Saturday, 7 July 2012

Darlong Women Status in Darlong Society

Darlong Women Status in Darlong Society – Malsawma Darlong

The main objective of this paper is to examine the status of Darlong women in a changing Darlong  society from historical and sociological perspectives for a worthwhile appraisal of her status today. My basic hypothesis is that Darlong society is basically patriarchal in nature which is therefore responsible for the development of hyper-masculine biasness thereby tending to push the woman to traditional familial roles.

As a result, patriarchal elites in Darlong society continue to dominate the society and politics till today. This is also true in the case of East Asian and Southeast Asian societies. In other words, this kind of state-society relations corresponds directly to those between parents and children: firm benevolence from parents/state in exchange for filial devotion from children/subjects. Endorsing Ling's argument, Rose J Lee and Clark also strongly contend that "in almost all societies, women as a whole are forced into subordinate roles and statuses that embedded in and reinforced by a wide array of patriarchal cultures". Having its ethno-cultural roots in Southeast Asia, Darlong society is not an exception to this. To have a clearer perspective on this, let us make a brief survey of the status of the Darlong  women through the ages beginning from pre-colonial period.

In a traditional Darlong society, the father was the head who was all-in-all over all his family affairs. In a developed patriarchal system, the head of the household was also a representative in the inter-clan and community relations. The power and authority of the patriarch over his children, young or adult, was often almost unlimited. In most of the developed communities in which the patriarchy flourished, occasionally an individual woman would achieve great fame and even became ruler.  

In a Darlong family in the past, a woman had no right either in a family or society. As a matter of fact, she belonged in body and mind, from her birth till her death, to her father and brother and to her husband after her marriage. The woman possessed nothing even though she did most of the work within and outside the house. The following sayings, among many others, clearly testify the inferior status of Darlong woman in the past: (1) the wisdom of woman does not extend beyond the bank of a river; (2) woman (wife) and old fencing can be replaced any time; (3) let a woman and a dog bark as they like; (4) woman and crab have no religion; etc. Unlike the male child, by custom and convention, a Darlong woman had no inheritance right or share in the property of her father. The Darlong customary laws were also male-biased and did not at all protect woman's interests. The Darlong woman had no freedom to choose her future partner which was entirely in the hands of her parents earlier but now the case may be little different.
Two customary practices which inevitably accompanied her marriage were bride-price (moi hman) and dowry (thuam) which tended to treat woman as a sort of commodity.
Another biasness of Darlong customary law was that a woman could commit adultery either while her husband was alive or even after the death of her husband. If she committed adultery while her husband was alive, the whole of the bride-price paid must be returned to her husband who was also entitled to retain his wife's dowry.
In an olden days woman's unfaithful behavior was believed to have disturbed her husband's spirit and the ceremony was usually performed in order to quieten her husband's spirit. It was a kind of expression of deep anguish over her immoral act. When this ceremony was performed, the woman had to remain at her father's house at least three months. During this period, she was to perform everyday another sacrifice called mithi Bu pek - a ceremony of putting aside a portion of the food the woman was to eat at each meal for her dead husband. But the question here is: what happened to the man with whom she committed the act of adultery? The Darlong custom was completely silent on this. Divorce was also so easy. One had to simply say to his wife "I divorce you". Of course there were several ways of divorce in traditional Darlong society (by simply returning the bride-price, by mutual agreement, etc). When divorced, a woman could not claim ownership of the children.

With the coming of Christianity followed by modern education, the position of a Darlong woman had undergone tremendous changes. In the beginning, Darlong  parents refused to send their daughters to school, saying "who would work if the girls were sent to school?"

A group of young Darlong men also told the lady missionaries that they did not want to have their girls educated for; they said that women and girls were destined to do the household works. They further argued that women had no mind and there was no point in trying to bother about their education. Despite this opposition, Darlong girls began to learn the three R's including child care, home nursing, cooking, knitting, sanitation, etc. As a result, there was a great difference in the facial expressions and outlook of educated women and those of uneducated womenfolk. Soon the Darlong young men also began to prefer educated wives and the whole status of women became more respectable than before. The value systems had also undergone sweeping changes. Traditional value systems were being replaced by modern and western value systems. When political consciousness dawned upon the people from the forties of the 20th century, women were no longer confined to the four walls of their kitchen.

Aware of their age-old inferior status and because of the impact of modern education, Darlong women have recently formed the Darlong Nupang Inzawmkhawm (DNI)   spearheading the movement for the overall emancipation and welfare of womenfolk in Darlong society. Among others, the DNI has been trying to eradicate the commercialization of the bride-price; the dowry system; sexual exploitation of women of any kind; and inequality between man and woman.

At the same time, it has also taken measures to uphold women's values and rights; to promote and bring about a cosmopolitan outlook to the women in general and through various activities like seminars, workshops and conferences; to impart instructions to rural women through demonstrations and lectures; to serve as a channel of communication for the protection of women's interests; to sensitize women for eradication of social evils, economic exploitation and cheap commercialism concerning women; to encourage women's participation in public life including politics; to promote women's education and to take up their mental and moral welfare; and to raise funds through donation, subscription, fees and other contributions from the members of the association, general public and financial institutions including government.

Thanks to the frontal women's organizations, Darlong women today are having a better place in the society. Marriage is now a matter in which their opinion is sought first. Exploitation in the name of sex has greatly decreased. Unlike in the past, there is no more social stigma on widow or divorced woman. Today a Darlong woman plays a very significant role in all walks of life. A visit to market places in Darlong different villages reveals that almost all shops are run by women with their neat, tip-top dresses and stylish hairdo like those of the Bold and the Beautiful ones. This picture is not different when one goes to offices or educational institutions which usually have no fewer womenfolk than their male counterparts. Socially and economically, woman has now an honored place in today's Darlong society. A Darlong woman is as free as her male counterpart. She has now a due share in her parental or ancestral property and is even entitled to inherit her father.

This is the general picture of a Darlong women's position today. But when we talk in terms of their political participation, they are still much lagging behind of their male counterparts. Why is this so? On the whole, woman representation in any political decision-making processes is abysmally low in the whole of Asia and else where. In a very developed country like Japan, the percentage of woman representation in the national diet is only 2.3 percent and the highest is in Finland where proportional representation of woman stands at 38.5 percent. Development and modernization are expected to accelerate social and policy reforms regarding the status of woman.

It is also theorized that social and economic changes combined with modernization should help a woman overcome many of the social barriers which are engrained in the patriarchal culture of Darlong society. There are attempts for empowerment of women through legislative reforms. But in so far as the election scenario both at the level of the village council and assembly is concerned, women's participation in political decision-making is still a far cry away. Why is this so? As it has been pointed out before, Darlong society is basically a patriarchal society which encourages hyper-muscularity in all its social, economic and political functions while at the same time, pushing hyper-femininity at the bottom of the society. In spite of their high literacy and competence as civil officers both in the state and central services, their political role has yet to assume noticeable significance.

In the final analysis, overall democratization of Darlong’s socio-economic and political structures can be expected to promote women's empowerment and emancipation. This will mean clear-cut reservation of electoral seats right from the grassroots level as it has been implemented in the panchayati raj institutions where even a fixed quota of pradhan (chairperson) in gram panchayats and adhyakshas (Chairpersons) in Zilla Parishads are reserved for elected women. The enhanced political representation will again enable them to enhance their political power so that they can have more equitable share in decision-making for their society. Given this political power, women even within the patriarchal cultural domination, will be able to exercise their political rights for more fulfilling and rewarding roles in the society.

Women's empowerment has become a global issue and the question of the Darlong woman's political empowerment need to be considered in the context of what is being done and implemented in East Asia and South-east Asian regions. Everything said and done, only democratization and empowerment can provide a Darlong woman an avenue through which she can continue her long journey towards her total emancipation. To be more specific, two political mechanisms may be considered in this regard: increased proportional representation of woman in all elected bodies and fixation of a certain quota of offices therein; and the increased political activities by autonomous women's bodies. Then and then only, she can be in policy-making elites and decide for the overall improvement of women's status.

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