• Kat Gupta’s research blog

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BBC: where hyperbole rules and suffragettes aren’t really suffragettes

As a Khasi and as someone who researches the suffrage movement, I was intrigued to see a BBC article titled Meghalaya, India: Where women rule, and men are suffragettes. Unfortunately it’s not a very good article. The photo of the women wearing jainkyrshah is nice though.

Firstly, my criticisms as a Khasi:

Things that it does cover:

  • Statements like “As a mother of children by three different Khasi fathers however, she is the first to admit that their societal anomaly has afforded her ample opportunities to be both a mother and a successful career woman” without any kind of background information so it just sounds judgemental by patriarchal Western standards. Well, yes, if you neglect to mention anything about how Khasi marriages are conducted, how Khasi divorces are conducted or how Khasi inheritance works I suppose it does sound a bit weird, but come on BBC, you are based in a country where you celebrate a man who was married six times, had three children by three different women, and killed three two of his wives. That’s weird.

Things that it does not cover:

  • Meghalaya’s ratio of male and female babies born is one of the most equal in India
  • Why matrilineal inheritance was practised and what it implies for tracing ancestry
  • Any sort of detail on how it actually works
  • Any sort of feminist perspective
  • Any awareness that Khasi men aren’t subjected to the same kind of treatment that women experience in other parts of India. It’s not like Khasi boys are aborted, denied access to education, experience poor health, are malnourished, experience domestic violence, or are the victims of ‘honour killings’ because they are boys (link)
  • That there are other tribes that have similar practices such as the Jaintia
  • Any other reasons for alcoholism and drug abuse – for example, poverty

As someone who researches the suffrage movement, I find it a lazy comparison. Is this about the vote? Is this about corverture? Are specifically men working in appalling conditions and have no way to raise their concerns in a political arena? Are specifically men’s health problems routinely ignored? As far as I’m aware, Khasi men aren’t disenfranchised for being men.

However, the suffragette comparison is interesting for a different reason, and that is the history of North-East Indian separatist movements. There is an issue that people in North-East India feel that they lack a political voice because of the area’s geographical isolation and cultural differences – for example, differences between tribal cultures and more mainstream Indian culture. There are underground separatist groups and they do engage in direct action, such as bombs in Assam. I don’t think I’d want to make explicit parallels between the movements, but if I absolutely had to make a dubious, lazy argument I was thoroughly ashamed of, I’d say Khasi men may feel disenfranchised because they are Khasi rather than because they are men.

Anyway, now that’s all out of my system I can get back to marking. Didn’t want my marking to be affected by my grumpiness!

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  1. I’m from USA, not UK. Who is this “man who was married six times, had three children by three different women, and killed three of his wives.”?

    Basing an argument on “as far as I’m aware” and “as a khasi” is a lazy argument. It’s entirely anecdotal and has only one source.

    According to the article – which cited several sources and quoted (or tried to quote) multiple eyewitnesses – “this” appears to be about corverture. The man who was being interviewed for the article was not allowed to speak by his wife the whole time, and property is handled matrilinealy.

    Your blog claims that the article does not cover “Why matrilineal inheritance was practised and what it implies for tracing ancestry” nor “Any sort of detail on how it actually works” or “That there are other tribes that have similar practices such as the Jaintia, but neither does your blog post.

    • The man was King Henry VIII – he actually had only two of his wives executed and I have amended the post to reflect that. The third died shortly after childbirth.

      If you read the article, it is based on anecdata. He talks to a few people and is very selective about who and what he quotes. He doesn’t cite any broader surveys or research. Shillong has a university, the North-Eastern Hills University, which has departments of both Khasi literature and history. I’m familiar with some of the research carried out in the department of history – indeed, some of their recent research has been focused on my great-grandfather, a Khasi anthropologist and historian. It’s fascinating stuff and would have provided some much needed depth and perspective to the BBC article.

      “Corveture” is a legal term and goes far beyond what you describe. If it was practised, a Khasi man would have no legal rights – he would not be allowed to vote, he would not be allowed to divorce unless his wife initiated it, he would not be allowed to obtain an education if his wife did not approve, he would have no say in how the family property is managed. This is not the case even with property. While property is held by the youngest daughter, she is not allowed to sell the property without consulting with her brothers. Khasi inheritance law is a good deal more complicated than the BBC article suggests.

      Unfortunately I have several jobs and none of them is with the BBC. If the BBC were prepared to pay for my flights to Guwahati and arrange for someone else to take over my work, I would be more than happy to go to Shillong and write a decently researched article on Khasi matrilineal descent and gender issues. As it is, I simply don’t have the time to pursue another research project and my post was intended to point out the gaps in the article – things that aren’t discussed in it but ought to have been if the author genuinely wanted to explore the issue. As it is, I, and my Khasi relatives, found the article unbalanced and inaccurate.

  2. Hey, Kat,

    Interesting blog.
    I am currently writing an anthropological paper on matriarchy as myth and in using Khasi society as an example stumbled upon the BBC article you discuss in your blog as well as this: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jan/18/india-khasi-women-politics-bouissou
    There seems to be a lot of emphasis on Khasi women ruling over men, which from my limited knowledge on the matter, doesn’t exactly seem to be the case (at least not in the black and white way it is portrayed by the media). But hey, it’s the media, not well researched scholarly writing. Plus western society in particular seems to have a great fascination with matriliny that is often misinformed. That said, you should read Eileen Walsh’s paper on the Mosuo in China which illustrates that it isn’t purely a western trait.

    • Hi Becky,

      Thanks for your comment and your suggestion. It’s a pity that the Guardian article seems to prioritise one man’s experience rather than having a broader view of society and talking to people who are happy with gender relations in Khasi society. Some of my research looks at news values and how they shape what is presented as news, so I can’t say that I’m entirely surprised that a matrilineal society is presented as deviant and full of unhappy men in the Western press; people quietly getting on with their lives isn’t newsworthy.

      You’re probably already aware of it, but the NEHU Journal has anthropological essays – Lorna Bang’s article on reproductive health might be of interest.

      Your paper sounds really interesting – do you have a blog or anything?

  3. Thanks Kat – I’ll give this a read – looks very interesting.

    I’m currently at LSE studying my second masters (MSc social anthropology) with a hope of undertaking doctoral research in India focusing on globalisation, cultural constructs of gender and women’s rights as key themes – so your blog is very interesting to me.

    I don’t have a blog, but I can send you my paper if you like? I won’t pretend it’s amazingly executed, as it is not fieldwork based for a start, but the gist of it was exploring matriarchy as not only a construct, but how it is a global concept which influences our understandings/interpretations of societies in general.

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