Matrilineal not matriarchal: Role of Khasi men in society

By Pynkupbor M Syiemlieh

Matrilineal is the tracing of descent through the female line. The word ‘lineal’ refers to someone’s lineage, so matrilineal describes anything related to kinship through a female line. In a matrilineal tradition, the children take their mother’s last name.
Some of the traditional societies which still practice matrilineality are the Lao of Thailand, the Anis of Taiwan, the Minangkabau of Indonesia and the Musuo of China. In India, the matrilineal societies are distributed in the southwest region (the Nairs of Kerala and the Buns of Karnataka) and in the Northeast region (the Khasi, Jaiñtia and Garo of Meghalaya).
The matrilineal Khasi were the first among all the mongoloid people of the North East to achieve a high culture level, even prior to intensive contact with outsiders.
Energy and prominent personality and education to democracy in a basic family structure of matriliny; these are the contributions which the matrilineal order of society has to offer. Khasi women for instance carry their goods to the weekly markets, selling and shopping, and are entirely trusted by their men folk, a characteristic not peculiar in patrilineal societies like in the rest of India.
Some scholars believe that the Khasis adopted their matrilineal family on their way in the past to these present hills. Whatever might be the reason, one thing is sure this matrilineal system has established itself very firmly that they have come to be convinced that this matrilineal system is their unique characteristic that distinguishes them from the rest of the human race.
Khasis, who have always had to explain their distinctive matrilineal system, have a story of how it originated long back in prehistory.
Oral traditions state that man gave up naming their off-springs after themselves because they were busy in war and hunting, with little time for child rearing.
The uncertainties of war also gradually led to men’s voluntary abandonment of inheritance rights. Therefore, all the responsibilities were handed over to the women folk, which consequently increase their social status to equals of men.
As a Khasi student studying in a college with many diverse communities like the Mizos, Meteis, Nagas, lots of explanation I have to do to make them aware of our matrilineal system.
The questions they would ask are
“is it true that after marriage, you have to move to your wife house?”, “is your mother the head of the family?”
and some of them would ask “why are you allowing females to control over you?”
So what is the role and status of a Khasi man in his society? When the son marries and lives with his wife, the mother claims the ‘person’ of the son as hers but the son of his wife become the child of the new family and also the son becomes the father of the family through his wife. In one word, a Khasi man is the head of his wife’s family.
His position in the family is an honoured one and as the bread-earner and as the protector of his mother, his sisters and young daughters and sons and his position as the exalted defender of his mother’s family. A Khasi man is ‘u Kñi’ or maternal uncle and he is ‘u Kpa’ or a father, without whom worship and religion would be an act of sacrilege.
His position may appear in the eyes of foreigners (also in the eyes of my friends) as somewhat ridiculous, but to a Khasi man the foundation of his self and person in the family which centres round his own thought, and that his life and his soul and the life and soul of those near to him.
Many social scientists both foreign and Indian who have made studies on these Khasi social system have made a mistake by coming to a conclusion that a Khasi society is matriarchal in nature. Matriarchy is a social system in which females hold the primary power position in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and control of property at the specific exclusion of man. But this is not true in case with the Khasi society which makes it matrilineal and not matriarchal.
In fact, Khasis have matrilineal residence and material descent only. Though descent is traced through the mother, yet father is the head of the family. While the father is the head of the family and the main earner for the family’s income, the mother is the mere keeper of all earnings.
While the mother nurses the children, it is the father that the children will expect to get the most advice and decision regarding the future. It is the father who is expected to be the defender of the family and family’s property.
So now, I can say, so what if I move to my wife’s house after marriage, so what if my children don’t bear my name, I am still a man and a father of my children and also an uncle of my sister’s children.
Dear brothers, who are living in a matrilineal society, we should be proud of our matrilineal culture and embrace it until the last breath.

(The author is a third year student of BVSc & AH, College of Veterinary Science and AHCAU, Aizawl)

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