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When Matriarchal Societies Like Kerala Show Us The Way

Posted: June 9, 2019

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No home for girls ..she’s a visitor at her parents homes after marriage..maika or sasural..she never has a home of her own.” I came across this message on various social media groups and Was surprised when women ‘liked’ and ‘shared’ it.

It speaks volumes of women trapped in patriarchal structures, expected to conform to traditions and customs simply because of their gender – change of names, surnames, gotra, adherence to customs, rituals, traditions, taking up responsibility of in-laws in their marital homes while giving up on their parental homes and so on. Most of these practices are heavily loaded in favour of men in the society.

A ‘bidai’ ceremony at the wedding for instance, signifies the transition from parental to marital homes involving not just shift of  ‘home’, but also pose an existential crisis of  her rights and privileges vis a vis her natal home. Did it somewhere signify the final severing of her umbilical cord, denying any further right to property or wealth of her parent’s home? We don’t really know how and why these customs hold tremendous power on social psyche or even have relevance today.  But for women to be cut off from parental families physically, emotionally and psychologically for a lifetime can really crush her spirit.

Consider now a small minority of society that practices the matriarchal, matrilineal or matrilocal family system in India which is nothing but patriarchy. Most Indians aren’t aware of matriarchal society that exists among the Khasis and Garos of Meghalaya, Bunt-Nadava from Karnataka and large sections of Kerala- the royal families, Nairs, Ambilavasis, Warriers and many others who follow them.  

In matrilineal family system, the lineage or bloodline flows from the daughters, so birth of a daughter is a much celebrated event as she is the heir (santanakutty) to the family like sons in patriarchy.  The girls lived with her parents even after their marriage, the children born to her were raised in her natal family.  The spouses either visited her or ‘moved into’ her family, which is termed matrilocal. But, women weren’t expected to ‘move out’ of their own families or relocate into marital homes.

Certain parts of Kerala where women were a dominant force, they ruled the ‘tharavad’ or family clan with authority and controlled property and wealth giving rise to term ‘matriarch’, who was usually the eldest daughter of the family or next in line.  

Where women weren’t as strong or powerful, the eldest son discharged the duties as ‘karnavar or head of family taking care of land and property, however all rights vested with women who continued to stay in natal homes, married or otherwise. So maternal uncles became head of the house, and though married he never brought over his wife, as she inevitably stayed with her family.

While there are many myths and beliefs surrounding the origin of the matriarchal society which continue to fascinate us and has been a debatable issue for several western anthropologists who were not only sceptical  but also frowned upon of such a culture, as these studies were undertaken in the Victorian era of social order. Therefore it would be worthwhile to understand it how impactful it has been to women when contextualized with patriarchal societies.

    • Women in matriarchal  communities are not expected to move into the marital homes.  They owe no allegiance or obligation towards their husband’s family since they didn’t stay with them.  In fact, they never observe any mourning rites towards their marital families which is so important to patriarchal cultures.  All customs, rituals, traditions practised are solely on the maternal side i.e. patriarchy in reversal.
    • Women and children took on surnames of the maternal families.  However, with changing times, patriarchy prevailing pan India and to avoid confusion of explanation in legal and documentation matters, women added their husband’s name, but in no way do they take on their husband’s clan name like in patriarchy for eg. a girl from ‘X’ family married to a boy from ‘Y’ family, she does not take on his surname ‘Y’ but continues to retain her own X.
    • The best part is when women don’t experience displacement of  homes. It offers them  the much needed emotional stability,  strength and support which a woman can only hope to get from her own bloodline. She does not have to move to an alien home, struggle to forge relationships, make adjustments for a lifetime and yet not be assured of anything in return.
    • We know how traumatic it can be to live a lifetime with strangers facing harassment and discrimination.  Several women face mental and physical trauma trying to cope with the constant pressure of living in marital homes unable to return to parental home fearing stigma.
    • Though the state of Kerala has officially banned the matrilineal/matrilocal family structure through the Joint Family System (Abolition) Act, 1975 by Kerala state legislature,  it lives on through its vast majority of people. However when the rising influence of other patriarchal cultures, English education and Christian missionaries took on, the old social order slowly broke down and women moved in with husbands creating nuclear families by 1950s like her counterparts in patriarchal society.
    • Modernisation, education and better job opportunities have made women move away from parental homes and set up their families but, even today daughters are expected to return at some point of time to take over responsibility of their parents like the sons in patriarchal society, so responsibility of parents are a daughter’s.

Today, Indian women in a better position to set terms and conditions for marriages with education and financial  empowerment and number of women in patriarchal societies have moved towards their own parents for support in raising families. Also, parents have discovered the joys to being closer to their daughters, unlike olden times when she was castaway as ‘paraya dhan’.  So, daughters can become a source of strength and power for parents, we don’t need the courts to tell us that, when we appreciate the advantages of matriarchal families for being an enabler for better choices.

PS :  It’s not about a choice of ‘maika’ or ‘sasural’ or if women ever have a home, but to  acknowledge that every woman has her first home with her parents and no one need tell her that…

A version of this was first published here.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

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