The Myth of Nagaland's Empowered Woman

A recent study by the North East Network interviewed 132 women from various Naga tribes and found that they continue to be discriminated against under tribal customary laws.

A report has found that Naga women face discrimination because of customary tribal laws that are inherently patriarchal. Image used for representation only. Credit: Twitter

A report has found that Naga women face discrimination because of customary tribal laws that are inherently patriarchal. Image used for representation only. Credit: Twitter

“My husband fed me with the meat of bigger animals when I gave birth to boys, but when I delivered a girl, I was treated to a smaller-sized animal for namesake.”

“My husband was the only son in his family. So when I gave birth to only a girl, he was so upset and that is when I felt the pressure (to give birth to a boy).”

Common narratives about the reproductive rights of Indian women may lead you to believe that these are the voices of married women from anywhere in the country except the Northeast. In Northeast India, popular myth says that gender discrimination is largely absent – both in the private and public spaces.

However, the experiences of these two women (who did not wish to be named) from Thsingar village of Nagaland’s Kiphire district exposes that prevalent myth. It reflects the gender dynamics that play out in their tribal societies, especially among the Nagas.

This candid conversation – documented as part of a one-of-a-kind study that aims at highlighting the discriminatory status of women in rural Nagaland – has direct links to the gender imbalance present in their customary laws, the onus of which lies with men alone. Even though constitutional laws exist in the state, locals rarely make use of these, instead resorting to the customary justice mechanism available through customary courts.

‘Enquiry into the status of women in Nagaland’, a 192-page report brought out by the Nagaland chapter of the well-known grassroots organisation North East Network (NEN), brings out the voices of 132 such rural women belonging to three of the 11 districts of the state. The status of these women, who belong to six Naga tribes, was documented between January 2014 and March 2016.

“The impression about women being empowered, particularly in Naga society, is largely a myth. Though much progress has been made in the field of education and employment, especially in the urban areas, yet ’empowerment ‘ in the real sense is debatable because women do not have real decision-making powers within their home, community, over the landed resources, over marriage, over reproductive health and so on,” says Monisha Behal, NEN chairperson and well-known women rights activist.

Though women in Nagaland play a major role in food production, they have no ownership rights over landed resources. Photo from report. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

Although women in Nagaland play a major role in food production, they have no ownership rights over landed resources. A photo from report. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

Behal told The Wire, “Though we have been working and addressing some of the issues related to women’s rights and customary laws in Nagaland for quite a few years, we thought of undertaking this long study in that direction because there wasn’t much work that we came across that documented the lived experiences of women on gender discrimination within the customary practices. The documented works that exist mostly, are on customary laws and practices of the different tribes of Nagas.”

Naga customary laws are not written or coded. They are referred to only as customary practices.

“Since they are unwritten, there is every possibility of such laws being misinterpreted from the original intent and content. Also, the interpreters of customary laws are only men, and interpretation can always be affected by personal perspectives and opinions,” Behal stated.

Being a patriarchal society, customary laws in the Naga society have always been interpreted from a patriarchal mindset. “And this is why we notice the loops or biases largely in laws related to women,” she added.

For instance, the study highlights that “on consideration of a woman’s physical weakness, an Ao Naga woman suffers from disqualification in the following ways:

  • She can’t become a member of Putu Menden (traditional village/clan/tribal council which is the highest decision making body in Ao society)
  • She can’t become the patir/putie (village councilor) though she may be the oldest person in the village. She is debarred from performing religious rites and sacrifices.
  • She can’t participate in debates of public interest
  • She is not entitled to get honour, title and fame.”

An Ao woman also can’t inherit landed property. After the father dies, even the mother has to seek the son’s permission to cut firewood from his land.

“The customary laws of Chakhesang Nagas state that when a married woman is caught for adultery, she is forced to leave her husband’s house with only the clothes she is wearing, with a fine imposed on her depending on the gravity of the situation. But if a married man brings his lover home and creates disharmony in the family, he doesn’t need to leave, but will have to give his wife half the property acquired during his married life,” Behal says, giving another example of gender biases in such laws.

Because of the customary laws, the political participation of women in Nagaland is utterly dismal. In the last assembly polls for the 60-member house, only two women candidates participated. According to PRS Legislative Research, Nagaland is the only state that has never had a woman MLA.

Naga women interacting with research teams of NEN during the study. Photo from the report. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

Naga women interacting with research teams of NEN during the study. A photo from the report. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

At a recent consultation on women and customary laws in northeast India, held at the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research at New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University, the participants highlighted the issue. Speaker Sumshot Khullar of the Naga Women’s Union says “We are consulted at home before any decision is taken but not when it comes to decision making in the public space.”

“Leadership by women has always been a fact in northeast India – our folk tales have a lot of reference to it. It is the women who hold the tips for good agriculture in a village, they are consulted in every important decision within the family but their leadership outside the family has not happened yet. It is because men want to keep women out of tribal institutions to be able to control the social and political space,” says Shillong-based journalist Linda Chhackchhuak.

Behal says “As per as political participation is concerned, though there is no specific customary law which forbids a woman from participating in it, men use the customary laws as a reference for excluding or restricting women’s participation in decision making processes.”

Speakers in the consultation meet, however, mentioned two women who broke the age-old tradition to become members of tribal councils in Nagaland’s Moyang district.

“They give a lot of hope to other women interested in the political space,” Sumshot says.

The NEN study also highlights violence against women in the domestic space in rural Nagaland. There is no recourse for them in the customary laws.

“If a man gets intoxicated and beats up his wife, alcohol is considered the enemy, not the man’s behavior. Also, there is a misconception among men that verbal violence on women in fine, unless it amounts to physical violence,” says Behal quoting the study data.

Referring to occurrences of sexual abuse on women, like rape, a male village head in Phek district told the researchers, “On one hand, the blame can be on the man but on the other hand, may be even the woman is wrong. The last rape case in a nearby town happened in a forest. If the woman had not followed him or did not stay in contact with him, then rape will not randomly happen in the open or public space. So if the woman had not followed that man to the forest, there was no chance of the rape happening.”

Some women that NEN spoke to in the Phek district said, “Suppose the woman likes the perpetrator and then a rape occurs, then there is minimal right for the woman to complain. But if the woman is stranger to him, we will file a case against the man.”

In such cases, the only women’s agencies for redress are the larger tribal women’s organisations, such as the Naga Mothers’ Association and Naga Womens’ Union.

Such organisations in Nagaland have been seeking reform in regressive traditional beliefs and customary practices, particularly their codification.

“Codification should not happen blindly, each tribe should be consulted but there is no denying that such an exercise should be the ideal step for women to be considered equal in the Naga society,” Sumshot says.

Behal agrees. “We are hopeful that this research process will expedite policy shift interventions by the different stakeholders to improve the lives of women in particular and the community at large. There should be gender sensitisation training for all law enforcing agencies including the customary courts and village councils,” she adds.