Selective gender outrage: Why have Naga women been hung out to dry by India’s feminists?
Throughout India, feminists protest against customs that demean or disempower women so why are they not more vocal about Naga women being excluded from public lifecolumns Updated: Feb 24, 2017 11:34 IST
Like many people with misconceptions, mostly silly, about the north east, when I travelled to Kohima in Nagaland recently, I went expecting Naga men to be modern and egalitarian towards women. Because north eastern women look so modern, westernised and stylish, I assumed the men (yes, I know, as assumptions go this one was asinine) would be less patriarchal too.
That expectation was shattered when tribesmen told me that a ‘woman’s place was in the kitchen’. Men go to war. They make decisions. Women can take decisions but only ‘kitchen’ ones. They cannot enter public life to participate in more important decision-making.
The Naga state assembly has never had a woman among its 60 members. With one exception in the 1970s, not a single woman has been sent to Parliament. Quite a track record.
I was visiting Kohima to cover the turmoil over tribesmen demanding that Chief Minister T. R. Zeliang withdraw his proposal to reserve 33 % of the seats in the urban civic polls for women that were scheduled for February 1.
They succeeded. Zeliang was forced to resign. In this deplorable episode, women’s groups outside the state have been remarkably quiet. No protests in Delhi, no visits to Kohima, no petitions or conniptions, no rallies demanding that Naga women should be entitled to the same rights under the Constitution as all Indian women. A Google search for a comment by activists Kavita Krishnan or Brinda Karat yielded nothing. Women and child minister Maneka Gandhi too has not made any public pronouncement on this. Women’s activists have maintained a puzzling silence.
The tribal bodies invoke the state’s special status under Article 371 (A) to defend their opposition to 33 % reservations. This allows them to conduct their affairs as they wish in order to protect their culture and identity. No law passed by Parliament that changes Naga customs can apply unless it is approved by the state assembly. This, conveniently, is 100% male.
But are women’s groups outside the state going to let this specious and self-serving argument fly? Culture is always the clarion call of men who want to keep women down.
Throughout India, feminists protest against customs that demean or disempower women so why are they not more vocal about Naga women being excluded from public life? Could it be that Naga women are regarded as somehow different, as belonging to a community which must be allowed to follow its own path and where women must consequently be left to the mercies of the men who rule them?
Last year, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the demand by the Naga Mothers Association to have the 33% reservations policy introduced.
Even at the village level, women are kept out of the tribal councils. A tribesman told me: ‘We let women air their opinion sometimes but only when invited’. His friend offered another justification for keeping women out of elections. ‘We are not like north India. We don’t practise dowry or female foeticide. We value girls equally with boys. Our women are already equal. They don’t need affirmative action’.
Even if we were to concede that Naga traditions are kind to women, culture is not static and fixed for all time. Culture evolves and if Naga women now want to stand for election and play a role in public bodies, they have every right to do so.
They are already banned from owning land. Without resources and without political power, they are helpless.
Yet women’s rights activists outside the state are not outraged, much as they were not outraged over Kashmiri fundamentalists and separatists vilifying and threatening the young Zaira Wasim for acting in Dangal and meeting Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti. Thanks to selective outrage, Naga women have been hung out to dry.
Amrit Dhillon is a freelance journalist