Monday, January 30, 2012

Inequality As Dominance

In Meghalaya, a state in India, women- unlike men- cannot become tribal or village chiefs. Nor can they elect the chiefs. Unlike men, they cannot dispose of property on their own, and men are considered the head and master of the family.

Women are framed as the "mistress" of the household and are revered for their capacity to give birth.

This society, however, is also matrilineal and inheritance goes to the youngest daughter. Partly because of this inheritance structure and via the worship of a female god, boy and girl babies are said to be treated equally (unlike in some states where girl babies are seen as burdens).

So, all things considered, why does this BBC article, written by a Western man, frame Meghalaya as some sort of matriachal utopia where women utterly and completely dominate men?

First, note the headline (to be fair, possibly not written by him, but misleading nonetheless):

"Meghalaya, India: Where women rule, and men are suffragettes"

Well, not really.

Is there or has there ever been any state where men have been completely denied the right to vote for state leaders on the sole basis of their sex? Other reasons, such as race, ethnicity, or property-status, yes, but just because they're men? I'm not sure (although, feel free to chime in if anyone knows of any).

Indeed, in Meghalaya, if we take the definition of "suffragette," it is actually the women who are suffragettes rather than the men. Which is the opposite of what dude journalist says.

Thusly I began casting a skeptical eye at the rest of his narrative account of visiting this village:

"It appears that some age-old traditions have been ruffling a few feathers of late, causing the views of a small band of male suffragettes to gain in popularity, reviving some rather outspoken opinions originally started by a small group of intellectuals in the 1960s.

I am sitting across a table from Keith Pariat, President of Syngkhong-Rympei-Thymmai, Meghalaya's very own men's rights movement.

He is quick to assure me that he and his colleagues 'do not want to bring women down,' as he puts it. 'We just want to bring the men up to where the women are.'"

And so we learn that if men are not completely dominant in a society, then it means women are completely dominating them.

My point here is not to say that this men's rights movement doesn't have some legitimate concerns, but rather, it is to suggest that it's a gross oversimplification, an anxious and overzealous interpretation, to frame a matrilineal society in which women lack the right to vote and are revered mostly for baby-making capacities as a society wherein women hold all power.

Seriously, what's with that?

Let's watch the BBC journalist continue to relay his story:

"As we are talking, a praying mantis careers into our hut and slams into the side of my head.

After the laughter dies down, I take the opportunity to break the ice with Alfred by pointing out that female mantises eat their mates after sex, making a gesture with my arms mimicking the insect's claws, an action the Khasi called "takor" and one which turns out to be the gesticular equivalent of sticking two fingers up at someone. There is more laughter at my expense."

You know, when I read that anecdote, I immediately knew the article was written by a man, even before I looked at the journalist's name.

In Right-Wing Women Andrea Dworkin wrote, "In the sorrow of having children there is the recognition that one's humanity is reduced to this, and on this one's survival depends." In a Western context, in societies where women can vote, hold jobs, go to college, and (in theory, if not in fact) become heads of state, I think Dworkin's quote could just as well apply to some "men's rights activists."

This Western male journalist inserted the mantis anecdote for a reason. And, I see it as reflective of male anxiety about the possibility of living in a post-feminist society wherein men are useful only insofar as they are able to impregnate the All-Powerful Matriarchs, after which they will be discarded as useless. Perhaps that explains the need some feel to frame a society in which men are not completely dominant as a society in which men are completely dominated.


"Meghalaya: The Matrilineal Society"

"The myth of matriliny in Megahalaya"

"The matrilineal society of the Khasis"

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