A member of Syngkhong Rympei Thymmai, a men's rights organisation, distributes leaflets promoting the organisation in Shillong. Roberto Schmidt / AFP
A member of Syngkhong Rympei Thymmai, a men's rights organisation, distributes leaflets promoting the organisation in Shillong. Roberto Schmidt / AFP

Meghalaya, the Indian state where women wear the trousers

SHILLONG // A remote north-east state is home to an ancient tribe whose high regard for women makes it a striking anomaly in a male-dominated country.

But as the world marked International Women's Day on Friday, the region has become a staging ground for an unlikely battle in which men are trying to end a matrilineal tradition practised by more than a million people.

The Khasi tribe in the picturesque state of Meghalaya places women at the centre of its society, from the cradle to the grave.

"Go to any hospital and stand outside the maternity wards and listen," said Keith Pariat, a men's rights activist. "If families have a boy, you will hear things like, 'oh OK, he'll do'. But if it's a girl then there is joy and applause."

Mr Pariat is the chairman of Syngkhong Rympei Thymmai (SRT), a group fighting to eradicate a tradition with tremendous staying power.

According to Khasi tradition, the youngest daughter inherits all ancestral property, men are expected to move into their wives' homes after marriage and children must take their mother's family name.

And, in a ruling that helps explain the grand welcome for female babies, all parents with ancestral property but no daughters are required to adopt a girl before they die, since they cannot leave the inheritance to their sons.

The matrilineal system has endured for thousands of years here, but now activists such as Mr Pariat are determined to overthrow it.

"When a man has to live in his mother-in-law's house, it tends to make him a little quiet," Mr Pariat said. "You are just a breeding bull. No one is interested in hearing your views about anything, you have no say in any decision whatsoever."

The 60-year-old businessman believes that the matrilineal system has been "totally detrimental" to Khasi men. "It puts no responsibility on their shoulders so they tend to take life easy and they go into drugs and alcohol and that cuts their life short," he said.

A men's rights movement emerged in the early 1960s but petered out after hundreds of Khasi women turned up at one of their meetings, armed with knives.

SRT, founded in 1990, faces an uphill battle to overturn Khasi tradition, since India's constitution guarantees the tribal councils' right to set their own customary laws.

The clash between clan rules and Indian law is a familiar one, with the judiciary often expected to step in when gender rights are at stake.

In the past, however, such conflicts have focused on expanding women's rights, whether in matters of inheritance, dowry or alimony in the case of Hindu and Muslim families.

Men's rights have never been the subject of debate. In Shillong, the capital, most women dismiss the suggestion that their society is biased.

Although Khasi women are empowered to make their own decisions over marriage, money and other matters, political participation remains low, with women accounting for only four out of 60 state legislators.

"The reason the property is left to the youngest daughter is because she has the responsibility to look after the parents until they die," said Patricia Mukhim, editor of The Shillong Times. "Parents feel like they can always depend on their girls."

In a country where mothers often face huge pressure to give birth to sons, leading to a surge in selective abortions, Meghalaya has consistently boasted a healthy sex ratio.

The state's sex ratio stands at about 1,035 females for every 1,050 men, higher than the global norm of 1,000 women for every 1,050 men.

Misogyny remains widespread in many parts of India, where sex assaults are often dismissed as "Eve-teasing" and victims can be blamed for attacks.

The gang rape and murder of a female student in December on a bus in New Delhi fuelled angry nationwide demonstrations.

Pesundra Reslinkhoy, 25, a nursery teacher in Shillong, said she appreciated the matrilineal system all the more after the Delhi attack.

"I think it is a good tradition for Khasi, that all the power will stay with women because it will keep us from many evil things," she said.

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