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India’s Northeast

Where Women Make Up Another Tribe

Kheshili Chishi, former President of the Naga Mothers’ Association, a civil society group of women citizens that led the conflict-hit region of  this northeast Indian state bordering Myanmar, in its efforts at peace building, rues that  “women in Nagaland who have education and exposure are able to assert their rights and are in a position to exercise them and get recognition from society. But those who are less privileged still need to overcome social barriers and empower themselves”, a challenge that women take seriously in this part of the country, where women’s literacy rate in the last national census almost touched 80%, a good 15% increase over ten years.

Over the past two decades, in these farflung and remote Naga hills of northeast India, adjoining the state of Assam on its west, a region that has been in the grip of long years of militarisation, rapid social changes and their attendant cultural responses in recent times have witnessed simmering tensions among the polity and groups of people, most notably in the way women have adapted themselves to the rising need to find their own autonomous spaces amidst altered realities.

Everyday practices in the Naga hills are typically not separate from the customs laid down from the hoary past that push back women who are tied down by customary laws and  sanctions made by primordial social structures that defy change and  progress. In a particularly telling move, in February this year on the eve of the municipal elections in Naga urban territories (Urban Local Bodies) , women and women’s collectives had a violent face off with political establishments and the state itself when the stipulated 33 % reservation made for women in political representations under the present Indian law was sought to be flouted by the apex Naga tribal organisations in a bid to preserve older and arcane customs that do not accommodate women in politics and governance. Close on the heels of such events, women got together to protest what they saw as the deeply patriarchal approach of the Naga society at large, in an unprecedented resistance against discrimination towards them. While most tribal communities ( the Naga society is consituted of 16 officially recognised tribes which make up an ethnic mix) represented by diverse practices and fiercely proud lineages and histories, adopt traditional practices with respect to family, marriage and kinship, the increasing need to also align themselves to modern legal codes and patterns of  equality in their daily lives and economic systems now face them with changes they gradually must make room for. In these difficult frontier terrains, where everday life encounters various odds in the uplands that have also been called India’s “unruly borderland” ( Karlsson), women have emerged strongly as change-makers as they battle with  the very traditions that once defined their lives.  This project on women’s mobilisations maps the changing practices of women across these borderlands, from what were once seen as dominant householders and symbolic “mothers” with familial power to resistant women, who group together to challenge political powers and patriarchy , determined to convert the old customary practices into “usable laws that are friendly and empowering to women of the present” says Chishi who is also currently advisor of the Indigenous Women’s Forum for Northeast India, a woman’s group that has tried to generate opinion on women’s rights and educate rural women of the region. Notably, there has been no woman legislator in the state so far and the need for political participation is imperative , she feels.

Aiding this robust political movement that chips away at the very heart of the cultural fabric of Naga tribal society in the face of great opposition by male tribal bodies to female reservation and violent public confrontations this February that left three civilians dead in the town of Dimapur, are women writers and journalists who have become, the soul of this transforming world of women. Eminent writer and academic Temsula Ao, who heads the Nagaland State Commission for Women , and has prolifically written on Naga culture and society acknowledges that  “the significant aspect of Naga writings lies in the fact that much of this literature has directly or indirectly derived inspiration from our oral tradition which is replete with the resources of literature like poems, folk songs, long narratives, folk stories, and even elements of magic and fantasy” and which is a repository of values that have been misread as primitive and as not being in touch with reality . Like Ao, Monalisa Chankija, a feisty  scribe, and Editor of the Nagaland Page, a strident voice of this crusade against repressive customs that inhibit women’s freedoms upholds the need to fight for women’s rights against male-dominated tribal organisations that have prohibited women in Nagaland from ownership of land and allied resources. The core of the issue  she points is that “Naga culture and customs debar women from land ownership hence our Customary Laws preclude women from inheriting land.”

Her views on Naga women’s freedom point to its nuanced realities, that she calls “a fettered freedom ~ this freedom is conditional to being “good” Naga women by following the customs, traditions and cultures, primarily being submissive to men, which needless to say are extremely patriarchal… a woman who shows a mind of her own jeopardizes her freedom and fetters herself to stigmas that will be etched in the collective memory of the tribe, village, clan, family, etc., and will brand her female progenies because memories of what is perceived to be “not done” in Naga society and culture, are never forgotten.”

Easterine Kire (Iralu), writer and poet, who brought this patriarchal mindset embedded in Naga life and family to the fore in her bold novel, A Terrible Matriarchy , a decade ago, looks at how women of the here and now are inevitably are reared to be submissive and “ good” by the custom books and traditional wisdoms handed down from generation to generation. Recently her novella based on Naga myth and legends, The Son of the Thunder Cloud  takes the issue beyond the immediate to the archetypes that framed this community of tribes who  settled on the intractable Naga hills of the Eastern Himalayas.


The everyday life of the Naga steeped in originary  myths and beliefs that she narrates in this lyrical work calls attention to the way a Naga woman’s life is inseparable from the traditional faiths and customs observed unquestioningly. Her focus in this shifts to the eternal wisdoms reposed in women, the ancient custodians of the culture of the community who hold the key to delivering an entire village from draught and death with the promise of rain,  a symbolism that empowers women of these uplands to struggle and survive amidst the challenges that modern life throws at them. The project on mobilisations will sift through such oral and literary cultures that are the conscience of the Naga community and pit them against the immediacy of the movements by women that sound the new wave of resistance in the Naga hills. Women group together to demand reforms and the shedding of customary practices that have been provided by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution with  Article 371 A to  District Autonomous Councils to sanction rights to common property resources (CPR) without any constitutional guarantees. Conflict between individual ownership and state owned land because of common property rights have led to rifts among older groups whose male heads often owned property while women had no access to them.


In the neighbouring plains of Assam in the Brahmaputra valley, while women don’t ostensibly fight customary laws ( Assam does not fall under the ambit of the provisions for customary laws made possible through constitutional amendments) there is a growing fear that women’s spaces of freedom are shrinking in a society that is largely patriarchal. Young women’s collectives have mushroomed in recent times with various categories of women forming formal and informal groups to voice their demands and to generally raise awareness about rights and laws that can empower them. Abantee Dutta, a young lawyer has founded a research network in Guwahati which is run by a team of young women like herself. Studio Nilima, the law network holds workshops on legal rights, feminist methods, women’s empowerment, economic and land reforms that educate such women who are left without access to equal rights and powers in familial or professional situations.  Apart from these activities, the network   has started a documenting project to map various phenomena including conflict zones of the northeastern region, surviving mothers of insurgents who live to tell the tale among others and legal cases that such vulnerable subjects need to battle endlessly. This researcher of the HaB will tie up for a proposed manual of customary laws of the upland Naga hills that the law network can help prepare with supplementray inputs from our RA. This while helping map the various prevalent customs and  customary laws in practice , will also be an outcome of the project that can be read simultaneously with constitutional laws to engage with policy decisions on women’s empowerment and also serve as pedagogic material that has not been hitherto used in feminist discourses of the region.


Another initiative by women, comprising mostly very young single women  , something that beats the regular genre of women’s organisations is a café that is tucked away in a corner of a busy college street in Guwahati. Called the Backbenchers’ Café, it is the brainchild of Banamallika Choudhury, a feminist activist who is seeking to alter the lonely urban spaces to a shared belonging by young women and also willing men. Bana, as most friends call her, and a remarkable model for young mothers, breaks the stereotype by bringing her infant daughter into her workplace strapped on her back or is simply allowed to play around as daily work picks up. Designed as a cafe where Manisha, her business partner and Shanti, the chef, both single, roll out delicious cupcakes, pancakes and chocolate mousse , and soul food such as soups and pastas, the café doesn’t stop at just catering to food for the belly, there is a lot more food for thought that is dished out in this unpretentious space when young minds catch up for coffee, and congregate on serious issues of survival and strategy. “A city,” she observes “is a gendered, patriarchal space. If you look at Guwahati today, it has become a juncture where we are moving from collective communities to individual existences.”  This collective is already expanding its arms to bring in more women and together with Bondita Acharya, a human rights activist, an additional venture,  NEthing - Everything North East has started. NEthing is a concept store in the same shared space that hosts minds and meetings. It houses books from the region and products made by independent designers and groups in the North East sending out a strong signal on women’s increasingly active role in the market. Its products are socially and environmentally conscious, organic, hand crafted often and made of recyclable material. It aims to become a resource centre on the North East and its space can be shared as an office or to organize activities like meetings and workshops driven by the bottomline that Banmallika simply explains as wanting to make “a safe secular habitat for women, migrant workers, sexual minorities and anyone who feels unsafe in the big city”.


In the coming months, the project will pick up archival material on women’s attempts to break and bend the custom–directed social life of the community from sources that are private and nearly extant from Nagaland and also from the women’s initiatives and new feminist movements from Assam.  This will include among others, personal narratives, diaries, graffitti, pamphlets, church notices, media focuses, photographs and visual footage, including city hoardings, signposts and billboards , besides details from legal juridical cases that have been moved against female oppression and discrimination  and more importantly on  modes in which women from these neighbouring and contiguous places in the hill and the valley, have increasingly sought to invoke the court instead of custom.

- Rakhee Kalita Moral


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POINT (95 26.008177)