By Ngurang Reena and Pradipta Brahma:
“He’d draw out his police (sic) baton and beat me like a prisoner. I was also made to do sit-ups as a form of punishment so that I wouldn’t ask for his whereabouts again. The worst part was when I was compelled by my own husband to share the bed with his friends and have their way with me. My love for him had already turned into hatred, but after that I felt nothing but contempt for him. I left him for good.”
This is the story of one Ms. Nabam* who had been married off as a minor and is now legally separated from her abusive husband. While domestic violence is an episode that infests almost every society and is often swept under the rug, here in Arunachal Pradesh, it is an accepted form of admonishment allowed to the men – admonishment being an understatement. Not that these instances here or perhaps anywhere in the country or the rest of the world is acceptable, but here it is justified as an entitlement that many men think they have a claim to.
Strategically located in the utmost northeastern part of the country, is a land where mountains meet the clouds, where you’ll be met with wide smiles of the good-hearted people of yet more pristine valleys.
If you have heard of the Ziro Festival of Music that has steadily gained attention and considerable reception across the country, you would know that this festival is held in the majestic valley of Ziro in Arunachal Pradesh – a state that is nestled high up between hills and is lush with perennial greens, gurgling streams and abundant sunlight. This is a place called the Land of Rising Sun, the land of Arunachal Pradesh. Even so, one wonders if the sun really has risen in Arunachal yet – and especially for their women.
Violence against women has been pervasive in this country in many forms like moral policing, rape, bride-burning, dowry related violence; even murder. Incidents of violence against women could be found strewn over our newspapers every single day – be it in some corner of a daily that one picks up or in case of an outrage like the Nirbhaya case, on the front page.
What is further infuriating is how inconsequential these reports seem. People have been so desensitised with everyday stories of such outrage that it has become as staple as rice or chapatti, that we seem to brush past the news with an appalling indifference punctuated perhaps only with a tut here or a sigh there. If this is the state of affairs in the capital, then for people living so removed from New Delhi, it’s a distant dream to be heard or be given even an inch of space in the dailies. Arunachal isn’t bereft of social indignities against its women. One can say it has its own special concoction of bitter medicine that is forced down the throats of many here, bulk of which is silence, utter indifference and ignorant acceptance.
When people from most parts of India look eastward toward the northeast, they mainly perceive the people here to be ‘terribly westernised’, to some extent liberated and extremely fashion-conscious. It’s a common phenomenon to have the whole of northeast India be seen as a common unit rather than separate distinct entities. A common misconception being that matriarchy is widely prevalent in this part of the country, when actually it is limited only to a community in Meghalaya and even then it is not matriarchy but a matrilineal society. Behind that dense curtain of bamboo, patriarchy is still commonplace and widely rampant here as in any other part of the country. It will fill one up with extreme indignation and fury at the kind of injustice and atrocities that are meted out to women, especially, here in Arunachal.
Mrs. Basar*, a 30-year-old woman, who is now happily remarried had once been traded as a child by her parents for a mere sum of ten ‘mithuns’. ‘Mithuns’ are semi-domesticated bovines (like bulls) that are considered extremely valuable in almost every Arunachali customs and occasions. Trading mithuns for brides has been intrinsically embedded in the ways of the Arunachali. Because of this practise of bride-pricing, many women like Mrs. Basar* are traded away, some even when pre- pubescent. This commodification of girls – as young as two or three-years-old – has gone on in Arunachal for as long as one can remember.
“When my husband married another woman, he’d beat me up badly and threatened me a lot. I was tortured physically and mentally,” says Ms. Yayum*. “He abandoned our children, and he didn’t even provide for the children’s school fees. He was only concerned and obsessed with his ‘new’ wife. I remember, when we were severely ill and needed help, he was never there. He never came back home for us,” she continues without pausing for a breath.
Polygamy being a classic case of male privilege and entitlement is a notorious and obnoxious consequence of patriarchy. These systemic privileges provide men with the license to support and practise the ubiquitous and unmitigated exploitation of women.
Mrs. Yakar* recounts her tryst with polygamy, as she sighs and speaks with utter resignation. She explains how the culture of marrying more than one wife was never really a ‘prescribed norm’ or a tradition as such. Like in most societies, here too, men with more wealth (signified however by the number of mithuns in possession) and status, always had it their way. They started buying (bride-pricing) more women to serve them and their intents; more wives – more hands to cook and feed him, more women to satisfy his carnal desires, more people to look after his sprawling fields.
It was also a way to exert their influence and hence extend their clan, their tribe; wherein they would marry women from across villages and extend their family’s influence. This was also convenient since the tribes would more often than not, be in conflict with each other. The idea to consolidate power within the society especially with the alliance of the family members (mostly brothers) of his various wives, garnered more popularity. He’d have his wolf-pack without even trying too hard. This marrying of many wives was in a way more strategic than given credit to. It was considered smart to do this and these men were often appreciated and lauded for their valour and calculation.
Mrs. Yakar did however make a very poignant observation towards the end. She mentions how the culture of polygamy was and is still prevailing with much gusto. The only thing, however, that did change was the agency of the trade. It was mithun then and is money and power now. Even when most women do cry foul; some, of their own gender, propagate the very practice that has set many houses on fire. The prospect of easy money and a comfortable life tempts some to encourage that which many others are fighting against. Hence, like the Ouroboros eating its own tail, polygamy has become an eternal recurrence.
On being asked, what women empowerment is, Mr. Degi, an associate professor of education at Rajiv Gandhi University responded, “Where is women empowerment? Where is education for women? It is only recently that we have seen girls coming out to enrol in colleges.” Besides this, there is a serious concern over the ‘right to proprietorship’, on which many women rights activists have spoken widely along with the other unveiled issues. Women are still considered a secondary gender in Arunachal and are often perceived as the shadows of their husbands, which calls for an immediate intervention.
“The status of women in Arunachal Pradesh is visibly on a high roll, low in fray. Electoral politics is still a far cry for women in Arunachal Pradesh,” says Jumyir Basar, an assistant professor at Arunachal Institute of Tribal Studies under the Rajiv Gandhi University. The 2014 elections witnessed women voters marginally outnumbering the men. However, when it comes to representing the constituency, only a handful of these women jump into the fray – filling only two seats in a 60-seat legislature.
The state, has 3,77,272 female voters against the 3,75,898 male population inhabiting the state. It is disheartening to witness the low mark of political participation of women. An assessment of women’s political status could be made through studying the role of women in rural politics, through the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act, which acts as a milestone in the endeavour.
According to Nirupam Bajpai, the director, Columbia Global Centre, South Asia, “Not only is the political participation of women in the northeastern states very low, it is actually an all-India phenomenon. Across political parties, the total number of women candidates account for less than 10 percent of all those contesting the 2014 parliamentary elections.”
The educational sector of the state is another essential area of concern. As per the 2011 Census, the literacy rate in Arunachal Pradesh is 66.95 percent, with male literacy at 73.69 percent while the female literacy is 59.57 percent only. Education is a privilege enjoyed mostly by men here, with women looked at as a liability until she is ‘sold off’ in return of a hefty price which would generally be a good number of mithuns. In this regard, getting a female educated is considered a ‘wastage’. Historically, a variety of factors have been found to be responsible for poor female literacy rate, primary of which are: gender-based inequality, social discrimination and economic exploitation, occupation of girl child in domestic chores, low enrolment of girls in schools, low retention rate and high dropout rate.
The Adult Education Department in the state is running a large number of adult education centres to provide education for older members of the society. Various schemes are also sponsored by the central government through the District Adult Education Officers and schemes such as anganwadi on a pre-primary level have been established in the state for the easy schooling of the children. Many anganwadi centres are functioning in the districts under the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) as well. However, a lot of work needs to be done, in the said discourse of women empowerment. One anticipates encouragement and support from all, especially from the men in the society, towards providing a space for women empowerment and upliftment.
On November 26, 2016, a number of women – the survivors of the social vices that our society allows – are coming together on a platform to give voice to their stories. They are doing this with an attempt to create a rupture in a society so complacent and visibly nonchalant towards issues like the ones that plague lives of so many more. My sister, Ngurang Meena, and I are leading this endeavour because our family too has also been torn apart by the very polygamy that we now fight against.
Just as the saying, “Charity begins at home” we envisage to do our bit through that event, to speak out against many of the issues plaguing the Arunachali society. Very few support us publicly and very many have condemned and accused us of attempting to tear the social fabric and trying to break family customs. However, along with these survivors, we too are attempting to break these vicious customs and practices that have brought forth tears and misery to the eyes of many mothers like ours; and have broken their hearts so early on in life.
Few are as fortunate as Mrs. Hage Tado Naniya, 59, whose husband is very supportive of her and makes sure that she is in equal footing with him throughout. Having been married off as a three-year-old toddler, she stands steadfast with others in their fight against these evil practices that have for years silently stripped women of Arunachal of their dignity. A yoga teacher herself, she stands for education and has even said that had she had a chance to be educated she’d have wanted to be a lawyer.
Although things do seem very grim and bleak in Arunachal, there are people like Mrs. A.T. who, despite being arranged to be married quite early, have been actively contributing to encourage and uplift women across different tribes. A government employee and an entrepreneur, she finds time to provide vocational training like sewing and handicraft training, etc., on the regular.
We all know that the sati system, much like these practices in Arunachal, had once been very prevalent in the Indian society. But just because something has been normalised and occurs frequently in a society doesn’t necessarily mean that it is right.