This post has been self-published on Youth Ki Awaaz by Sanghamitra Aich. Just like them, anyone can publish on Youth Ki Awaaz.

Sexism In Folktales: The Influence Of Stereotypes In North Eastern Proverbs

More from Sanghamitra Aich

By Sanghamitra Aich:

Your brother was taught how to play football, while you learnt dance. “Kyunke ladke-ladki alag hai.” (Because girls and boys are different)

The lady across the hall gave you a death stare when you shouted out in joy, and yet her son screams like a demented orang-utan every time Manchester United hits a goal. “Girls should be subtle.”

The bottom line – sexist stereotypes! Those statements, those stares, those dining room lectures on how to be a “good” girl; these and a lot more are all sections of the omnipresent sexist stereotypes which we have all come across, time and again.

When did it all start, you ask? It has been debated that the origin of stereotypes can be traced to folklores (proverbs, tales, and more). This is largely supported with examples from everyday conversations, where people tend to use folklore to justify stereotypes.

Though the prevalence of a large body of folk culture is spread across the Indian subcontinent, and so are the stereotypes that some of those stories propagate, here, I am looking at those which are specific to the north-eastern states. Government and NGO reports on the cultures of the north-eastern states, as well as the research of scholars like Manasi Borah reveal that strains of folkloric influence are quite dominant in north eastern India. The separation of these states from the larger mainland through channels of location, culture and scientific growth has led to claims for accession and violence. This trend still continues, as can be seen in the marked murders and abuse of north-eastern youngsters in capital cities across the nation.

Picture Credits: Arif Siddiqui
Picture Credits: Arif Siddiqui

This arbitrary barrier is one of the main reasons for the stronger kinship and folkloric influences. As the mainland relegates them to a corner, people of the north-east gradually turn inward, increasing the awareness of folk culture and its use.

What are these folktales? Which stereotypes do they propagate?

Vanity and whimsicality

A Tripuri folktale, “The Kherengbar” (the orchid) recounts the tale of a couple’s transformation to animals – a monkey and a lizard. The reason for this was the woman’s whimsicality and vanity. Despite common knowledge of the danger of using the kherengbar flower, she made her husband pluck the flower to put it in her hair. The above mentioned tale is echoed in the popular folktale of Snow White, where her stepmother spent days in conversation with a mirror, plotting and preening in what is seen as a prime example of female vanity. According to an Idu Mishmi proverb “Aru Pe Gu Noyu-Mbo Mi”, women are like anchorless boats which move easily, even with the slightest stir. It is this logic that projects women as unsuitable in positions of power.

Behind every success man is a good woman, and vice versa

The Tripuri folktale “Woodpecker” is an example of how a woman can make or break a man. The woman in the tale insults and hits her husband, denies him food; this leads to his transformation into a woodpecker. Most folk tales of the North-East seem to establish that a man’s happiness is dependent on his relationship with his spouse, thus a happy wife will lead to a happy home. Further, though a mother’s love for her child is universally viewed as constant, the father’s love for his child seems to be directly related to his relationship with his spouse. However, some tales reflect how a beautiful second wife can lead to ignorance of children and their needs. The tale of Cinderella is one such tale. Variations of it can be found in a Manipuri folktale “Titimola”. Stepmothers and co-wives are depicted as cruel, immoral, and cunning. They create difficulties in the lives of their step-children and co-wives, committing heinous crimes to fulfil their desires. This cruelty of stepmothers is an ever present theme echoed in all Western fairytales.

Always beautiful but never free

The preliminary requisite of women for marriage as depicted in the folktales is mainly beauty. In an Assamese folk tale “Tula and Teja”, the king agreed to marry Teja because of her beauty. However, to sustain the marriage, giving birth to a child and being proficient in household work is necessary. A Khasi folktale “Dampo” carries as its moral a message about how a woman’s liberty must be curtailed, otherwise she will be the plight of her husband. This metaphor of male control is being taken to sad extremes, as can be seen in the rising rates of crimes against women in the North Eastern states.

An Adi proverb “Sone angkam em gekam sobue rebungem bumosu” means the white spot of a female mithun (deer) will remain as it is while a deformed horn of a male mithun can grow into a perfect shape size in due course of time. It implies that a woman cannot change her character, but a man can change his bad traits. There are serious warnings against even light hearted banter. An Idu Mishmi proverb says “Ya Ku Mey Iji Sa Aruya Layi”, i.e. women often spread unpleasant rumours. Gossip is relegated to the female sphere with extremism.

Women are the weaker sex

A Koireng proverb ‘Numei dungsang jaarphalie’ means, no matter how tall a woman grows to be, she will never be able to reach the shelf. Despite years of research, no study has been able to prove that women are the weaker sex. When placed with equal opportunities, women have performed better, if not equally well, in education and employment. However, the success and danger of folkloric behaviour lies in its in-admission of scientific truths. Any efforts to establish the same are often perceived as a threat to culture. An Assamese proverb says “puroxor ron tirir biyon”, it means the credibility of a man lies in the glory of a battlefield, while a woman’s tolerance is her greatest virtue.

It is important to recognise that stereotypes are propagated through repetition, and echoes. The north-eastern folktales, and proverbs, are echoed in several western tales, similar stereotypes are thus prevalent all over the world, with slight cultural changes. All folktales and proverbs are used by locals with intentionality and conscious knowledge of all allusions. But most importantly, we need to realise that folkloric responses are distinguishable from other classes of responses, such as those characteristic of modern science and technology. They are not based in empirical evidence, but may have even stronger roots in socialisation. Thus, the effort to eradicate stereotypes must be carried out in a sustained, systematic and sensitive manner. We shouldn’t eulogise folk traditions without a critical eye. Language is influential, it needs to be used and consumed with care.

You must be to comment.

More from Sanghamitra Aich

Similar Posts

By Ananya Bhuyan

By Madhumita Sharma

By Sagar Papneja

Wondering what to write about?

Here are some topics to get you started

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

Sign up for the Youth Ki Awaaz Prime Ministerial Brief below