Reflections on Hmar Women Social Deprivation with Special Reference to Inheritance – An Analysis

Published on December 6, 2012

By Priyadarshni M. Gangte

The Hmar customary laws deal with crime and punishment, death, marriage, divorce, inheritance, succession, etc. of course with slight variations in practices in different areas of inhabitance. The Hmar women are found to be deprived in many ways as their customary laws are prejudiced against women, inter-alia, the most one is that they are not allowed to inherit property. In the meanwhile, it will be interesting to know what are the items that fall under property as has been opined by Horam, it consists land, house, moveable articles, money, ornaments and oven debts. In most of societies of tribals including Hmars, the sons or the male heirs inherit all property including debts.

Law of Inheritance (Rohluo Dan) or the institution of inheritance in the patriarchal Hmar society finds no place for daughter. She has no share in the property of her father. Her responsibility is to become a true housewife. Therefore, sons are given a preferential treatment. A couple who does not have a son is called suonmawng (without any issue). Even if they are blessed with many daughters, they are considered as with any children.

The different types of Rohluo prevalent in the Hmar society can be discussed in the following heads: (i) Inheritance of a Father’s Property by his sons (Pa Rohluo) : Pa Rohluo is of two types; they are in accordance with the principles of ‘ultimo geniture’ and ‘primogeniture’. In the case of ultimo geniture, the youngest son is entitled to succeed and inherit the parental properties like the Jessami Maos the majority Hmar practices are similar. Whereas; the eldest son inherits as well as succeeds in the case of primogeniture. This system of inheritance is prevalent in Leiri, Faihriem/Khawlum and Changsan. However, these customary laws are not strictly followed. They are quite flexible.

The properties of the father can be shared by all his children, if he wishes so. Accordingly, during his lifetime, he usually divides all his properties among his sons except that the lion’s share goes to the rightful heir which includes house and domestic animals. As a matter of fact, he has to look after the parent in their old age like the Chins a cognate tribe of Hmar in Burma (Myanmar). In the Hmar customary law, daughter(s) is not allowed to inherit or claim property at all except some items, such as puonri (Blanket), bel (Pot), rel (basket), etc. given at the time of their marriage.

However, after the death of the mother, all the things which she brought from her parents house in her marriage are meant solely for the youngest daughter. (ii) Inheritance by an adopted Heir (Siemfawm Rohluo) : Adoption called “Saphun” of a child is also practised among the Hmars. If a couple does not have any male issue, then with the permission of the chief, a male child to be heir may be adopted for the conveniences of the father. Here, a ritualistic programme is essential in order to make it customarily binding. In this customarily- rite performance, a hen or a pig is killed by the couple and cooked. Relatives and friends are invited to dine with them.

A declaration is made where, hereinafter the son is entitled to inherit all the properties after the death of the father. Moreover, in a prevailing circumstance, where the couple does not bear any male issue coupled with no adoption, then the property goes to the nearest relative. Besides, if a man has only one child which is in fact i.e. daughter, rather than she then the son-in-law is given the right to inherit the property.  An issueless man or anyone who does not have close relative in the village may also divide his property.

Apart from the above mentioned situations which are accommodated accordingly as provided by the customary law, a childless widow and widower may appoint someone to look after them in their old age. In that situation, after the death, the property of the deceased may be inherited by that person who had looked after and taken care for. Thus, we have seen how extremely “inhumane” the laws are pertaining to the right to property by daughter as accorded by the Hmar customary laws is same as we find in Gangtes, Thadous, Vaipheis, and their cognate tribes.

It is a fact that traditionally women are not treated equally with men. Their position is placed at a very insignificant status. On the contrary, wives amongst the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh are considered as the asset of the family as they do all the domestic as well as agricultural activities. On account of this the presence of the females in the family is very much essential which perhaps has lead to the adoption of giving very high bride price for bringing a female as wife.  Despite this, they are treated with love and care and adorned in much the same manner as men are treated.

Hence, women in Hmar society do not succeed to immovable property. (iii) Inheritance of a Husband’s property by His Wife After His Death (Pasal Thi Hnunga Rohluo): If a husband dies leaving behind his wife, whether he has children or not, she can continue to live in her husband’s house and inherit all the properties. This is striking feature – an exceptional case which is totally absent among all the Chin-Kuki-Mizo societies. However, if she gets married to another person while living in her late husband’s house, she has to leave the house as well, as she cannot take any property from her late husband’s house.

In none of the clans of Hmar, not a trace of customary law relating to daughters inheritance and succession is found to have been mentioned whatsoever, despite being a Christian without considering the Inheritance passes the daughters. (Here the father, names Zelophehad, the great great grandson of Joseph, had five daughters but without son. They were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah) Moreover, Go has reiteraated that in Chin society, if both parents die leaving no sons but daughters of which one is the only married and the rest, a large number, are single, the estate of the parents shall not be divided on the ground of the death of the parents.

The unmarried daughters have the right of taking charge of the estate unlike the custom of Thadou Kuki, Mizo, etc. Prevalence of such right enjoyed by daughter(s) is perhaps, due to the influence of Buddhism. But a landmark development occurs in recent times, that daughters have share in immovable property with their brothers by two fathers who are, in fact, real brothers named Thanglienthuam Ngaite; Secretary, Village Authority, Rengkai, Churachandpur has given some shares in homestead land to his two daughters besides his three sons, Likewise L. Rochung Ngaite, the Valupa Chairman of Rengkai, Churachandpur, also distributed immovable property (homestead land) to two daughters apart from his three sons, as gifts.

Thus, it appears that there is a paradigm shift in the concept of shares in individual’s property. It is a paradox that several scholars have claimed that the Hmar women have not played directly or indirectly a role in social or political movements. But today we know that Hmar women have played quite an important role in society despite their lack of education on reproductive health and medical care, drinking and using water electricity, food security and safety, sanitation, balanced diet, mass and legal awareness environmental and bio-diversity. Our findings are otherwise, we maintain that the Hmar women played a major role at the level of households and they controlled their husband’s views for household matters as also their political understanding at the larger level.

In other words, they are like the men, very talented, wise, clever in sharing views with their men whose natural intuitions and behaviours make them responsive to wives. In fact, the Hmar men are very proud of their patriarchal system and do not take cognisance of the silent support of their ladies. The hidden hand of a Hmar wife can be seen in any deal a Hmar husband enters into. However, the customs and the laws of land keep her behind the scene. She is neither given any property nor any public office like that of the Chief except in rare circumstances.

The Hmar women have developed a fine technique of being behind all major decisions and work for the benefit of their family. Traditional institutions and customary laws among tribal people, though portray an egalitarian socioeconomic structure is in fact discriminatory when it comes to women’s right in traditional governance and customary law. As found among the Chin-Kuki-Mizo customary law senior people had never considered it important to make women participate in community affairs or empower them in economic decision-making.

In fact socio-cultural values pushed women into a closed domestic domain, burdened by mundane but extremely strenuous economic activity. As cited above, the main stronghold of the Hmars – the Tipaimukh constituency, a reserved seat upto to now not a single woman has not yet, been elected. Besides, most of the elected members like their counterparts or colleagues in Manipur had very low level of political awareness apart from their very male hegemonic ethos and their contribution to developmental activities was almost invisible.

The primary reasons for lack of political motivation among women in Hmar specifically and Chikim societies in general, are patriarchal domination, misguidance, manipulation and proxy, and selected representation. However, Bonita (i), (ii) in her research on the issue has emphatically said : “The male dominated Hmar society was not the root cause for oppression of women, an educational institution is teacher dominated, does this mean that the teacher oppress the students?” Rather it was the continuity of tradition that hindered women’s(…) had to be abandoned. She felt that “The male dominated, culture and society could be continuously maintained for the means of living in harmony between the male and the female.”

It is more interesting that women themselves had rejected an idea of being independent and having a separate identity. In other words, women themselves advocated male superiority in the society accepting their own subordinative position. Among the Hmars it was a selective – compromise enunciated and practised by Hmar women. Perhaps it was their wisdom. This state of affairs remains unchanged even after the reorganization of village administration under Manipur Hill Village Authority Act, 1956. That is, to say women political empowerment is yet to be initiated in Hmar society also. The change that one can observe is like the decline of the role of the Lal (chief) and his council.

His rights and privileges he indisputably enjoyed before the introduction of Act have not been fully put into practice today. Perhaps, sexually discriminative state of affairs may have prompted Hmar women, at the fag end of 20th century, to institute a women forum called Hmar Women’s Association in 1986. It may also be mentioned that Hmar Society is far more literate one among the Chin-Kuki-Mizo of Manipur. Hmar women literacy rate is 75.2% (approximately) which is ranked highest of all women literacy rates of major tribal groups of Manipur, however, they are still hesitant and cannot come forward to have a say for themselves.

It appears that since they had been suppressed for long they compromised to stay as such and contribute passively rather then more actively. The most important and relevant objects inter-alia of the Hmar Women’s Association are reproduced here is that at upholding “women’s value and rights”. Under this object sex-biased culture of Hmar which determines the value of women is targeted for change. Determination of women’s value by culture is resulted into low status of women, it is further resulted into low or limited role of women. In this way women’s rights are undermined in society forcing them to play limited role. The Association also aims at promoting “active participation in the total socio-political life of the Hmar weaker sexes and work for modernization of life”.

On the other hand, the forces of modernization at work in tribal societies have produced a two-fold trend. They have created conditions for proliferations of occupations for tribal women. Moreover, the system is in flux and opportunities for mobility, vertical, horizontal and psyche are numerous. Consciously or unconsciously she is buffeted by social and economic forces to realities or wider horizons. Thus tribals are heading to an aim hurting woman’s better status. They were already denied a reasonable place in the arena of social control as a result a great deal of social security has already being eroded. It will be pertinent to look into what Bonita’s comments in her discourse on tribal women of different areas of inhabitance.

The report on Tribal Women and Employment published by the National Commission for Women (1998), shows to a certain extent why the situation of the tribal women of the plains differs so radically from that of northeastern tribal women including that of Hmars. The development policies followed in the two areas account for difference.  In the former areas the idea was creation of employment opportunities which should have priority as this would lead to the empowerment of women.  In the Northeast, particularly in Mizoram, the missionaries created the necessary infrastructures for education as it could lead to the desired change in society.

The heterogeneous conditions to which the tribals of the plains are exposed to further heightens their vulnerability. It is also slightly traceable in the Chin-Kuki-Mizo society, class and clan distinctions, and the superior-subordinate relations resulting from the same accentuate deprivation and dis-empowerment which is not so high among these societies. Of course, societal reflections until very recently is that the Hmar tribal community has three classes : (i)warriors; (ii) farmers and (iii) hunters, wherein women belong to the second category in an environment where nomenclature contestation along with clan and sub-clan politics is extremely high especially, among the Chikims in Manipur. Moreover, security in wealth or economy as already a universal phenomenon is also reflective of the situation, its relevance is on the rise and will have to go a long way.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of United Nation, in consideration of Reports submitted states parties under Article 40 of the Covenant the committee in its recommendation No. 17 says that the Committee is concerned that women in India have not been accorded equality in the enjoyment of their rights and freedoms in accordance with articles 2, paragraph 1, 3 and 26 of the Covenant. Nor have they been freed from discrimination. Women remain unrepresented in public life and the higher levels of the public service, and are subjected to personal laws which are based on religious norms which do not accord equality in respect of marriage, divorce and inheritance rights.

The Committee points out that the enforcement of personal laws based on religion violates the right of women to equality before the law and non-discrimination. Therefore, it recommend be strengthened towards the enjoyment of their rights by women without discrimination and that personal laws be enacted which are fully compatible with the Covenant. Now, the aforesaid economic issue, it is needless to say that, since the Chikim society is very much patriarchal, men control the economic institutions, own most property, direct economic activity and determine the value of different productive activities. Most productive work done by women contrary to that of wives of some tribes in Arunachal Pradesh is neither recognised nor paid for; for their contribution to the creation of surplus through what Maria Mies has called “shadow work” is completely discounted at all.

Moreover, women’s role as producers and rearer of children and of labour power is not considered an economic contribution at all. So the society is biased towards women who suffer at many levels of economic exploitation. Whatever said and done, even not leaving aside the other productive resources are, also controlled by men and they pass from one man to another, usually from father to son. Even where women have the legal right to inherit such asset, a whole array of customary practices emotional pressure, social sanctions, and sometimes plain violence, prevent them from acquiring actual control over them. In other cases, personal laws curtail their rights rather than enhance them. In all cases, they are disadvantaged.

This amply illustrated by UN Statistics: “Women do more than 60 percent of the hours of work done in the World, but they get 10 percent of the world’s income and own one percent of the world’s property”. Besides women’s role in reproduction and production is qualitatively different from men because women’s production of new life is linked inseparably to the production of the means of subsistence for it, the appropriation of their bodily nature, they produce children and milk, makes them the first providers of daily food, either as gatherers or as agriculturists.

Now, we have come to know the fact that is scientifically proved that women are biologically stronger than the men, besides males are the by-products of women. The Hmar women (some) despite their manifold access to education remain still member of the closely bound patriarchal society, confined by rules and tested, which gain greater significance in the passage of time rather than which is possible through education. It is time now to think and do something positively for the future generation.

The writer, who has authored several articles and books, is a lecturer in the history department at Damdei Christian College, Manipur, India. She is the wife of late Thangkhotinmang Sielpho Gangte (T.S. Gangte), a well-known sociologist in the Kuki society.

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