/father and his wife and children.

Different Interpretation

According to H.O. Mawrie, “One of the foundations of traditional Khasi society is the recognition of the special and unique role of the woman in the fabric of society”. Contrary to many researchers and activists, he believes that there is no competition for power, authority and recognition between the mother and the father. If this basic norm is not understood or is violated, it can result in the collapse of the family system.  He conveys that power in a non-hierarchical society like Khasi and Garo is not about domination. In a traditional setting, the power does not lie merely in the political domain like it does in capitalistic society. Instead, power lies in land, property and cultural settings which are in the hands of both women and men. If women die without giving indication about disposal of the property, it goes to her youngest daughter. If a man dies without disposing of his self-acquired property, then there are certain rules that are followed. In case the property is earned during the period during which he was residing with his parents, it will go to his mother and sister. Property acquired when he is living with his wife goes to his children and wife. Here the practices are not the opposite of patriarchy, but these groups have been predominantly involved in agriculture and keep land as the locus of power, and these rights are in the hands of women. 

Fatherhood is associated closely with ‘performing masculinity’ in patrilineal societies’, especially within the family context because manhood and masculinity are constructed and reconstructed in mutual ways. With the advent of Christianity, patriarchal norms of fatherhood started permeating in matrilineal societies. This led men to begin feeling anxious about their role as a father. One must understand that the idea of ‘hegemonic masculinity’ or men’s dominance over women is very eurocentric which  has time and again strengthened patriarchal relations. In the contemporary matrilineal society, the reason men oppose the system is because of the expansion of capitalism wherein power is exercised in hierarchical terms. The above discussed norms in these societies if analysed through a feminist lens will appear patriarchal. One should consider both the communities in their unique frameworks which does not align with the mainstream patriarchal societies. In other words, the form of matriarchy here is not the mirror image of patriarchy. Conscious efforts can be made to acknowledge the context and circumstances in which the community is surviving that is at the intersection of the acceptance of Christianity, urbanization, migration, and the spread of information from the rest of the patriarchal communities. These are exogenous factors which cannot be kept in isolation from the communities. Nevertheless, to some extent these societies have managed to retain their structure.


By comparing and contrasting the much-debated patriarchal elements in both communities, it can be observed that there are distinct functions allotted to both men and women which they have been following for ages. If one studies the feature of these societies using feminist lens then the patriarchal elements cannot be negated . The motivation of men who try to alter the structure through protest and campaigns emerges from the influence of surrounding patriarchal societies.

The conflicting state of these groups is exhibited by the disjunction in the status role of men and women dealing with various public and private affairs. Some aspects of living are entirely female oriented, and others are strictly assigned to males. The underlying assumption that women in these matrilineal communities would use their power to dominate in a manner similar to men in a patriarchy does lead to failure in acknowledging the uniqueness of this structure.  The cultural settings of these societies are hence complex and they cannot be put into a certain category without discussing and understanding their context and characteristics. Therefore, it depends on the lens one is using to study the nature of these societies.

Lovanshi is a third year undergraduate student pursuing BA-LLB from O.P Jindal Global University.

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