Karolin Klüppel is a German photojournalist who extensively documents matrilineal and matriarchal tribes all around the world. My mother has the pleasure of belonging to one of the tribes Klüppel has photographed: the Khasis of Meghalaya. This article features some of the photos from her series on Khasi girls: Mädchenland (or ‘country of girls’ in English).
For the uninitiated, Meghalaya is a state in northeast India. The Khasis are one of the three matrilineal tribes that live there, the other two being the Garo and Jaintia tribes. Since my mother is Khasi, I'll be writing only about them. Khasis (indeed all native northeast Indians) add diversity to the already varied cultures of India. The Khasi language was only a spoken one till a Welsh missionary came and gave it the Roman script. As a result, the language sounds East Asian and reads like Welsh. People from Meghalaya (and the rest of the northeast) are often treated as outsiders due to the fact that they look east Asian. Their wholesome food from the hills is quite a contrast to the rich flavour and overbearing spice of mainland Indian food. Christianity is the major religion among the Khasis alongside the tribal religion, as opposed to Hinduism. The last point of difference is the matrilineal system that is such an integral part of Khasi society (Khasis are not a matriarchal society though; authority rests with the maternal uncle).
What does ‘matrilineal’ imply?
Simply put, people from such societies trace their descent through females. In the Khasi community, children take the surname of their mother. Bloodlines are carried forth by daughters instead of sons, and having female children is considered a boon. Husbands get to keep the surname they were given at birth i.e. their mother's maiden name. How cool is that? (For sociology geeks, Khasi surnames are actually clan names. For example, my mother was born into the Marbaniang clan. She, therefore, has the surname ‘Marbaniang’ and wouldn’t have been allowed to marry someone with the same surname. Marrying within a clan is considered to be a taboo.)
This differs from 'matriarchy' though. A matriarchal family is one where the mother is the head of the house and all decisions are made by her. Among the Khasis, the maternal uncle is the head of a family and he must be consulted on important matters.
Talking about marriage, there has never been any semblance of the dowry system among Khasis. People usually choose their own partners as opposed to having their parents choose one for them. Furthermore, when a man and a woman choose to marry, they don't usually need to seek permission; they just have to inform their families. Unlike most of the country, the husband is the one that goes to live with his wife's family. Divorce is common though and easily obtained too.
In Khasi families, the youngest daughter inherits property and is traditionally supposed to care for her parents (with great power comes great responsibility). Therefore, a family with only sons is considered unlucky.
Upon the youngest daughter's death, they turn to her youngest daughter. Other daughters are entitled to smaller shares of the inheritance of their mother. When a lady has no daughters, her inheritance goes to her sister's youngest daughter. If the sister has no daughters, then the mother's sisters and their female kin receive the inheritance. Men are prohibited from inheriting real property and all property acquired by a man before his marriage belongs to his mother. Property acquired by him after marriage belongs to his wife and children. If the man has no daughters, then his sons receive his property upon the death of their mother.
Yes, I know this isn't feminist utopia either. Every coin has two sides and the Khasi society is no different. Men often feel alienated and dehumanized here. Organizations like the Synkhong Rympei Thymmai are fighting to change from the matrilineal system to the patrilineal system. Furthermore, while women have important roles in society, instances and rates of domestic abuse with female victims are high. Due to the advent of Christianity, (now the most widespread religion in the state of Meghalaya) some of the practices mentioned here have been diluted.
All the same, it's quite a culture shock for people who have never heard of this kind of social order. It's also incredibly thought-provoking to learn about a society where social roles are nearly reversed. It will definitely take generations before true gender equality is achieved in any society but toppling existing power structures and reversing them is definitely not the answer.