The myth of the empowered Naga woman. Why Naga women are demanding a chair at the tribal Assembly?

#GenderAnd Culture Only Naga males became martyrs. Women were always victims.

Updated: December 23, 2017 11:16:31 am

Nagaland is the only state in India where there has been a sustained opposition to the 33 per cent reservation for women’s participation in public office. And the dramatic events of the last winter have raised serious concerns and led to debates about gender justice in Naga society. Nagaland, in Northeast India, with a population of 1.9 million, has managed its own civil and legal affairs since its inception as a federal unit within the Republic of India in 1963. Customary courts and traditional tribal organizations have functioned as the administrative and moral authorities in the state. Although there is a Legislative Assembly where members are elected through the Indian electoral system every five years, the traditional courts and organizations enjoy a degree of influence that is unprecedented and barring a few other states of Northeast India, cannot be found in other parts of the country. A provision within the Constitution of India, known as Article 371 (A) guarantees protection of Naga culture and customs, land ownership, including preservation of local, social and religious practices.

These functions have given immense power to the male tribal councils and associations in Nagaland. However, their power and authority needs to be understood against the backdrop of the Indo-Naga conflict, an armed struggle that had started in the 1950s to demand a Naga homeland.

Centrepiece: Ayangbe Mannen’s portrait of a Naga woman

The Gender, Culture and Customary law debate in Nagaland

Like many nationalist societies around the world, the issue of gender justice and rights in the context of women’s work has remained marginal for a long time in Naga society.

But this iteration of Naga culture as pure and unique has come to be contested in the ongoing debate about women’s rights. Advocates of 33 per cent reservation have argued against the notion of a static and masculine Naga culture. They have argued that customary laws and practices that continue to exclude women from positions of power cannot be upheld as instruments and institutions of justice. This issue about justice and equality lies at the heart of the gender debate in Nagaland. The irony of the ongoing debate around gender justice and women’s work is that even though the male-dominated tribal bodies exclude women’s participation, Naga women hold important positions in almost every other field, as administrators, doctors, engineers, academics, and successful entrepreneurs, to name a few. It is significant that none of these positions or professions is within the ambit of Naga cultural and traditional institutions. Therefore, the processes of negotiating for women’s rights in Naga society are often regarded as a demand outside the traditional customary set-up. It is by this logic that Naga women’s assertions for gender justice have been tagged as an “anti-Naga” move by some of the activists during the agitation. The “anti-Naga” slur used during the 33 per cent reservation agitation can be seen as a tactic to shut down dialogue and debates about gender justice. This reiterates the practice of restricting women’s access and participation as decision makers in the apex tribal bodies and customary institutions. Here, traditional bodies that argued that supporting the 33 per cent reservation for women was an “anti-Naga” position defined the existing practice of tribal male bodies as an inherent part of Naga culture. These debates exposed the contradictions that exist in Naga society about gender equality and work culture. For example, Naga women and their labour are glorified as intrinsic qualities of Naga society as long as they are traders, officers, waiters, or choose to pursue any career that generates an income for the family. Their work ethics represent Naga values and culture. Naga women can toil and labour, yet they are denied the authority and power to become decision makers as equal members in the traditional assemblies and customary courts. In this context, any assertion to participate as decision makers in the traditional institutions is immediately seen as an opposition to Naga culture.

The visibility and invisibility of naga women 

Reflecting on the acrimonious situation in Nagaland, Sanjay Hazarika, a political commentator noted, “Prominent Nagas say that women’s groups have failed to understand the larger issues, although one influential tribal group has acknowledged that men have not accepted women as equal partners. A case in point is the fact that customs lay down that Naga women do not inherit ancestral property”.

From comments like these, we can assume that irrespective of the visibility of Naga women as successful professionals, they continue to be excluded from all traditional decision making bodies on the assumption that men and women are not equal in society. These positions of the Naga male bodies and traditional councils reveal a deep nexus of patriarchy, culture, and law. It is a case in point that well into the 21st century, neither the Nagaland state assembly nor apex tribal councils have ever elected a woman as a member with the exception of Ms. Rano Shaiza.

The politics of Naga feminism: So how did things come to this point?

Where and how do we begin crystallizing the everyday experiences and journeys through a period of militarization and violence of the last one hundred years or so, starting from World War 1 till today? The years of the British colonial administration (especially the periods of the WW I and WW II) and the postcolonial administrative period in India (after 1997), as well as the experiences of war and violence in this region have intimately shaped the social, political, and gender relations today. The voices of Naga women demanding justice and equality emerge from experiences of hunger, hardship, and humiliation. As in many armed conflict situations, granaries and paddy fields were burnt down as part of the Indian counter-insurgency operations leading to starvation and hunger across the Naga villages in the 1950s and 60s. The overwhelming responsibility of the women-headed households in Naga society has seldom been acknowledged in the political and public sphere. Instead, women continue to have no representative rights or visibility in the Naga traditional councils and customary assemblies. Naga women face the danger of being subsumed within an exotic cultural trope as non-speaking subjects, passive development programme participants, tea serving smiling figures waiting to be integrated into mainstream projects to become good Indian citizens.

Perhaps the gendered political distinctions that emerged over the decade were so deep that even movements that fought for freedom and independence deviated from a collective understanding of history. This was present in the Naga national history. Only Naga males became martyrs. Women were always victims. How can we talk about equality as a foundational pillar when justice, equality and freedom in Naga society have remained the prerogative of the few? Can a society be called democratic when a minority have defined such a heroic and masculine militarized past? Today the Naga poor, which includes orphans, widows, the unemployed youth, old people, and a large section of the disenfranchised public, cannot take part in this debate. These are inherent contradictions. These are flaws that cannot be integrated into the vision of a just Naga society by simply including women who have been excluded. Here, it is important to acknowledge the feminist ideology of what it means to embrace gender equality and justice. Feminist philosopher Angela Davis wisely cautions us that the Black power movements were dominated by male leaders although a substantial number of women were involved as organizers. At the same time, she notes that we cannot imagine incorporating women into a misogynist society and dream of justice and equality. In the Naga context, like any other society around the world, it calls for the transformation of society from patriarchy, economic injustice, racism, homophobia, and gender violence.

If the Naga movement for the right to self-determination, or the civil and political rights movement, or the solidarity alliances have meant anything at all, it is, quite simply, the quest for justice. We must take into account the solidarities of the past few decades, the work done by organizations such as the Naga People’s Movement for Human Rights, the Naga Women’s Union of Manipur, the Naga Mothers’ Association, the Naga Students’ Federation or the solidarity alliances like the North East Human Rights Coordination Committee, Northeast People’s Alliance on Trade, Finance, and Development, the North East People’s Alliance, to name a few.

Of course, justice is not a goal that can be achieved by simply implementing 33 per cent reservation for Naga women alone. It is not a thing to be coveted and possessed alone by individuals – be it Naga men or Naga women. The Naga feminist dream of justice is based on a collective consciousness of a world where male, female and queer will march together and build a just society together. During the agitation against the reservations, instead of engaging with these voices and the particular history of gender violence and injustice in which they are located, there were continuous attempts to discredit them. During a public protest, a Naga male leader said,

The only women demanding change are spinsters and divorced women, other women accept our system in which decision making is done by men. Women can only take kitchen decisions. We take the big ones.

Should Naga women seek permission from the male members to speak about gender justice? The schizophrenic image of the Naga woman remains a fictitious figure that is nurturing, courageous, sacrificing, moral, hardworking, and docile, carrying baskets on her head, feeding the family, or perpetually serving tea and cooking in the kitchen. They would never be fit as political subjects to enter the tribal councils and customary courts. Naga men adorn their proud bodies with colorful shawls, jackets covered in beads, and neckties with tribal motifs whenever they assemble in hundreds of tribal councils across the hills of Nagaland. These fabric and designs are created by women: the yarn spun around the weaving loom, the designs created with the skill and precision of years of work, and the tassels of the shawls rolled by coarse hands that works the fields and chop the cattle fodder at daybreak. Naga women remain a token representative ornament in a photo session after public meetings and are not seen as fit to occupy a chair next to male leaders in the tribal assembly.

Excerpted from ‘Centrepiece: New Writing and Art from Northeast India’ (2017) Excerpted by permission of Zubaan.

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