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5 Matriarchal Societies in India you might not know about

In yet another debate of patriarchy vs matriarchy – let us try and understand what a matriarchal society is. All around the globe, we have been hearing only about patriarchy and how it has given birth to the movement of feminism. By now, we would all agree that patriarchy, a societal norm that gives more importance to one gender, has been created. This distinction has made men overconfident in their exposure to the outer world. With the onset of civilisation, tasks that required going out of the house were delegated to the men and women were expected to stay at home and tend to family needs. The thought was since women are not allowed to see the world, women would not be able to cope unless supported and guided by a man. This was the first step towards inequality. Since then, we have progressed thousands of years and have seen many civilisations. As the world stands today, we are divided into countries geographically as well as culturally. 

As patriarchy became the norm of society, the gender divide created an imbalance in society. Women have been subjected to economic dependence, violence, domestication and the peripherals of decision-making. The clearly defined dichotomy of roles for men and women has been destroying the family fabric ever since. Today, women are challenging all these stereotypes as they enter the armed forces, commercial flying and military, which were conventionally thought of as masculine jobs. 

Patriarchy has a major role to play in mental health. Men are considered to be strong and incapable of expressing vulnerabilities, while women are subjected to abuse if they perceive some aspects of life emotionally. The domination of one gender over the others has led to females being subjected to untold misery in every shape and form all over the world. 

What is a matriarchal society?

Patriarchy has permeated through the ages to all societies barring a few. Some communities have converted to or have always been matriarchal. The definition of matriarchy itself states – “a hypothetical social system in which the mother or a female elder has absolute authority over the family group; by extension, one or more women (as in a council) exert a similar level of authority over the community as a whole.” The common consensus among modern anthropologists and sociologists is that matriarchal societies have never existed in this original, evolutionary sense.

Several matriarchal communities exist today, like Nubia of Sudan, Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea, Palawan of the Philippines, Mosuo of China, Umoja of Kenya, Minangkabau of Indonesia, the Picti of Scotland, the Basques of Spain and France, the Ainu of Japan, among few others. Let us look at some of the matriarchal communities specifically inhabiting India.

The Khasi people of Meghalaya

The largest matriarchal society in India is the Khasi people of Meghalaya in northeastern India. Under the Constitution of India, the Khasis have been granted the status of Scheduled Tribe – officially designated as a disadvantaged socio-economic group. They are a matrilineal group, meaning children primarily bear their mother’s name, and daughters in a family receive the inheritance. They are also a matrilocal culture signifying that children live with the mother’s family. It means any number of times the woman marries, the children stay with her and take her name. Hence, there is no concept of illegitimacy. The father plays a vital role in the material and mental life of the family. It is observed that “a man is the defender of the woman, but the woman is the keeper of his trust”. It is an equal society where men and women have importance and responsibilities.

The Garo Tribe

Neighbours of the Khasi, the Garo tribe has a similar culture and is matrilineal. The mother of the house heads a Garo family, but the father is responsible for providing sustenance. The children take their clan titles from their mothers. Traditionally, the youngest daughter (nokme-chik) inherits the property from her mother. Parents send their sons to the village bachelor dormitory at puberty for training. After marriage, the man lives in his wife’s house. While the women own the property of Garos, the men govern the society and domestic affairs and manage the property. 

The Nairs 

In the southern part of India, we find a few more tribes who have designed their society considering the norms of matriarchy or equality. Kerala, with the country’s highest literacy rate and a stable sex ratio, is home to the Nairs and Ezhavas. These tribes lived in matrilineal arrangements long before India’s Independence. The Nairs live under the eldest female member in a matrilineal household called Tharavad. The husbands usually stay in separate rooms or altogether different houses and hold almost little to no responsibility towards their children. All future generations receive the matriarch’s family name and consider her property ancestral. The eldest male member of the family, the Karnavan, takes care of the maintenance of the ancestral property and the sustenance of all young members of the clan.

The Ezhavas

The Ezhavas, another one of the matrilineal societies, is also a community from Kerala. In northern Malabar, matrilineal communities have patrilocal arrangements, while in north Travancore, Ezhavas follow a matrilocal method of their property. But in Ezhavas, the Karnavan assumes the most important, which triumphs all the apparent power the matriarch holds. Since India incorporated Kerala as a state, it has stripped these communities of their societal system and force them to align with the rest of the nation and world. Even though matrilineage might not be widely practised in Kerala today, its presence has taught people to respect each other regardless of their gender and to provide equal opportunities to women in all fields.

The Tuluva

In another southern state, Karnataka, two prominent communities of the Tuluva ethnic group, namely Bunt and Billava, follow matrilineal descent known as Aliyasantana, which originated from a legend.  According to the fable, a demon demands the king sacrifice his son to save the kingdom from drought. The king refused, but the king’s sister sacrificed her son. The demon was amused at the sister’s courage and pardoned them, allowing the nephew to inherit everything from the king. This fable led the Tuluva group to become one of the matrilineal societies in India. In the communities of Bunt and Billava, the inheritance travels through the sister, i.e. the eldest female member. However, the sister’s brother is the primary decision-maker of the family and its members, and they follow a patriarchal living pattern.

It is evident that with India’s independence from the British, the society became more homogenous and started to follow the societal norms as in the rest of the world. While these societies may be majorly matrilinear, some level of patriarchy exists in their way of living. The idea is not to favour a particular gender but to establish equality irrespective of identities.

The current era has regressed, and there is hardly a scope for equality in societies. The governments in the West have been actively working towards increasing inequality between genders by introducing laws against abortion, laws against LGBTQIA communities and encouraging pay disparities. This shows that we are plunging into a new darkness where there is no tunnel or light. With crime against women on the rise, we must look within and try to overhaul the misogynistic nature of the rules and create more inclusive spaces. 

Matriarchal societies are on a decline; hence we must strive to preserve the knowledge of how these societies were structured. As common people, we can organise groups in our network to promote cultural exchange programs and support local organisations to empower women in these communities. We can unite with a common goal of preserving knowledge and creating forums for such safe exchanges.