Research Article on Matrilineal System in Meghalaya

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By GITISMITA DAS, MA in Women’s Studies, Gauhati University, Assam

Indian North-East has a huge heritage of diversity. People of different tribes, different communities, different languages, different cultures live together in this region. The North-Eastern part is fully landlocked. The whole area is
covered by terrain, hills, rivers. The main center of attraction of this region is to Scenic beauty, which attracts the foreigners. The matrilineal society in
Meghalaya is one of the worth of attention of this region. Different scholars,
researchers try to explore the inherent beauty of this kinship system. Their
lifestyle, culture, food, dress, norms are undergoing research even today as well.

This study in conducted on the Matrilineal system in Meghalaya. The objective of this study is to explore whether the lineage giving women towards empowering their status or not. In a state where traditional institutions function on the basis of local customs and conventions, it is questionable to whether the women are essentially empowered. However the discussion of this paper also focusing on whether women are empowered in a matrilineal society in India or not.

Key Words: Matrilineal society, Meghalaya, Women Empowerment, Limitations

About matrilineal society:

A lineage is a group of individuals who trace descent from a common ancestor. Matrilineal society, also called matriliny, group adhering to a kinship system in which ancestral descent is traced through maternal instead of paternal lines. In a matrilineal society property, such as land, is handed down from mother to daughter. Owing to this system they sometimes have a unique tradition that cannot be found in a patrilineal society (Linardy, 2015) . Different scholars defined Matrilineal society in various viewpoint. With a perspective based in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, some 19th-century scholars, such as Johann Jakob Bachofen and Lewis Henry Morgan, believed that matrilineal societiespredated patrilineal ones and represented an earlier evolutionary stage. Matrilineal societies are found in various places around the world, such as in parts of Africa, Southeast Asia, and India. Specific cultural practices differ significantly among such groups. Though there are similarities, matrilineal practices in Africa differ from those in Asia, and there are even differences in such practices within specific regions. The Asante, or Ashanti, of Ghana are one of the few matrilineal societies in West Africa in which women inherit status and property directly from their mothers. The Minangkabau of Sumatra, Indonesia, are the world’s largest matrilineal society, in which properties such as land and houses are inherited through female lineage. In Minang kabau society, the man traditionally marries into his wife’s household, and the woman inherits the ancestral home (Narayan, 2018) . Matrilineal societies in India are typified by the Khasi in Meghalaya state and by the traditional Nayar in Kerala.

Existence of Matrilineal Society in Meghalaya:

Meghalaya, a state in the northeastern part of India, is home to three tribes that practice kinship based on matriliny. Namely the Khasi, Garo and Pnar/Jaintia communities. These are the only three matrilineal tribes in the state of Meghalaya; 786 (83.17%) out of 945 ever married women were identified as belonging to any of the matrilineal tribes, of whom 380 were from Khasi, 299 from Garo, and 107 from Jaintia tribe. Of the 786 matrilineal respondents, 669 (85.1%) were found married during the study period whereas the remaining 117 (14.9%) were formerly married (Narzary & Sharma, 2013) .

Now the exact origins of how in the Meghalaya different tribes adopted a matrilineal setting in their society. The most common statement heard is that men rarely had time for child- rearing back in the olden days due to them having to fight in wars as well as to hunt to provide food for the family.With the men being gone during times of war, there was never any certainty that they would return home safe and unscathed. Due to this, men eventually ended up abandoning their rights to inheritance, after which the women had to take over the responsibility to further propagate their bloodline and clan name, as well as traditions. Something that is to be noted is that since the child’s identity is taken completely from the mother’s side, there are rarely any cases of illegitimate children, save for a few exceptions.
This means that even if a child hasn’t been conceived within matrimonial bounds, they can still lay claim to inheritance and the family name.

Within the society, people cannot marry within their Kur (clan or bloodline). That is to say that two Khasi people with the same clan name (the same last name) are not allowed to marry each other. It is often looked down on if such a situation is to happen. In older days, if such a thing were to happen, the people involved were ostracized. In Metrilinial system of Meghalaya, Women’s special status is not only within the family. They are take part with men when it comes to participating in economic activities. In the village of Kwheng, locals live off agriculture and silk weaving thanks to a cooperative run by some eight women.”In many parts of India women depend on men and their income to live,” says Rikynti Syem, a member of the cooperative. “We Khasi women are responsible for the money in the family. When the men works he has to give what he earns and the woman is in charge of the expenses.” (LECOMTE, 2020)


Even though the Khasi community is a matrilineal society, the women folk aren’t as empowered as many outsiders think they are. Women were never allowed to participate in a local governing institution (the DorbarShnong), banned by the Head Man, also known as the Rangbah Shnong. Till date, most of the grave family decisions are taken by the father who exercises a lot of control over the family.

The disparity between the number of women who are at the forefront of politics within the state versus that of men is a rather large gap that is quite likely the same in other states of India. Khasi women are rather excluded from politics. The current political system that is male-dominated certainly plays no such favours to the section of the population that are women. Back in the 2013 Assembly elections, we did see the largest representation of women in the MLA with only 8.33 percent. So although they do claim a matrilineal society free from the harsh clutches of patriarchy the truth is that the privilege of totally abstaining from such a system is something that women have yet to manage to gain total independence (Beth, 2018) .

With the entire state of Meghalaya following a matrilineal system, the one thing most people tend to misuse is the word ‘matrilineal’ and mistake it to be matriarchal in nature. In the case of the Khasi community, this, however, is not true. The husband is still the head of the family and elder men have a vital part to play in society. Thus, the men have a greater overall social power than the women. Women are still the primary caregivers in the family and are expected to raise the children, cook, clean, etc. The men are looked upon as the primary providers and also as more authoritative figures.

While the tradition still survives, anthropologists say it could soon disappear. Women who quit the region for work and marry outside the Khasi community threaten the continuation of the matrilineal system. But a more recent threat has emerged: A men’s rights group that has been trying to establish a patrilineal society. It wants to abolish a system it says is unfair in offering special privileges to women (LECOMTE, 2020) .

Gertrude Lamare, a researcher in Anthropology at the University of Sussex, who hails from Shillong, says: that matriliny is just a structural character of a community, and people often assume that it is empowering. “We call ourselves a matrilineal society but we have patriarchal norms and cultures that are accepted and not challenged,” (Bharadwaj, 2019) .

Studies relating to matrilineal culture, especially on the tribes studied, are very limited and, hence, we had to rely on relatively old studies. Despite the limitations, the present study throws some light on the pattern of an existing social phenomenon.

Matrilineal Society: Empowering or Disempowering

The two major tribes of Meghalaya, Khasis and Jaintias, are matrilineal. Children inherit the mother’s surname, daughters inherit the family property. It seems good in one sense. But in another hand Joy Grace Syiem, Programme Manager at North East Network (NEN), says custody of the child is never an issue. “I think it is because of this that we have so many cases of domestic violence.” Because despite being a matrilineal society, domestic violence is on the rise in Meghalaya leaving women often in a pitiable plight. A comparison between NHFHS (National Family Health Survey)-3 (2005-2006) and NFHS-4 (2015-2016) – shows that in terms of domestic violence — the biggest leap has taken place in Meghalaya. The percentage of women facing abuse doubled from 12.8 percent to 28.7 percent with a proportional increase in both rural and urban areas. The survey stated that in Meghalaya 16.5% of women between 20-24 years were married before the age of 18; 8.6 percent of women between 15-19 years were already mothers or pregnant at the time of the survey; 28.7% of married women have experienced domestic violence even as 57.3% of them
owned a house and/or land (Bharadwaj, 2019) . So the process on development on women instead of a Matrilineal Society is undergoing a dilemma.


In India, Nairs in Kerala practised matriliny till 1925 when it was terminated by law. In contrast, although 80% of the tribal folk in Meghalaya have converted to Christianity and the state’s neighbours practise patriarchy like the rest of India, matriliny is the norm among a majority of the tribal populace in Meghalaya. Langstieh says the matrilineal culture in Meghalaya is the only surviving system of the sort in India on this scale.

According to the National Family Health Survey 2005-06 data, 25% of Meghalaya citizenry marries inter-caste, compared with the national average of 10%. He says the tribal women of Meghalaya end up marrying immigrants from Bangladesh, for example, who may be lured the income tax exemption accorded to STs under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India. Because of the union of Khasi women with non-Khasi men, the purity of the Khasi tribe is on the path to extinction (Kothari, 2019)


The Meghalayan matrilineal system is a symbol of rich culture for Indian North-East. Where the lots of women in another parts doesn’t have their value of after marriage, their name have change, they are like living only bymen’s direction. So in that sense the matrilineal society of Meghalaya is a symbol of women representation, which has offering special privileges to
women and is incomparable.

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