By Karan Singhania:
Gender equality has long been a struggle for Indian women. The oppression of women in the past centuries is, unfortunately, a common phenomenon. From being deprived of education, facing domestic violence, being forced to give dowry- women rights in India has a long way to go. India ranks 132 out of 187 in the Global Gender Inequality Index while standing at 108 out of 144 in the Global Gender Gap Index.
It is a shame that basic rights like education and employment are still considered a privilege for women in India. However, amidst all the inequality and injustice, Adivasis have been setting an example of gender equality and women empowerment for the rest of the country. The lives of our Adivasi fellow people are hard but they have been competent enough to acknowledge the rights of women and integrate them into the society. They know that the involvement of women in various aspects of life is essential and their role is just as important as men. Here are five ways in which Adivasis teach us gender equality:
Because the Adivasis lack a business system of economy, the traditional activities are carried out by women. Among the Gaddis and Bhutias, men are shepherds and women grow crops for food. The Bastars stand out as a great example of economic involvement. In this economy, women work together alongside men for clearing jungles, planting and harvesting crops. Among communities like Munda, Oraon, Santhals and the Gonds who generally populate Jharkhand, West Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, and Chattisgarh, there is equal participation by both genders in the cultivation process. Women are exclusively responsible for transplanting and harvesting in addition to weeding, reaping, and winnowing activities.
A Karbi woman of the Assamese region earns her own income by selling fowls and other livestock. The 19th-century writings about Adivasis portray women as responsible, mature and stabilizing figures in the society. Some references to tribal women in colonial records were seen in reports where British officers hailed the women’s intelligence and capabilities. “Among the Bhils (who are primarily an ethnic group of West India), the women are generally more intelligent, and have a far greater fund of common sense, than the men.” (Barnes 1907:327; Skaria 1997)
It is unfortunate that a community with its own unique structure lost control over its functioning due to British interference and the Hindu anti-colonial movement. Verier Elwin, a scholar, wrote that Adivasi women had the right to inherit property along with other benefits. However, Christianity was imposed on them which reduced their economic involvement along with taking away of various rights. Moreover, the anti-colonial Hindu movement included Adivasis extensively but with a motive to convert them into Hindus. As a result, Adivasi women fell victim to a law imposed on their community, depriving them and their community of the right to practice their own methods to run the society.
Different Adivasi communities follow diverse practices of marriage. These practices involve exchange, capture, purchase, service, and probation.
The purchase practice of brides is not to be confused with dowry or other ill-practices. In contrast to the bride’s family paying money for marriage in the dowry system, the groom’s family pays a certain sum to the bride’s family in the purchase system. The payments can be made in cash and kind.
The service system is also a very healthy practice. In this ritual, the groom needs to do labour or provide services to the bride’s family. This ritual can be seen as one which signifies a woman as a precious being and in order to be able to marry her, one needs to prove one’s worth – not only to the woman but to her family as well.
The freedom of women varies among different communities. Some Adivasi communities allow little say to women, whereas some give their opinion the utmost importance. Among the Maria Gond tribe of Bastar, the consent of the girl is considered to be essential in marriage. There is a social practice that if a girl makes a decision about her marriage and pours turmeric powder over a man, it is considered to be a socially valid marriage. Among the Paliyans, a hill-tribe of the Palni Hills in South India, a girl is free to choose her spouse. Feel the need to adopt some Adivasi practices yet?
An extension to the economic rights, this is a highly important independent right. One may argue that the Parliament amended The Hindu Succession Act, 1956 in 2005. However, in reality, women are hardly allowed to exercise this right. The Right to Property has been highly debated and has been tampered with by the British and the anti-colonial Hindus. Despite the intervention of the British and anti-colonial Hindus, some Adivasi communities provide women with property rights.
As was the case with marital rights, different communities provide their women with varying freedom. Although men had the customary right to property and the ownership was transferred to male kins in absence of a male child, integration of household economy in the market has helped improve the situation. Women are able to create self-acquired property, in which daughters have shares. Also, daughters get an equal share of property if there are no sons in the Jamatia community.
The Dimasa, too, practice male inheritance but the property is transferred to the women if there are no sons in the family. Within the Garos, women inherit ancestral property, but it is the men who manage it. The situation regarding property rights wasn’t something to be proud of even within these communities until the Adivasis and Angamis changed things around. Self-Help Groups were formed by women and exposure to other factors helped them inform themselves of their legitimate rights.
The kind of liberty Adivasi women enjoy is worth noting. Women have always had more control than men over the sexual relationship. This was also until the British imposed their practice on them in an attempt to “civilize” them. Despite foreign intervention, a lot of Adivasi women still possess control over sexual relationships even today.
Verier Elwin also depicted the sexual egalitarianism among the Adivasis in his writing. He writes that women were the “rulers of the house”. They could change their partners and remarry. He conveys that sexual relations are a male’s duty and a woman’s right. A tribal woman has the right to demand her sexual fulfilment. For example, women of the Gond community are free to divorce their husbands in case of ill-treatment and abuse and widows are allowed to marry the deceased’s younger brother. The Gaddis practice polygamy in case the wife is unable to bear a child.
When it comes to clothing, the women of these communities enjoyed the freedom of clothing themselves as they wished. However, not wearing a blouse was shocking to the Hindu practitioners.
All in all, sexual and social rights of Adivasi women are debatable, but with reference to the crises we face today, we can certainly look up to these communities and learn from them.
Adivasi women have a history of long-fought battles and display of bravery.
The Santhal women contributed significantly to the 1855 Santhal rebellion against both the British and the zamindari system. According to reports, almost every Santhal woman was a rebel and was also imprisoned for her active involvement in the uprising. Women like Phulo and Jhano Murmu played an integral role and thousands of Santhal men and women head out to Calcutta to take part in it.
The inclusion of Adivasi women in rebellions and defence does not necessarily imply that we should force women to join the army as well. This simply shows that women are held in equal regard to men and are seen as a strong force who can fight for and defend their communities if needed.
The lives of Adivasis have some unique characteristics but the involvement of women in the mechanisms of their society is something we can all absorb into our own lives. Not all Adivasi women and communities follow gender equality and even when they do, they are not regarding the same aspects. However, the ones that do follow and exercise the true meaning of gender equality are the ones we really need to look up to. It is our failure that we do not recognize such communities as our own even when they have been here for ages. We need to acknowledge, appreciate and inculcate these values and ideals. Maybe in time, we will finally understand value in the way of life of Adivasis’ and work towards making women an integral part of our society in the true sense.