Mrs Yaji and the Lockdown: The Plight of a Nyishi Woman in a Patriarchal Society

Women from the Northeast are often perceived to be freer than their counterparts in the rest of India. But the customary laws and practices of their tribes are far from empowering.

This is the second article in a two-part series. Read the first article here.

NR: You and your children left for your mother’s house before the lockdown. Why? And why have you returned now?

Mrs Yaji: Because I know the devastating consequences of polygyny, I cannot abandon my children to this fate. And just like my mother and sisters, I have been replaced by another woman. He had promised he would never bring her home and I believed him. Look what happened now, he betrayed me. I have returned for my children.    

This is the story of Mrs Yaji, a Nyishi woman from the Papum Pare district of Arunachal Pradesh. Like Yaji, several women in the Nyishi community continue to suffer through the existing practices ‘prescribed’ in the customary law, including her own mother and sisters. With no recourse to divorce, most women in such positions have come to be known as the ‘destitute first wife’ for most of their lives.

As the world went into a lockdown starting March 2020 during the pandemic, Yaji, married to Tali for a decade and the mother of two children, lost her ‘home’ because of her husband’s decision to marry another woman from the same community. Now Yaji’s husband lives with his second wife. Yaji is just 32, with two young children, but she is wearied by adversity and a sufferer of the patriarchal system.

Yaji’s testimonies are fundamental to examine the prevailing human rights crisis in the frontier state, one that concerns the marginalisation of women. Although there are differences in how our unique social system operates, it is almost universal that all the tribe’s customary laws – uncodified, unique and distinct from tribe to tribe – deny equal rights to women. Customary laws are a set of customs and practices passed down from generations; they are an inherent part of our tribal ways of life and believed to be operational even before statutory laws. These laws continue to define our ways of life. Jiri Techi affirms through her work Customary Laws and Nyishi Women of Arunachal Pradesh that the customary laws precede all modern laws.

In the book Customary Law and Women: the Chakhesang Nagas, A. Vitso defines customary law as guidelines with dos and don’ts, with norms, practices and usages, with detailed outlines of mechanisms such as taboos, sanctions and social rituals that allow peace and prosperity. Customary laws and practices are favoured and sought after for their speedy trial and fair adjudication rooted in community practice, something the Indian justice system doesn’t guarantee, according to M. Pereira, S. Changmi, T. Ramya and T. Azu in their work Contesting Voices, Changing Realities: The Nyishis of Arunachal Pradesh. It is almost impossible to trace the origin of the customary laws and because they don’t have legal sanctity, they are open to varied interpretations. But it is critical to establish their continuing importance and value as breaching these laws often results in grave social and political actions and such ‘tough’ decisions are often deemed to be the job of men – the village heads or elders.

A culture of impunity

Mrs Yaji: I stayed at my mother’s house for four months until the lockdown was lifted. His decision to bring another wife into our home affects my position and my children’s future. Who will look after us now? How will my society look at me now? I was ashamed to be a guest in somebody else’s house for so long.

Endogamy and exogamy are the two primary conditions that determine marital choices in tribal communities and are evidently gendered, with tougher rules for women such as family abandonment and exclusion from social and political events. In Customary Laws of the Nyishi Tribe of Arunachal Pradesh, N.N. Hina observes that Nyishi customs and practices afford men greater freedom and that men with multiple wives enjoy a superior status whereas polyandry is strictly forbidden. Women attempting polyandry endure a great degree of hardship and indignity and the situation often leads to social tension. The husband pays the bride price, therefore he, together with the society, now determines the betrothed woman to be his property. Thus, even if he tortures her physically, no one has any right to interfere. Instances of divorces are rare since the wife is considered an asset. Very few changes have been observed in marriage rules even today.

Also read: Hurt, Angst and Struggle: How the Pandemic Impacted Gender-Based Violence in Arunachal Pradesh

Physical and emotional violence started for Mrs Yaji soon after the wedding, compounded by her husband’s many extramarital affairs – something she was always aware of. She had an early pregnancy and so she quit her studies to start her family. Although her husband is a government employee, she tells me that they never had enough money to support the family and their children’s education. She sounds beaten when she narrates the unpleasant discussions over finance between herself and her husband in the last decade and the debts she owes to her friends and relatives.

Mrs Yaji’s case is just one of the many cases that reveal the violent patriarchal nature of customary laws. The Arunachal Pradesh Women’s Welfare Society (APWWS), a local NGO in the state, along with other small non-profits, has been working towards empowering women and creating awareness of the dangers of such practices. The practices of child marriage and forced marriage are also intrinsically linked with the culture of marrying multiple wives. Violence is pervasive here, sometimes even murder – even if the husband tortures his wife physically, it is often deemed  an ‘internal matter’ with no interference from anyone. If a betrothed girl elopes with somebody else, it is the responsibility of the girl’s father to find her and return her to the man or pay a hefty penalty, which could be the same as the original bride price or sometimes even double. Most of the time, the social statutes of the family determine the type of penalty, according to T. Azu in the essay Nyishi traditional Marriage System Vis-à-vis Women’s Rights.

Mrs Yaji: In the month of February just before the lockdown, I heard that the woman was pregnant. I couldn’t believe it, so I went to check on them, travelling for two hours. And when I reached there, I was shocked that they had already been living together as a family. All this while he had said he was busy with work, though he would pay a visit to my children every few weeks. But at least they still had a father around.

After this visit to her husband, Yaji knew that everything would change for her and her children. She knew it wouldn’t be long until he kicked her out of ‘his house’, the final act of abandonment after disrupting everything in her life. Therefore, she packed her belongings and left her home with her children. The following four months were insufferable for her, with no contact with her husband. To fend for her two children, she was dependent on her mother. With the schools shut, the children were equally affected by their mother’s trauma and grief. During the lockdown, Mrs Yaji’s feeling of abandonment and her awakening to the realisation that she was dispensable and that she had to return to fight for her own rights and those of her children were stifled in a borrowed space in her mother’s house, miles away from her ‘home’.

Nyishi tradition genders adultery as well. While most Nyishi men get away with having affairs outside their marriage, women are punished and assaulted; often, women of the same community take upon themselves the responsibility to teach the ‘bad’ women a lesson via public humiliation. It’s also fascinating how female sexuality is characterised as enfeebling, while men’s sexual desire is celebrated, according to Contesting Voices, Changing Realities: The Nyishis of Arunachal Pradesh.

In this regard, an infamous line in Nyishi, quoted in Changing Voices, Changing Realities will support my claim: Nyemen geyo kube; ikhnge du kube (Women run for sex as dogs run for food).

Mrs Yaji confesses to me during the interview that the traumatic events of the past years, primarily the conditions during the lockdown, have decreased her sexual desires and responsiveness towards her husband or any man for that matter. She is convinced that her desires are not a priority in her life when she has to nurture and attend to her two children.

Women bear the burden of proof

Mrs Yaji: My relatives say I must have done something terrible, or I haven’t been a good wife, so my husband was compelled to marry another one.

Since her husband’s marriage to another woman, Mrs Yaji tells me, her family, relatives and the general public have not been kind to her. In retrospect, she thinks she has been nothing but a procreating machine, cooking and caring for her husband and children. She regrets that she has done nothing for herself in the last 10 years and sounds deeply hurt when she says she has begun to question her worth and value as a Nyishi woman today.

Mrs Yaji: Have I not done enough as a wife, as a mother?  I did everything for him. In retrospect, I was nothing but a ‘servant’; we didn’t have much money but I made sure his desires and needs were my priority. I provided non-vegetarian food and alcohol for him almost every day. When I couldn’t [afford them], I would borrow money from others.

Mrs Yaji and many women like her endure violence and indignity for the sake of their children. Nyishi women, like many women across the globe, give more primacy to their roles as caregiver and wife than to themselves as individuals. With schools shut during the lockdown, Mrs Yaji continued to care for her children alone and while she needed love and comfort herself, she says she tried her best to keep her children busy with books.

Either conflict resolution or women’s rights

Mrs Yaji: I will not pursue the case. Even if I want to, I will get nothing, but bring dishonour to my family and my clan. It is difficult to live this life, but I will endure the hardships.

Divorce is rare or is discouraged in Nyishi society since the woman is considered an asset to her husband and a large population of the Nyishi society conforms to this tradition, according to B. Dhar in the ‘Nishi/Nishing’ chapter in the book People of India: Arunachal Pradesh, published by the Anthropology Survey of India. Yaji’s family and her husband’s family have asked them to compromise despite his extramarital affairs. Yaji’s brothers have taken the lead to ‘settle’ the dispute and should they fail, the elders in the family will be approached, while the last decision remains with the village council. Alternatively, a penalty of cash or kind may be imposed in such a case. Yaji’s friends and relatives advise her to go to the women’s commission and pursue a legal battle, but she wants to keep the ‘honour’ of the family intact and after months of negotiation, has agreed to settle. Two Nyishi provebs quoted in Contesting Voices, Changing Realities explain the reality: Emmik barak ham kodaling mumabe (Let family matters not go beyond the family) and Nambung barak kamdelaling mumabe; nyodang barak kamkodaling mumabe (Let individual disputes not break family bonds; let family disputes not break community bonds).

Also read: What NFHS-5 Says About Violence Against and Empowerment of Bihar’s Women

It is important to note that marriage in Nyishi tradition is beyond two individuals; it ties together two families and their respective clans, thus continuing their legacy for generations. It can be in the form of child marriage, forced marriage, levirate marriage, elopement, marriage by capture and widow inheritance. Azu claims that most marriages are the parent’s choices, ideally done considering families of equal social stature.

The Nyshi tradition has also no provisions to support a divorced woman, according to Contesting Voices, Changing Realities: a Nyishi woman doesn’t receive any maintenance, she cannot remarry outside the clan and if she has a son from her husband, she can’t remarry at all. Ownership and ancestral inheritance in a Nyishi society are passed onto male members and a woman can enjoy her parent’s assets until she is married, as in most patrilineal societies. But a divorced Nyishi woman will also be stripped of her property rights. Mrs Yaji’s concerns and insecurities about her future and her children’s futures are real.

Violence and civilised society

Polygyny, believed to be the rule of law in the earlier days, especially during the clan-war period when there was a need for more family members or women to attend to the household, continues to be justified today for political and security reasons and if nothing else, to continue the paternal legacy. Perhaps, through Mrs Yaji’s story, it is time to understand the status of women in tribal society. Without recognising the devastating impacts of such practices on families, the rights and needs of children are often left to vulnerable women in the Nyishi society during such trials. The consequences have been devastating and traumatic on the affected children and their future. My own experiences and those of many other families in Arunachal stand testament to this. That children must grow through such a situation with no focus on their growth and development is a humanitarian crisis in the making, where eventually only mothers are blamed.

Incidentally, it is convenient and easy to simply taint these customs as outdated and irrelevant, ready to be replaced by a uniform civil code. But tribal customary laws prevail over any other laws in Arunachal Pradesh, including religious and civil laws and procedures. I think the resolution of this situation lies in the will and ability of all the stakeholders to understand the uniqueness of the tribe’s customs, albeit with reviews and reformations.

To my mind, a civilised society must, or at least make an attempt to, eschew violence and aspire to be non-gendered. Though women in Arunachal, as well as in the rest of Northeast society, occupy more public space than women in other parts of India, the adversities they experience are yet to be ascertained. The plight of women in Arunachal must be documented and told so that Nyishi women like Mrs Yaji are no longer excluded and marginalised from every bulletin.

Note: The interviews were conducted over a period of four months from August to November 2020 and Mrs Yaji’s name has been changed to conceal her true identity. The research was funded by the Zubaan-Sasakawa Peace Foundation Grant for Journalists from the Northeast 2020-2021. 

Ngurang Reena is a writer from Arunachal Pradesh and is currently a doctoral candidate at the Centre for European Studies, JNU, New Delhi.