Women’s Role in Community: In the Context of Kuki Society
By Hoineilhing Sitlhou
Exploring Women’s Role in the Community: A Study of the Problems and Prospects in the context of the Kuki Society
In this paper, I would like to determine the extent of inequality, if any, in the context of the Kuki Society, and explore the myths and realities regarding Kuki women. The paper will examine the gender relations in the society. The aim is to find out the reason for the unequal participation of men and women in the socio-political sphere of the Kuki society; what is hindering the Kuki women’s participation in the political and social sphere as equal partner?
Gendered Spaces as defined by Customary laws
To understand the feasibility of gender relation among the Kukis, it would be helpful to look into the structural arrangement of the society. Legitimately, the Kukis follow the patriarchal system of family structure. As a result, the line of descent, law of inheritance and law of residence is appointed to the male line only and the children follow the clan name of the father. Therefore, a male child is always preferred to a female child to continue the line descent. Only the eldest son remains in the ‘Inpi’ meaning the parental house to look after his parents.
However, the permanent type of family system and the accepted one is one in which the eldest son of a family called ‘Upa’ lives with his parents along with his unmarried brothers called ‘Naopa’ and unmarried sisters. When the younger brothers get married, they move away from their parental house. Similarly, the women folk also move to the house of their husbands at the time of marriage. In the case of ‘Chapagam’ (barren fatherhood), the law of inheritance is passed on through the next closest or nearest male relative of the family, which is the reason why a male child is preferred.
The inheritance of property by the eldest brother does not necessarily mean that the other sons are fully denied of any share. It only means that the lion share goes to the eldest son who is a legitimate heir as per the custom. In the case of the extinction of all male line in close and distant relatives, then only daughters are given. Since such case is very rare, there is no right to inherit property for a kuki woman. It is unfortunate to note that in spite of their tremendous condition to the family income, they have no right of inheritance. At present also, this is still the general trend though a few thoughtful parents do share their property among daughters and sons.
Women’s Status and Role as explained in existing literatures
Women were attributed an altogether subjugate position in the society. They were honoured, but in separate domains. According to T.S. Gangte, great importance is given to the relationship of the mother‘s brother and the sister’s son in the Kuki society. This has significance in view of the practice of preferential marriage of mother brother’s daughter. The “tucha-sunggao relationship”, of the Kukis is also reckoned from a female line. ‘Luongman’ or Corpse Price is another peculiar system of the Kukis. This is the price for a woman when she dies.
Her father or elder / younger sons claim the price, in father’s absence, as a token of love and affection between the uterine relatives. This also reveals the important position held by a woman in a family life, and the weightage given to propagation of the descent through male line. In the system of ‘Lom’ or ‘Lawm’ that was functional in villages in the past, there was also a female ‘Lom Upanu’. The Kuki women do not hold any priestly office but there are instances of unofficial priestess or sorcerers. Among the many ceremonies and festivals that they celebrate, CHANG-AI is the only one where the Kuki women play the leading role.
The women folk’s at all crucial times would unduly be behind all major issues and events. While the role of men in human capital formation have been stressed and studied, women’s roles have been ignored though their roles are as substantial. The economic role played by women in traditional rural society particularly in the field of agricultural and cottage industry is magnanimous, but their contribution has been devalued and ignored most of the time. Even in the past, the role of women, especially in the economic sphere was inevitable. The women did most of the work of the village both in the agricultural field and in the household. In the writings of Mangjel Paokai Sitlhou, we find how women in the past were busy in weaving after the harvesting is over.
A Thadou woman who has exceptional knowledge of embroidery technique has a very high reputation in the community. The women in the house were responsible for clothing the whole family. In the process of shifting cultivation, most men were content to perform the more honorary task of slash and burning to clear the area for cultivation, whereas the women were attributed the more monotonous and laborious task of planting, weeding, nurturing and harvesting the crops. Within the household domain, it has always been the women: who did the burdensome chores, carried the heaviest loads, rose earliest in the morning and if they had any opinions, those were never regarded as important. Every husband was afraid of being dubbed as ‘hen-pecked’ and so would not lift his finger to help his wife in any domestic work.
Traditional saying gave popular expression to this attitude: “a woman’s mind does not reach across the stream”; “neither Crabs nor women have any religion; “a fence can be changed; so can a wife.” A woman had no rights at all. Body, mind and spirit, she belonged from her birth to her death to her father, her brother, her husband. Her men folk could treat her as they like; and a man who did not beat his wife was scorned as a coward.
According to Mangkhosat Kipgen, in the social organisation and village administration, women had no place – except under special circumstances where the widow of a deceased chief might rule over the village on behalf of her minor son until his maturity. The society was male dominated. In community matters, women were not consulted – and if they volunteered their opinions were not given weight. However, within the four walls of her room, she exercised more influenced if not more important than the men folks than the later were prepared to admit.
The mission schools changed the participation of the women in public sphere of community life through church and mission activities. It was true that even Christian parents preferred that the girls should be at home to tend to household chores and to work in the field, but the organisation of Christianity gave them a space, which was not provided to them by the traditional and customary village administration. Nevertheless, there is a hierarchy inside the church in which the women are not allowed in certain areas considered the strict domains of the men.
Education changes the very structure of the society by changing the status of women. The education of girls contradicted the stereotypical role of women in the tribal society. It was a role that saw them as the centre of domestic life, but not in active participants in the kinds of decision-making positions and processes that education encourages of those who receive it.
These factors, contributed to the status pattern and concept of world views of the Kukis towards the issue of gender equality. This concept also became the basis for other arrangements at the level of the family, the community and the society as a whole. With the acceptance of Christianity, the gender hierarchy debate has been further justified by the Creation Theory in the Bible.
Gendered Spaces as defined by the family
Another issue that need our consideration is the unequal education meted out to sons and daughters. Women’s educational opportunities have expanded substantially today in our society, including opportunities for all forms of academic as well as professional training. However, significant gender differences persist in the relative importance attached to the education of girls and boys, and in its perceived purpose. Women’s position is still defined primarily by marriage, home and hearth, and only secondarily by the need for economic independence.
This is reflected in gender differences in school enrolment, drop out rates (villages), levels of completed education, entry into university, and the subjects chosen. Even where parents send girls to school, most do so mainly to improve their marriage prospects. Investment on the education of women over a point of time is considered a waste of money as they were going to another family anyway. The girl membership in the family is deemed as only temporary. Even if the family is broad minded enough to encourage the ambitions and academic excellence of their daughters, men feel insecure and threatened at the prospects of having a spouse who would be more outgoing than they would.
The domestic ideology of European societies that was formed among the middle class between 1780 and 1830 applies among the Kukis. The ideology maintained that the world was divided into two separate spheres, the public and the private. Men should be involved in the public sphere of work and politics, making money and supporting their families. Women should stay at home in the domestic sphere, caring for their children and husbands and dependent on their husbands for financial support. Most women were expected to give up employment on marriage because their main role is as wives and mothers.
They are sometimes compelled to have career breaks due to the role conflict they face in their dual role as domestic careers and professional women. Incidents of domestic violence in the form of wife beating, emotional blackmail and verbal abuses prevails in this society. Families that are female-headed household due to widow hood, marital break down, or male out-migration were not given the same respect by the community. Gender-based violence is supported by the patriarchal system which perpetuates the belief that women are inferior and should be subordinate to men.
Armed with some basic questions on this issue, an inquiry into public opinion was attempted by interviewing six respondents, with equal candidature from both the gender group. All the respondents are pursuing their research in different disciplines in Jawaharlal Nehru University of New Delhi. Each respondent was asked to comment and share his or her views on the following issues of concern:
1. Do you support the view that the Kuki society is an egalitarian society in terms of gender relation?
2. Are there differences in treatment of a male and female child in the Kuki family? If yes, please specify areas of preference.
b. Property or inheritance
3. What is the ideal character of women? Choose from the following personality types.
h. Humble, obedient
i. Economically independent
4. How would you describe the economic contribution of the Kuki women in both traditional and modern societies?
5. Who is more actively involved in the community?
a. Women who are financially independent
b. Women who are dependent on their spouse
6. What is the best place in which women can exercise their leadership role uncontested in the society?
a. At home
b. In the field
c. Both home and field
d. In the Church
7. What are the reasons behind the lack of participation of women in the social and political issues confronting the Kuki society?
The findings from the survey can be analysed in the following manner. There is a general agreement among the respondents that compared to our counterparts in the Indian mainland who have to battle against social practices like female foeticide, infanticide, child marriage, sati etc., the Kuki women enjoy a comparatively more comfortable position in the society. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to say that we enjoy complete equality in the society. A female respondent opined that the idea of an egalitarian society is still lacking in pragmatic term. Women who take up leadership role usually face scorn.
A male respondent says that the status-quo is changing in favour of women against the male-dominated traditional society. Like other societies, women are often the last in the draw to receive resources like education and property within the family. Compared to property, education is slightly more equally accessible to both sexes. Respondent ‘R’ says that male child gets preference for higher education as compared to female because the parents feel they are a better investment. The conventional personality type of Kuki women ought to be soft-spoken, quiet, graceful and refined, polite, humble, obedient as against to qualities like assertiveness, ambitious and economically independent according to popular vote.
Most respondents feel that women contributed equally in the economic sphere with men in both traditional (agricultural societies) and modern societies. However, in the agricultural societies, the contribution of women, although important, was not acknowledged. Respondent ‘R’ says that today there are many Kuki families that are female-headed and women are the sole breadwinners in the family. The stigmas faced by widows are also comparatively lesser today as compared to the past.
Respondent ‘L’ says that the involvement of women in community work does not necessarily depend on whether she is financially independent or dependent on her spouse. However, majority of the respondent supports that it is the working-women who contribute more in the social arena as financial independence and education makes them out-spoken, assertive, confident and self-reliant. There is a unanimous agreement among the respondents that the home is the only place in which women can exercise their leadership role, uncontested in the society.
A rather direct question was put-forward at the end to the reason behind the unequal participation or the lack of participation of women in the public sphere in combating the many problems of the Kuki society. It was not surprising that this question received better input from the female respondents. Respondent ‘L’ says that this was because of the patriarchal set-up and our hand-to-mouth existence in which education is solely a means to livelihood. There is also a selection among the children in a family as to who should be educated and who should not be.
Respondent ‘T’ says that the root-cause of unequal participation is the rigidity of traditional norms that still governs our day-to-day existence. The next candidate ‘N’ says that there are many factors behind this unequal participation, starting from the patriarchal mentality. What we are today is shaped by the way we were moulded from childhood by the family and the society we belong to. Women have never really been encouraged to come out from the confines of the four walls of their household. For a woman to come out in the forefront as a strong personality requires supportive and broad-minded relatives.
In my survey of literature, I learnt that there is also a need to recognise the paucity in writings and research on specific areas like women. From colonial days’ literatures, records, accounts of our expedition, warfare, customs and traditions to the present day local literature, it is striking to note the lack or almost non-existence of the acknowledgement of women. Today, there is a positive change in women’s participation in the social sphere. However, this is still inadequate to wrestle the problems ailing our society. The call is for the active involvement of every member to contribute his or her bits.
To build socially equal partnership between women and men, we will also need to re-examine our assumptions about key social institutions, in particular the family, and about men’s role and women’s roles within the home and in society. To transform these roles and institutions might take decades and need to start at the individual level.
 Gangte T.S., 1993, The Kukis of Manipur – A historical analysis, Gyan publishing house, New Delhi.
 Sanajaoba, Naorem, (ed.), 1995, Manipur: Past and Present, Mittal Publications, New Delhi
 Lloyd, J. Meirion, 1991, History of the church in Mizoram: Harvest in the hills, 1991, Synod Publication Board, Aizawl, Mizoram
 Kipgen, Mangkhosat, 1997, Christianity and Mizo Culture: The Encounter between Christianity and Zo Culture in Mizoram, Mizo Theological Conference, Aizawl, Mizoram
 History of Christianity in Manipur, source materials, 2005 (ed.), compiled by Elungkiebe Zeliang, published by Christian Literature Centre, PanBazar, Guwahati for Manipur Baptist Convention, Imphal
The author is a doctoral candidate (Sociology) at Jawaharlal Nehru University, India.