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

Posted on January 30, 2015 in Sexism And Patriarchy, Society, Specials, Taboos

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.