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The Vanishing Women

In India, any talk about women's participation in politics or local government is sure to bring out the expression 'pati panchayat.’ It refers to the situation where elected women of village councils (panchayat) act like pawns while their husbands (pati) call the shots.

The trend, however, prevails even in areas of India that still do not have the Panchayat system. Take Meghalaya’s Garo Hills for example which have the traditional system of governance such as tribal councils.

Garo Hills is home to the Garos – one of the 3 leading tribes of Meghalaya (Garo,Khasi, and Jaintia). Garo Society is governed by matrilineal laws of succession and inheritance. Inheritance and descent, therefore, pass on from one generation of women to another. Usually it’s the youngest daughter who assumes the role of a family and the clan. Known as Nokma, she manages the property of the entire clan often consisting of an entire village.

But these days, all across Garo hills, it has become a common sight where the husband of a Nokma takes all the decisions, thus turning the woman into a puppet.

Now, what is the area of a Nokma’s jurisdiction? Well, it’s pretty much like that of a Sarpanch (village council head): chair the local village council meetings, act as an authority on disputes, pass judgments in the local court, and make important decisions on development schemes and plans etc.

In more than 2/3 of the cases, it’s been observed, the real Nokma herself never does any of these things, instead her son and son-in-law act in her place.

The situation is more serious than what it appears to be. In today’s Meghalaya, a section of people are asking for abolition of the matrilineal system.

[A few years ago, I had a close friend who never tired of telling me how men (mostly from the state of Rajasthan, Punjab and Delhi) came to Meghalaya, ‘lured’ local women into marriage with the sole purpose of accessing their property. Once married, they started a business and in next few years, transferred all the profit to their home towns and eventually left the tribal wives. I knew, he wasn’t talking of imagination; that, it happened. In fact a media colleague of mine is a child of such marriage of convenience and victim of a broken family. But I still call them sporadic events.]

The steady overtaking of Nokma‘s power is a direct threat to the age old matrilineal society itself.

No wonder, the trend is being discussed, among other places, in the Meghalaya State Commission for Women too. MSCW chairperson Biloris Lyndem has asked the women 'Nokmas' to assert their position and not to allow their husbands to officiate for them as being done generally. According to Lyndem, a significant increase in the existing number of Nokmas can help deal with the power imbalance and so, she has given open calls to NGOs and women organizations to go to villages and find out the exact number of women Nokmas currently holding the seat.

However, it’s a job easier said than done.

Last year, Akhtara - a community-based activist in West Garo hills who I trained to be a local reporter, tried to make a video on a Nokma.

Akhtara found it very difficult to interview the Nokma, who was unwilling to talk. According to Akhtara, all the while, the Nokma was clueless of what was happening in the village and, after a few questions, she asked Akhtara to leave. If this is any indication, more than mere words, the Nokmas need to be made aware of their responsibilities, need training in running an office and above all, need to be made aware of the importance of acting independently.

Yes, it will be a tough task to achieve this. But increased effort can help the process. A number of events are being organized these days at the national level for women Panchayat leaders that work as solution exchange forums. Inviting Nokmas to attend such events can help to a great deal. If the problem is common, it makes sense to have a common platform to address them and find a solution collectively.



amiesissoho's picture

Engaging to reclaim

Stella, this piece of yours shows that a lot needs to be done to empower women to recognize and claim their rights, leadership right in particular. However, they can be encouraged through participation in local but also in national,regional and even international forums to realize the importance of their numbers in making a difference in women taking leadership, thus reclaiming it.


Stella Paul's picture

We have a special bond!

I was reading and replying to your post just when you were replying to mine! That shows, we have a special bond! A bond that women with the same vision and passion share. I totally agree with you. Together, we can make fellow sisters come forward and assert their positions.


Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

YAOtieno's picture

I am fan

I never cease to be taken in by your stories. You have an interesting way of making readers understand the issues facing women in India. I hope you never stop writing.



A candle looses nothing my lighting another

Stella Paul's picture

You have no idea

Dear Yaotieno

You have no idea how strong you make me feel with such lovely words! Telling stories of women itself is a difficult and thankless job when especially when these women come from difficult terrains and conflict areas, there is no taker in the mainstream media for such stories. But having come here, when I hear your kind words, I renew my vow everytime to never give up. Thanks a ton!

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

Maggs's picture

Once again a captivating

Once again a captivating piece. The story you tell sounds familiar in a slightly different way. In Zimbabwe women are always seen as less capable of leading, such that when they do get into power their success and decisions thereafter are credited to their husbands manoeuvring in the background. and when they are not married and yet in leadership positions they are written off as shallow and having sold their soul to the devil and slept their way to the top. But that's just one side of the story.

More often than not, in the name of gender equality and to meet set quotas, women are are ushered into positions of leadership. Many become figureheads, lacking the ability to meet their mandate and deliver for fellow women. There is such a disconnect between the need to boost numbers and ensuring we get proper representation from women leaders. I believe the idea of a platform for solutions is a great start. I would like to know how this turns out.


Stella Paul's picture


Dear Maggs

I am glad to share this story and to see finding a readership among women who are actively involved in honing leadership skills.Thanks so much for reading and commenting! The solution, I believe is possible, though it will need effort of more than a solitary group or a solitary event. I will surely keep on updating and learn updates from your sides too.

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

spidercalf's picture


My cousin studied in India and told me how tough it could be to handle some people. I don't only believe it to be only India but also else where. India could be one among many. keep rising!


Stella Paul's picture

She was right, you are also right

Your cousin was right. Beside being patriarchal, the Indian society in general is also very racial (a subject hardly ever touched upon). Most people with dark skin are laughed at (I am one of them) and your cousin must have faced that, eventhough in a sublime way.

But you are also right. It is never, ever confined only to India.We should never ever single out a particular nation. Women everywhere have a raw deal, if not, how can the US, the most powerful nation in the world, still isn't ready for a woman president?

So, lets not hide the wrong. But, fight it, wherever it is, in whatever form it is. And together, we can right it someday


Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

spidercalf's picture

It is true

yes i agree, it is allover. women are looked down upon.In fact my cousin said that no any black person whatsoever could speak to any Indian of the opposite sex. And getting a friend was forbidden.

Strange but could happen anywhere. It is time for women to rise up and go against the critics. we need more strength, faith, hope and perseverance.

I believe in strength of courageous women. We can do it if we try.



Hummingbird's picture

Matrilineal system

It was sad to read how some of the few matrilineal societies in the world are abiding to the laws of men. I love to read and learn about societies that live in a matrilineal system. I read once that most of the prehistoric societies were matrilineal, usually they are more powerful and less corrupted, maybe more passionate and free.

I wonder what make women let go of power threads and be weak, lack of awareness maybe?

A drop of rain can revive the earth, be the drop.


Stella Paul's picture

Yes,and more

Dear Nissan

I too am fascinated with the matrilineal system,which to me, is a great model of governance and answer to many of the world's problems. But, its in danger today, especially in India. From my experience I can say that the reasons are more than one. First, the transfer of the power is automatic (because there is a dynasty-like inheritance) and therefore, many women are not aware of their duties, responsibilities and are not trained either to hold such a post.

But sometimes, its also because women just don't understand the importance of that system. They don't know the great privilege they have,especially in today's world and what would be at stake if the system broke down.

Then there is cunning and tricks that many fall into.

I really hope the system gets restored and continues to be a model for all women seeking leadership positions.

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

Nusrat Ara's picture

There is so much to be done,

There is so much to be done, we have to keep trying and never lose faith.

Keep writing and sharing.



Stella Paul's picture

Faith is a driving force

Thanks Nusrat! Faith is what we have when all else seems vanishing. Voices raised in faith can bring many changes.

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

faridaY's picture

Women are not born they are made.

This is a very interesting article and an insight into how different cultures and communities work, and the role of women in different contexts. It is striking and disturbing to see how so often women feel they cannot excercise powers given to them, even by birthright, such as the case of the Nokmas. It brings to mind Simone de Beauvoir's quote "Women are not born they are made". I have been thinking about how true this quote of Beauvoir is and how it is reflected in my own life. Your article here shows me how true the words are and how far we still have to go in the fight for female empowerment and equity, even within our families.

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