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Women's Day: Should women be given preferential treatment?
Today is Women's Day, and men and women are celebrating how special it is to be a woman, and their crucial role in any society. One of the over-riding sentiments on this day is the suggestion to men, said and unsaid, to be respectful to women and treat them as equal and even beyond. Indeed, we should and can. But what happens when this treatment gets a little one-sided? The matrilineal system and woman-centric customs of Khasis - one of the largest scheduled tribes in India - indicates that customs in which womens' rights dominate those of men - can lead to social and gender hostility and instability - just as when womens' rights and feelings are abused by men.

Having read so far, many women are likely to say, "Aha! So, now you know how we feel when our rights are considered secondary, and we are made to feel as puppets and unworthy." The intention of this article is not to use Khasis as a test case to make a general statement. The aim is to show how tilting gender balance, be it through laws or customs, is not without serious dangers, and can lead to complications within a home, and in that society - if balancing counter-measures are not taken.

So, what's it so striking about the Khasis that's endangering Adam and Eve's apple-garden peace? The Khasis are tribal or an indigenous people, and the majority live in Meghalaya. The singular facet that defines them is that they consider women to be their nucleus - from birth to death. This is reflected in their sex ratio of about 1,035 females for every 1,050 men, which is more than the global average and norm of 1,000 women to 1,050 men.

As per the Khasi tradition, the youngest daughter inherits all the ancestral property. After marriage, men are expected to move into the home of their wife, and live with their mother-in-law, and children are given the family name of their mother and not the father - a custom not prevalent in many parts of India. But things get complicated if parents have ancestral property but have no girl child. Since they can't bequeath their property to a son, a Khasi ruling demands that the parents adopt a girl-child in order to leave their inheritance.

There's an element of benign self-interest in this tribal custom. “The reason the property is left to the youngest daughter is because she has the responsibility to look after the parents until they die. Parents feel like they can always depend on their girls,” said Patricia Mukhim, Editor of The Shillong Times.

The weakened position of men through custom-led gender emasculation has led to unhealthy behavioral changes among them due to feelings of insecurity. Women will point out that this is exactly their position in customs and society where men and their rights and discretion is given preference - either through law, religion, class-custom, or family tradition.

There is increasing restlessness among Khasi men in Meghalaya and other states - about men's rights and position in a woman-centric home being devalued. “When a man has to live in his mother-in-law’s house, it tends to make him a little quiet. You are just a breeding bull. No one is interested in hearing your views about anything, you have no say in any decision whatsoever," Keith Pariat, a men’s rights activist and chairman of men's rights group Syngkhong Rympei Thymmai (SRT), told AFP.

The 60-year-old businessman Pariat believes that the woman-centric system has been “totally detrimental” to Khasi men. “It puts no responsibility on their shoulders so they tend to take life easy and they go into drugs and alcohol and that cuts their life short. Khasi men don’t have any security, they don’t own land, they don’t run the family business and, at the same time, they are almost good for nothing."

Past efforts to eradicate or reform the matrilineal system, which has existed for thousands of years, have been tough. In the early 1960s there was emergence of a men's rights movement. But it did not take off as hundreds of Khasi women landed up at one of the meetings of men activists - armed with knives. Constitutionally, too, SRT faces a difficult task as the Indian constitution guarantees tribals to formulate their own laws as per customs and tradition.

Strangely, and this is an argument against the deeply-embedded matrilineal system among the Khasis - in Meghalaya only four out of 60 legislators are women. Is this a conscious decision of voters to reset the gender balance? Do the Khasis and people of Meghalaya keep home and politics separate? Is political non-inclusion of women reactionary?

The unreformed state of gender imbalance among the Khasis indicates that if you shift the gender pendulum to either side, the balance is disturbed and the other gender gets affected. To empower and protect women at the cost of men is dangerous as it can downplay their role and be counter-productive. Attaching identity to the sanctity of the matrilineal system can weaken the man-woman social partnership, as seen among the Khasis.

So, what's the social balance that India needs to strive to celebrate on Women's Day - itself a by-product of the western liberal women's rights movement and the global capitalism machine? One can celebrate both genders and be respectful of women's concerns because they are women - especially when in India men have a clear and long history of violating their most simple and fundamental rights.

Today, we can promise not to explain or force a woman about what her role in society should be. Let a woman decide what's best for her, and empower laws so that men don't impinge in this territory. But there's no need of manufacturing a ladder for them, and then try to cut them to size when the roles get reversed. 

Editorial NOTE: This article is categorized under Opinion Section. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of In case you have a opposing view, please click here to share the same in the comments section.
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