Tribal Customary Practices
Tribal Customary Practices relating to Women: Issues/Status
—A Brief Introduction
The documents in these volumes are the records of research done by different Naga scholars among their own tribes. The project was initiated by the Nagaland State Commission for Women in 2010-11 and was done in a phase-wise manner. The last submission was received in July 2013. The findings are now being published in the form they were received as monographs which will highlight the unique features of individual traits in the different tribal customary practices. Such documentation has been done of all the tribes together for the first time and we hope that these would be of immense help not only to future scholars but also to the various Government Departments dealing with women’s issues in helping them to devise and implement schemes for women empowerment in the state. Incidentally, this is the pilot project of the Commission in carrying out the mandate assigned to it vide the Nagaland Women Commission Act, 2006-5 (1) (a) where it says that the Commission is ‘to study, research and codify the customary law relating to women…’
In order to throw a little light on the ground realities relating to the various documents, a brief background note is presented here. Nagaland is a state inhabited by a large number of tribes and sub-tribes, each speaking a distinctive language exclusive to the tribe and hence un-intelligible to others. As such the customs and practices also differ from tribe to tribe. But despite the linguistic isolation of the individual tribes in their habitats, there are certain important common customs among the tribes, because of which perhaps these assorted tribal groups are rightly designated as Nagas. The different researchers belong to the tribes they have worked on and have presented their findings within the frame-work of these commonalities relating to important issues regarding the status of women in Naga society. It may be mentioned here that though the main topic was provided by the Commission, the commonalities have emerged from the societal frameworks of the various tribes and further go on to indicate the cultural affinities among the Naga tribes.
The important social institutions common to all the tribes are presented here which are the main indicators of the status of women in Naga society and polity.
Customary Courts of Law:
The Nagas belong to an oral culture which they have practiced through ages till present times where every aspect of life is governed through time-honoured customs and practices. These practices have not yet been codified. Therefore in every Naga village the seat of governance is the Customary Court of Law and all the inhabitants are subject to the ruling of this body. It is this body that has preserved the customs and practices, albeit in the oral form only, which are still accepted as infallible and sacrosanct within the tribes.
Naga society is patriarchal in every sense of the word and therefore it can be understood why this factor influences the balance of justice against women in the general social setup among all the tribes. The findings have presented the common practices which exist even today under the patriarchal system of governance, both in rural and urban set-ups.
Most marriages among the different tribes are claimed to be monogamous but there have been instances of exceptions in a few tribes where men have married more than one wife. Marriage among the Nagas is exogamous; therefore only inter-clan marriage is allowed among all the tribes. Intra-clan marriage is banned and considered a crime and taboo by all. People committing this ‘crime’ are fined heavily by the customary Courts and invariably expelled from their ancestral villages.
The concept of dowry does not exist in Naga society, though in some of these documents the word is used erroneously in place of bride-price. The practice of giving bride-price in the formal sense exists among some tribes like Rengma, Konyak, Lotha, Pochury, Phom, Zeliang and in a village called Wui among the Khiamnungan tribe. The practice of giving ‘gifts’ to the bride by her father at the time of marriage in urban areas these days seems to be an innovative continuance of the earlier customary practice of giving bride-price.
Traditionally divorce was rare among some of the Nagas but in some tribes there were clear stipulations regarding the reasons for divorce, penalty on the guilty person and the question of child custody etc. The matter then would be settled in accordance with the norms laid down in the customary practices. In some of these documents, the reasons for divorce, penalties imposed and conditions for custody of children are presented in great detail.
According to the patriarchal system of society, no Naga woman can inherit ancestral property but gifting of land to daughters on their marriage was practiced by many tribes as noted in several research findings. In certain cases the woman is given a share of the ‘acquired’ property.
Though women are allowed to work outside the home as daily labourers they are not given equal wages as the men. This is true of both urban and rural situations.
Participation in Governance:
No Naga woman is ever allowed to be a member of the Village Council nor allowed to attend its meetings. Outside the home, she has no say in any matter of governance. In some of the presentations, e.g. the Aos, there are interesting facts about the way men viewed the status of women and their capabilities regarding governance in the traditional system. This situation continues in the urban areas also where till date women are not allowed to enter local bodies of governance.
One notices that the documents vary in terms of information regarding the topic, the nature of research and valuation. A few have commented on the influence of modern times as well as Christianity on the evolution of tribal polities. There is hardly any analysis in the technical sense of the word, as is to be expected in a project of this type. But all the same, it is to be appreciated that important issues relating to women’s status in an oral culture have now been documented, however rudimentary it may seem. What is important here is that now the status of Naga women has become an important issue for debate and deliberation, not only among intellectuals but among the women themselves, even in the grass-roots level. This indeed is an important step forward towards giving women their due rights in Naga society.
Certain observations are of interest here.
Some cases have been cited where Customary Laws have been superseded by Indian Laws which is termed a ‘forward trend’ and which points to the ‘possibility’ of traditional laws to ‘adapt’ to changes taking place in society. (Ao).
Some General Suggestions found in the presentations:
- Codification of customary laws as common legal framework for dealing with women’s issues in Naga society.
- Women/girls should be given due share of inheritance.
- Adequate representation of women in Village Development Boards and equal responsibility assigned to them and not induct them merely for form’s sake.
- Women should be admitted to the traditional Tribal Bodies.
- More involvement of the Church in liberalizing customary laws to allow women’s participation in all decision making institutions.
The continued subordinate status of women in Naga society can be understood as the natural corollary to the perpetuation/assimilation of customary practices for ages which has denied women many of their rights in the name of convention and traditional norms. The very fact that each tribal document carries the approval certificate of the Tribal Council/Hoho (all comprising of men only) further emphasizes the persistent dominance of the patriarchal mind-set and behaviour in Naga society. The status of Naga women therefore can be attributed to the stoic acceptance of traditional practices by both men and women which needs to be reviewed urgently. Integration of the customary practices and present circumstances is not only possible but has become a social necessity.
In summing up, one can perhaps say that the following quote from one of the researchers is the strongest indictment against the traditional practices:
Women’s basic right of determining their political status is disregarded in the customary practices. (Moarenla, Ao).
However, it has also to be mentioned here that there have been many positive changes in women’s status in Naga society today. There are Women Hohos, (Apex Body of Women’s Organizations) among all the tribes. They are important social organizations and are raising their voice about many pertinent issues relating to women and their strongest effort is focused on the increasing instances of violence against women. Some Hoho has gone to the extent of advocating a ‘Common Naga Law’ on rape. Interestingly, rape cases are rarely mentioned in the customary practices relating to women, thus indicating that these violent incidents are of recent origin in the rapidly changing social scenario.
As for the present status of Naga women, they are participating in practically all spheres of life; be it administration, teaching, medical services, entrepreneurship, social activism, armed forces like the police and have proved their competence and worth in whatever they have undertaken. In many ways, one can say that Naga women are far better off than their counterparts elsewhere in the country. But the undeniable fact remains that they occupy an institutionally secondary position to men, especially in politics.
The gradual ‘emancipation’ of women has come about because no society can remain static; and the emergence of women as a viable force to reckon with is already evident in Naga society too. Some analysis of this factor is also seen in a couple of the documents presented here. The present ‘status’ of Naga women therefore should be viewed as in a volatile evolutionary flux where the contours may vary in accordance to the tools of measurements or comparisons applied to the concept called ‘Naga woman’.