It was in 2006 when I awoke to misogyny in the Khasi community. It happened rather innocuously. I was seated in one of the lawns of the North Eastern Hill University, Shillong Campus when a group of male scholars stationed themselves next to me. Because I was quiet and unassuming back then, this group of men did not notice my presence. A conversation ensued in which I was the fortunate (or unfortunate) eavesdropper.
“For my part,” one of the men began. “If a woman were to offer me sex, I would go ahead and enjoy the ride. But where marriage is concerned te, I will opt for a virgin.”
“That’s true,” another one agreed.
“This is the reason,” another one chimed in, “that I always encourage my youngest sister to look after the house. Women should learn to be domesticated right from the time they’re small.”
At about this time, one from among the party turned abruptly and noticed that I had been listening to their conversation rather intently. An embarrassed silence followed. Then, one of them addressed me and said, “You’re a woman. You should know these things.”
Feminism had yet to make an entry in my life and I did not have the vocabulary to name it. But I knew, even then, that something was off.
I was privy to conversations within male circles that few, if any, women have access to. This is primarily because such talk exists when the participants feel that they can let their guards down, safe in the knowledge that they will not be exposed. Should their carefully concealed thoughts be revealed, such as what happened with me, then they can justify their positions by suggesting that the listener is privileged to have heard them. The situation contains most of the classic features of misogyny: the assumption and belief that men (Khasi, in this case) are innately sexually attractive to all women (hence it is the woman who initiates sex, not them), and in connection with this, that ‘except for virgins’ women are, unlike them, naturally predisposed towards sex; the belief that while women have lives outside the home, their rightful place should be within it; and finally, that their self-righteous thoughts on the matter should be unquestionable and uncontested especially by the women who are the subject of their talk. The experience would leave an indelible mark on me and, for better or worse, would shape me for what I am today – a feminist.
Fast forward to 2018 and nothing much has changed. Except, perhaps, for the first time in a long time, some Khasi men are wearing their misogynist attitudes on their sleeves and are boasting about them publicly on social media and news outlets. Some of it has been especially disturbing with rape and murder threats being dished out to women from within the community. At the heart of it, however, lies an interesting conundrum: why be a feminist when such vitriolic attacks are being made on women?
My thoughts especially drift towards this question after having read an article in The Northeast Today dated August 12, 2018. The author of the article lists several reasons why he supports the recently rejected by the Governor, KHAD (Khasi Social Custom of Lineage) 2nd Amedment Bill drafted by the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council on the 24th of July 2018. In his article, the author says that he supports the Bill because firstly, he has observed marriage being used by non-Khasis as a way of taking advantage of the privileges given to Khasis; secondly, he says that the “original inhabitants” of Meghalaya are hard pressed to buy land since the price of , has escalated beyond their means; thirdly, because trades and businesses are being taken over by non-Khasis forcing Khasis to become hawkers; and lastly, because the Bill, such as it is, would safeguard the interests of his children and grandchildren. I address the problems of these arguments in the course of my essay. For now, I want to begin with the style of the article since the style in which it is written says something about the position from which the author is speaking, and answers by and large the problems of his concerns.
Throughout the article, terms such as “tabulated”, “quasi matrilineal-patriarchal” and “feministic” are used by the author. These are not words that one would find in day-to-day conversation. They are words used by a person who wants to throw around some jargon to claim academic knowledge and therefore, make claims to objectivity, rationality and authority based on research.
But on what are his claims to objectivity based? Throughout the article, he calls women who profess feminist ideology as “sheep” and, my personal favourite, “uninformed, misinformed sensitised hypocritical oblivious know-it-all sheep of a radical feministic tumour desperately in need of a historical lesson.” While the author in question would definitely give Shashi Tharoor a run for his vocabulary money, his claims to intellectual know-how are based on depriving women of their intelligence. Women are his intellectual equals only if they support his views. Those who oppose him run the risk of squandering their objectivity by speaking from a “personal standpoint”, by being “selfish” and by being “cannibalistic opportunists”, an argument that falls apart since, in keeping the welfare of his children and grandchildren in mind, his position too is influenced by self-interest. His inability to see that women are empowered to make ideological choices for themselves gets to me. He assumes, like the men in the anecdote, that women are unfit for political participation and a life in the public domain. The fact that the author is materialistically invested in the debate surrounding the Bill is seen through his association of Khasi “privilege” with the acquisition of land.
Traditionally and historically, the youngest daughter acts only as a custodian of family property. Her duty towards the family involves not only looking after the family property but also to care for the elderly, the children and, if her brothers’ marriages do not work, then to care for them as well. Her position is by no means one of privilege since these duties inevitably tie her to the home. But if, as the author of the article has pointed out, the lineage will still be traced from the line of mother and it is only the property that will be handed over to the youngest son, then we can also safely assume that what the author sees as material “benefits” will be enjoyed by the son while the daughter will still have to bear the burden of caring for her loved ones; loved, though they maybe. In the ideal world that the author has envisioned, therefore, the women still shoulder familial and social responsibility with the men reaping the benefits of the woman’s work. As for marriage, who’s to say that a Khasi man who marries a non-Khasi woman will not be taken advantage of? Again, this argument assumes that men are naturally worldly and possess more wisdom than women. It is also based on the mistaken belief that being a Scheduled Tribe is, somehow, a privilege and is synonymous with being a Khasi (hence the association of ST “privileges” with racial identity).
Article 15 of the Constitution of India lays down the provisions of reservation for people following under the category of the Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and OBCs. The reason behind this, however, is because people falling under these categories are seen to be “the weaker sections of people” and are “socially and economically backward.” We fall under the Scheduled Tribe category because we do not already enjoy the privileges that most Indian communities do. It has nothing to do with whether or not we possess a rich heritage and our being racial purists will not ease the discrimination we receive on the ground for being STs. In fact, seeing our ST status as a “privilege” encourages racial discrimination on the ground. Because if we, ourselves associate social and economic backwardness with privilege then others will not hesitate to take the opportunity to point that out. In order to understand the difference between being Khasi and being an ST, however, one must imagine a possible reality: if our ST status were to be taken away from us, will we still be Khasis? Or is our identity so tied up to material acquisition that we fail to see anything else? These are questions worth considering especially since the proposed amendment Bill intends, as Dalariti Nongpiur rightly points out in The Shillong Times article dated August 2, 2018 to “strip off a very important fabric of this identity [Khasi identity] from the bare backs of Khasi women.” By which she means that the very women who have made the race what it is, are themselves being stripped of their identity and belonging.
After having poured out his vitriol against feminists, our author is quick to point out that he does not, by any means, support violence against women. But his article does provide an ideological validation for hate (if not) against women. It is ironic, therefore, that those who profess to care so much about women should be their adversaries. There is, however, a silver lining. If such misogynistic revelations should bring even one soul closer to something as liberating as feminism, then my writing this essay would not have been in vain.