‘Matrilineal’ Meghalaya Goes to Polls With Only 32 Women in Fray

Matriliny seems to work against Meghalaya’s women as many are abandoned by husbands and left to fend for themselves.

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
Image of a tribal woman and her children in Shillong used for representational purposes.
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Much is made of the practice of matriliny in Meghalaya. Some who have read or heard of such a society conjure up pictures of a paradise where women strut around ordering men to do their bidding. But this is a mere illusion.

Matriliny only means that children born of a couple carry the clan name of their mother. And this is not necessarily empowering for women. On the contrary, since cohabitation is par for the course in Meghalaya society, a woman who is abandoned by her partner becomes the sole caretaker of her children.

Once a man leaves his wife/partner there is no turning back. Alimony is offered only by the well-heeled.

Matriliny Works Against Women

Poverty is on the rise and street children are seen in the capital city of Shillong peddling book marks, betel nut, cigarettes just so they can earn one meal. Ask any of these kids why they are not at school and the answer is, “My mother cannot afford to send me to school. She works as a daily labourer and we hardly have enough to eat”.

The next question is, “So where’s your father?” And pat comes the reply – “He has left us and married elsewhere”. That’s it. There is no relief for the abandoned woman. Neither society nor the traditional institutions come to her rescue.

Preliminary studies conducted by the local Martin Luther Christian University, ranks Meghalaya as the state with the highest number of female headed households. And why? Simply because marriages are brittle and women are easily abandoned by their husbands/partners and left to fend for themselves.

The majority of women whose husbands work in the informal sector have no way of claiming maintenance and where is the money to go to a court of law?

Working-Class Women Under-Represented

It is in this glorified social trapping that many researchers and journalists land up to find out why there are so few women in Meghalaya’s political sphere. Firstly, the traditional institutions – Dorbar Shnong – debar women form contesting elections.

Earlier, women were not even allowed to attend the Dorbar Shnong. They were represented by an adult male member of the household ‘who has grown a moustache’. Many women are forced into prostitution to keep body and soul together.

One woman who solicits clients said:

I am a single parent. My husband left me and I am on my own. I have to feed my kids and send them to school. If I am selling my body for that it’s entirely my lookout. No one can tell me what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s moral and what is unethical.

The problem with most researchers and journalists is that they talk only to educated, English-speaking women in Shillong, Meghalaya’s opulent capital city, who do not represent the harsh realities of most women.

Representation of Women in Politics

Let us not forget that fighting elections in Meghalaya as in any other state means having both money and muscle. Money to throw at the depressed sections on the eve of elections and muscle to tell those who don’t vote for them that they will be kept out of their entitlements for the next five years.

In 1972, when Meghalaya was carved out of Assam, while three women contested, only one, Percylina Marak of Rongram constituency emerged successful. Brosila Lamin who contested against veteran DD Pugh from Nongshken, lost. Interestingly, Muriel Dunn who was a doctor and a veteran social worker, contested from Laban, a general seat, but lost to PN Chaudhuri.

And if one goes to the Meghalaya Assembly website, one will find that all these women have been listed as ‘men’ in the gender section.

In 1978, the Meghalaya Assembly had no woman member. Maysalin War and Fridina Marak were both defeated. In 1983, there was no woman contestant and hence, there was no woman MLA in the House.

In 1988, Maysalin War and Miriam D Shira were both elected. In 1993, only Roshan Warjri won the election. Maysalin War, Enila Shira and Naramai Langstieh lost that year. In 1998, Roshan Warjri, Maysalin War and Deborak Marak won their seats but MR Mawlong, a former bureaucrat, lost her seat.

In 2003, three women, Jopsimon Phanbuh, Irom Lyngdoh and Deborah Marak won the elections but Syrpailin Khonglah, daughter of Chief Minister BB Lyngdoh, lost. In 2008, the Meghalaya Assembly had only one woman MLA, Ampareen Lyngdoh. Debora Marak lost the election and Roshan Warjri did not contest.

The 2013 Assembly saw four women MLAs elected and one more, Bluebell Momin who came in through a by-election after her husband Clifford Marak, the sitting MLA of Chokpat died. So the 2013 Assembly had the largest representation of women at 8.33 percent.

A Reluctance to Field Women Candidates

This time, of the 370 candidates contesting the elections scheduled for 27 February, there are 32 women candidates. The Congress has fielded seven women, the National People’s Party (NPP) has fielded five, the BJP, PDF, HSPDP and GNC have fielded two each and the UDP just one. There are 10 women candidates in the fray who are contesting as Independents.

This shows how wary political parties are of fielding women candidates. Each party speaks of winnability, and has given out tickets based on this factor alone. The BJP, which preaches “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” has only fielded two women candidates, thus, making a mockery of the slogan and the pro-girl child campaign. Shibun Lyngdoh, the state BJP president, claims to support reservation for women but perhaps not in the political space.

The Congress has given tickets to seven women candidates because in most of the constituencies the seats were going a-begging.

Today’s Politics Does NOT Favour Women

This is the stark reality of elections in matrilineal Meghalaya. A quick look at the profile of the women MLAs in Meghalaya reveals their support base. They all come from powerful political families. Ampareen Lyngdoh is the daughter of Peter Marbaniang who was an MLA since 1972. He later became a minister and the Speaker of the Assembly. He was also the Lok Sabha MP. Roshan Warjri’s mother was also stalwart of the regional party.

Deborak Marak is the niece of former Chief Minister of Meghalaya Salseng Marak and Dikkanchi D Shira is the wife of the present CM. He did the major part of the campaigning for her. This shows us that the political system as of today does not favour women candidates and nor does it capacitate them.

Interestingly, women are only considered good in playing second fiddle. They go on door-to-door campaigns for the candidate of their choice.

So, is this the only thing women are good at? Or is the burden of running a family so daunting that stepping into politics is unfathomable? The answer, to quote Bob Dylan, is ‘blowin’ in the wind’.

Meghalaya’s matriliny is indeed an illusion, which hides an insidious form of patriarchy.

(The writer is the Editor of The Shillong Times and former member of NSAB. She can be reached @meipat. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same)

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