Nagaland: A Misinterpreted Society

By: Lemwang Chuhwanglim

Research Scholar & Activist

 Like many other societies in the world, Naga society is known as patriarchy oriented society. In a patriarchal society, people commonly prejudice or interpret the society as men dominated or discriminated society upon women. In such interpretation, every single woman is traumatized both in theory and praxis that she is subjugated and dominated by a man. My to every single Naga is, how best or worst was the patriarchal society in the past among the Nagas? Was the pre-modern Naga patriarchal society different from the modern Naga patriarchal society?

Social evolution is a part of social phenomena because no society remains static. Robert Bellah says religious evolution leads to social fragmentation and more complication. Modernity plays a significant role in social change in different parts of the world; however, for the misinterpretation of the Naga society, I would not nail evolution and modernity in between the bones of the Nagas.
The hunter-gathering egalitarian society which human being maintained 100,000 years ago (Boehm, 2011) and patriarchal society originated ten to twenty thousand years ago and people lived in more gender-egalitarian and anarchist/communist hunter-gatherer societies(Lionel, Sim, 2013) might have been found among the Naga people until 1950. Naga people in the past, I would speculate it till 1950s;lived in hunter gathering society where no individual could live separated from the entire community (Harvey, 2000). Both in a larger or smaller group or community, Naga people expressed their feelings and desires for a better life in the past. Everyday people woke up with the purest minds and hearts for the pursuit of healthy, wealthy and happiness that were understood from one community to another and from one family to another family. People both in the family and society had legitimate thought to express their desire and possession of good way of life. Ferdinand Toennies calls such society as Gemeinschaft which means people who are more in favor of living together with a sense of oneness; meanwhile, Durkheim calls such society as traditional society (Baum, 1975).
In such society, the role of men and women were significantly practicing equal sharing responsibilities in villages and families. What the modernity calls gender inequality did not prevail therefore, early Naga society did not even know what gender inequality was. Anything between men and women were taking place more in terms of sharing responsibilities. There was nothing such as this is men’s work that cannot be touched by women or vis-a-vis.
For instance, every household had food store/Godown at village; this food store was exclusively in the hands of a wife. Therefore, a wife became the owner and controller of utilizing any food from the store. Men were not allowed to enter a food store or even to peep from the outdoor of a store. In a house, women were responsible for food supply. In a feast and every meal in the house, unless a wife said let us eat, no one had any authority to touch a rice pot. Every early morning before a cock crows women went to fetch water from a distance pond and men went to collect birds and wild animals from traps they made in the forest to catch birds and animals. When the early morning duties were done both men and women got ready to go to field before the second cock crows.
In hunting, men went to forest and women were responsible for supporting men from a distance, preparing to welcome men return from hunting because without the help of women, men alone could not do hunting. Women could not go for hunting because of the biological constraint that they could not chase animals to attack or would face more dangerous situation when animals attack them. In this role, there were nothing such us one was not given a privilege to obtain equal status; but it functioned more in terms of sharing responsibilities.
Many people intent to justify the issue of gender inequality in ancient Nagas based on a single issue of household ownership which the first son in the family got household property. It is in fact sounds women not been given privilege to own the property in the family, however, such practice would not be misinterpreted in the modern era as women as under privilege in the family. There was a deep reason in why women were not given household properties. When a woman owns property, she will leave the property behind when she goes away from home to marry a man. She could not take the property with her because the man with whom she got married already had owned property. Wherever a woman goes, she always has a share of property indirectly through a husband. A man owned property at home not for his own benefits but for the wealthy living of a wife and children. Such goal and aim of a man owning property had been misinterpreted as women’s discrimination in the modern Naga society. On the other hand, there was culture of men giving the best and biggest paddy, the healthiest Muthun, double barrel gun and the biggest gong to a wife’s family if a man canceled the engagement or mistreat a wife in the family. Such huge punishment was not available when it came to women rejecting men in the village. Again, such culture did not mean to keep men under privilege from obtaining what women could get, but that was a sharing own belongings.
When a woman went away from a home to marry someone, she was well cared, protected, accompanied and shared the best property by a families, relatives, clans and even the entire village as a sign of respect and honor to a female child. In the modern era, people may misinterpret this culture as what the Hindus called Dowry, which is not at all the Dowry in the Naga context.  Even after been away from home, a woman belongs to man’s family but in any feasts, festivals, etc, there was always a portion of the best meat for a women (In Konyak it is called Shoaksamei/tamkoh), i.e the entire thigh of any animals. Some even argue in the modern Naga society that why not the head of an animal was given to a woman? I found this argument very weak because head was not considered as the best portion in animals but more considered as the hardest part to eat and the hardest job was given to men so that they struggle to get a flesh from the head of an animal. This sharing portion of meat was nothing to relate to gender inequality among the ancient Naga society.
The misinterpretation of the role of men and women in the Naga society began in the modern era (1950s) when few Naga scholars adopted non contextual feminist theories from the western and European countries. I would say “When there is no problem within the culture, do not bring any alien culture to create problem in the culture”. Feminist theory and the concept of women empowerment started in the western country in three phases: The first, started in 18th century by Lucrecia Mott, when she found that no women took part in the Seneca Falls Convention held in Seneca Falls, New York (Martin Kelly), The second was, in 19th century when African women were discriminated in America (Femi Lewis), and the third was in 1920s when women fought for the rights to vote (Johnson Lewis). Beside these three movements, women in the Western society gradually began to fight against women prostitution. Since then many women rights organization boom rapidly. Today there are theories like Radical Feminism; which focuses on gender inequality in a group of men dominate a group of women, which closely refers to patriarchy. Marxist Feminism refers to women who have been discriminated at work place for the profit of men and Liberalism focuses on women’s subordination in terms of overarching social structures (Walby, 1990). One should ask few very important questions such as “were the preceding theories exist among ancient Naga society?” Was there a culture of women who had been exploited sexually in the ancient Naga society? Were there women who were not given opportunity for decision making in the family? Was there women exploited in the work place for the profit of men’s labor in the ancient Naga society? Before I further the usage of the word ‘discrimination’, I would like to give prior information that, I do not intent to aggravate that there was no discrimination at in the Naga society. Discrimination exist everywhere in different ways, however, the discrimination in this context refers to what the western world attributes as ‘men discrimination of women’.
I believe that the western theories of gender inequality did not exist in the ancient Naga society. As I have mentioned above, the problem began when these western theories were brought to the Naga society as an intellectual ideology by few Naga scholars and later it became a trend among the minds of both men and women debating about the gender inequality. I called such adoption of western feminist theories in the Naga society in the modern era as “Non-Contextual imposition theory”. It is non-contextual because Naga society did not have gender discrimination as such it was in the western society. In fact, some tribes among the Nagas might have been living under a decision making of women constructively than discriminating men. In the modern Naga society, such misinterpretation of non-contextual western feminist theories and patriarchal society, among the Nagas becomes less significant. Instead, it leads to conflict and violence between men and women.
One of the crucial and ignition roots adopted by the Nagas is the Language that men folk use in the society. Sara Mills analyses on the role of language, gender and culture where patriarchy has been misinterpreted as men forcing women to speak in subservient way before men. In this way language became a tool for discrimination of women. On the other hand women themselves recognized that their way of approaches to men should be tender and soft that does not cross the limit of men’s voice (Mills, 2003). These two mindsets among men and women in the modern Naga society become the weakest point toward gender inequality. Perhaps, modern Nagas are so naïve to believe in whatever the western scholars say about such gender issue, which in reality should be non-contextual ideology. One thing that needs to bring into the issue of gender inequality in the modern Naga society is religion which also intrigued to gender discrimination. I strongly argue that western religion has also added another ideology of how men should behave in the society and how women should remain obedient to men. If we go back to the early Naga culture, there might not have such roles or obligations that women should serve men, women should remain under men, women should submit themselves to men and women should bow heads before men. But one cannot deny that there were many responsibilities that men and women shared according to what they could do based on biological condition. For instance, man could climbed a tree and women could not, men could go for hunting at midnight but women could not go, women could become the best person in handling the household economic but men could not and so on. In such culture, women were not allowed to do men’s work and men were not allowed to do women’s works. This culture prevailed more in terms of sharing own responsibilities and not as a theory of discrimination between men and women.
Therefore, in the post-modern Naga society, it is important to reinterpret and redefine the role of gender from the early Naga culture and deescalate the ideology of western feminist theory to eliminate gender discrimination in the society. The role of gender from early Naga culture here refers to a culture of sharing responsibilities according to their competencies. The western feminist theory needs to be eliminated in the Naga society because the ideology of women discrimination according to them is a misleading idea from sharing responsibilities which was found in the early Naga culture. For this possibility I would like to propose two ways of educating men and women: 1. Men vs Men Education, Women vs Women education. 2. Women vs Men Education and Men vs Women education on understand the responsibilities of men and women in the Naga society. In this education, one need not exclusively strict to the early Naga sharing responsibilities but it can be added or changed in a way that any men’s responsibilities that women can do be shared and vis-à-vis. The fear of losing our identity like men washing dishes, knitting, weaving and women climbing on a tree, will lead to destruction but the courage of sharing responsibilities will lead to peace and harmony between men and women.  

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