One prominent feature of society in this region is the comparative freedom
that women enjoy albeit in different degrees. This trait is more
characteristic of the Mongoloid races of South-East Asia.
Just as North-East Indian society can be classified as either Aryan-based or
Mongoloid. Within the so-called Mongoloid communities themselves, distinction
must be made between those that are matrilineal as in Meghalaya and those that
are patrilineal as in the rest of the tribal areas of this region.
The institution of bride-price does not exist in a matrilineal society like
that of the Garos and Khasi, Pnars presumably because of its incompatibility with
a system in which the woman plays a more important role in the social system
than the man. This is often exaggerated and women themselves would be the last
to arrogate to themselves the role of matriarchs. To the uninitiated, the idea
that they "rule the roost" is a favourite one and others are led to
believe that here, woman lay down the law for the family to follow. Women
is accorded respect as one through whom the race or more precisely the clan is
propagated, but in recognition of the fact that her commitments as mother and
housewife are a fulltime occupation. Responsibilities relating to
regulation of the family are entrusted to men-folk.
Garos, male blood
relations or Mahari exercise control
over affairs of the family and even in matters effecting women. In
arrangements of marriage, for instance, women are not consulted though
male-in-laws often are. In relation to property though, it is inherited in
female line. It is always managed by the male Mahari.
Khasi-Pnar, household responsibilities are shared between the
maternal uncle and the father. The father earns for his own wife and
children but in matters affecting the clan or the family, such as the
arrangement of marriages, management of ancestral property and performance of
religious duties, it is the uncle who makes the decisions though generally in
consultations with other members of the family. Thus there is a virtual three fold division of family
responsibility- the mother looks after the hearth and home, the father provides
all that is necessary for the maintenance of his wife and children and the uncle
attends to the business affairs that come before the family. A man does not
forego membership in his own clan after marriage. His position in his wife's
house is that of 'being in it, but not of it'. The impact of modernism and of
other cultures has no doubt eroded the maternal uncle's authority but, by and
large the convention is still honoured.
In Khasi society, the husband (the father) is isolated from his wife and
children in such social matters. In non-Christian families, even in death, his
bones must not lie with those of his wife and children. It must be deposited in a
separate ossuary with those of his maternal or blood relations. In well-organised families, the duties of the father and those of the uncle are
clearly defined. Troubles, if and when they arise, are caused by intrusion
of one into the sphere that properly belongs to the other. This isolation
of the husband from the wife's family is carried to a greater length among the
Pnars, especially in orthodox families. Often the husband may only be at
his wife's home during the night. By morning, he is out to return to his
maternal home. There alone, he can act freely.
Meghalaya, women enjoy
great freedom and independence. Many look after their own interest and
earn their livelihood with success. Although as a rule they have no direct
say in communal matters, in their own families, they exert a good deal in
influence. The Institution of "nok-na" among Garos or Khadduh
among Khasi-Pnars confers general advantage upon the community in that at least
in theory it assures protection to every member of the family.
Between the Khasi and the Garo inheritance laws there are a few
noteworthy differences. Among the Khasis, it is always the youngest daughter who
inherits maternal or ancestral property. The parents may during their life-time,
provide their other daughters with shares of any other property acquired by
them. The status of the youngest daughter is one of special importance. She is
the embodiment of everything that is enduring and sacred in the Khasi concept of
family. The institution of the Ing Khadduh is one that has special sanctity. As
among the Garos, the children belong from birth to the mothers clan. Khasi
social organisation does not permit participation by women in village councils.
Inheritance laws among the War, Khasi of the southern slopes
seem to be a synthesis of matrilineal and patrilineal systems. There both sons
and daughters share parental property.
The succession of chiefs among the Khasis also shows a
compromise between the matrilineal character of their social system and
unwritten code that in public affairs the man should play the dominant role.
When the chief dies, he is normally succeeded by the eldest son of his
eldest sister or if she has no son, by the eldest son of the next sister.
There is another important group in the countryside lying
between eastern Garo hills and western Khasi hills. This group is known to the
Garos as Megam, is conceivably of Garo-Khasi admixture. The Megams have
adopted the custom of the Garos even to organising themselves into steps like
Marak, Sangma and Momin. Their counterparts in the Khasi hills, the Lyngngams
follow the Khasi system.