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March of the Naga women

Despite a high female literacy rate and an active women's rights movement, the struggle for political empowerment in Nagaland is only just beginning

Members of Naga Mother’s Association in Dimapur. Photographs: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
Members of Naga Mother’s Association in Dimapur. Photographs: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

In 2005, when Tokheli Kikon contested the village council election, she was the only woman candidate against three male candidates in the Naharbari village of Nagaland’s Dimapur district. She got 13 of the 21 votes, and became the state’s first woman village council chairperson. Twelve years later, she continues to be the only woman village council head in Nagaland.

“Men kept discouraging me from contesting.... They said, ‘How will you negotiate in a system that runs on muscle and money power? How will you, being a woman, go to jails, to army camps, to underground factions?’ They keep forgetting, or maybe deliberately ignore, that I did it all even before I was elected," says Kikon, 58, who is into her third term.

Tokheli Kikon, Nagaland’s first and only woman village council chairperson.

In her initial years as an administrator, people kept reminding Kikon of her gender. For instance, when, a few months after taking over, she started a campaign to protect a historical pond in her village, angering those who were trying to encroach the land around it, men attacked her; some even tried to pull out her mekhela (a traditional wraparound skirt). All this because women members are still a rarity in village councils, and among some tribes, they are not even allowed to sit through a decision-making meeting. Since 1963, when Nagaland attained statehood, it has not elected a single woman to the assembly. The late Rano M. Shaiza is still the only woman to ever be elected to the Lok Sabha (in 1977) from the state.

Men kept discouraging me from contesting.... They said, ‘How will you negotiate in a system that runs on muscle and money power? How will you, being a woman, go to jails, to army camps, to underground factions?- Tokheli Kikon

How deep the gender crisis in the state is, became evident when in January-February, large-scale protests were held to oppose women’s demand for 33% reservation in urban local body elections. Two people died, several government offices were set on fire, and the chief minister had to step down. The all-male apex tribal body, Naga Hoho, said it wouldn’t give up its customary laws, and eventually, in late January, the Naga Mothers’ Association (NMA), an apex women’s body that was at the forefront of this battle in court, decided to withdraw its petition.

“Women from different tribes, who were part of the NMA, started receiving threats asking them to either dissociate from the joint action committee on women’s reservation (a conglomeration of several women’s rights organizations, including the NMA and Watsu Mungdang), or else stop being the citizens of their tribes. These are all married women, living in a society like ours where family and tribe play such an important role. Some of them had to go underground. With all this in mind, and the assurance from the government that it will hold elections, we decided to dissolve the JACWR (Joint Action Committee for Women Reservation) and withdraw the petition," says Rosemary Dzuvichu, lecturer at Nagaland University, and chief adviser of the NMA.

The state’s gender story is no different from that of the other North-Eastern states where traditional governance models are followed, but as N. Vijaylakshmi Brara, associate professor at the Centre for Manipur Studies, Manipur University, says, “There is discontent among women even in matrilineal states like Meghalaya, but it hasn’t reached the level it has in the case of Nagaland where educated women have started asking for their rights within democracy."

Depending on whom you ask, there are different versions on why both men and women were out on the streets. Locals say the violence in Dimapur and Kohima, among other districts, was not just about Nagaland not being prepared for gender equality in politics. It was a cocktail of simmering anger stoked by slow development, a feeling of alienation, and the belief that attempts are being made by the Centre to infringe upon the state’s special status under Article 371(A) of the Constitution. Most of those who formed the official opposition said reservation would tamper with Article 371(A), and would mean that people would be forced to pay tax even for their livestock—this didn’t go down well with anyone. Under the Article, the Union government cannot intervene on matters related to Naga religion or social practices, customary law, ownership and transfer of land and the state’s resources, without the concurrence of the state legislative assembly.

“Our only fear was that Article 371(A) and women’s reservation contradict each other. Everyone was interpreting it in their own way. We need to educate the common masses because, as Nagas, our identity is dear to us, and we don’t think a law that is applicable in, say, the north or south can be used here, in our context," says P. Chuba Ozukum, president, Naga Hoho. “Times have changed, but politics is still about money and muscle power. Under this corrupt system, no refined woman would be able to participate. Women here are free, independent, so if they are good enough in politics, they should also find their way like the other women politicians in India have. Why reservation?"

The period of unrest brought in political and social crisis, but what it also did was, as activists say, “burst the bubble of an empowered Naga woman", bringing to the fore the gender battles that were being fought by several women’s rights groups within the state.

“When you look at it from a distance, the status of Naga women is good, but a closer view shows that it is far from good. Right from the grass-roots level to the highest decision-making bodies, where are the women? First, as a woman, second, as a government servant, I wish I could say everything is in place for women. But I can’t because there is no rosy picture to present," says Daisy Mezhur, mission director of the State Resource Centre for Women, Nagaland.

Gender can wait

For the greater part of the state’s early history, women’s rights organizations were not vocal, or as aware of discrimination as they are now—mostly because they started as branches of churches, with general social reform as their main mandate. For example, this was the first time that the NMA, a 33-year-old organization, took up the issue of women’s rights on such a scale. Initially, the organization concentrated on issues such as alcohol and drug abuse, which were big problems in Naga society till the 1980s. They then initiated campaigns for peace. In fact, it was the mothers, as they call themselves, who intervened on several occasions between the Armed Forces and the militants, or even the different factions.

“We shifted from social issues to peace politics, from motherhood politics to exploring the issues of political discrimination of women, and the need for emancipation. And for all our fights against social issues and for peace politics, men were always on our side, fighting along with us," says Abieu Meru, president, NMA. But when it came to women’s rights, support started dwindling.

The reservation for women in town councils, as enacted by the Nagaland Municipal (First Amendment) Act, 2006, was actually a watershed moment for the gender rights movement in the state. The NMA only decided to step in that year. But as Dzuvichu says: “Naga women started articulating their rights so late because of militarization, because of the conflict. Women didn’t have time to think about themselves. It was only after the ceasefire was signed, when there was a semblance of peace, that women looked at their reproductive health rights, then social rights, and women’s roles in decision-making bodies, village judiciary, and the village council." Dzuvichu has several public interest litigations (PILs) pending in courts on issues such as reproductive health and maternity deaths.

Women running small businesses is a common sight in Kohima.

Tribal identity

Understanding gender in Naga culture needs an understanding of social stratifications, tribal loyalties, and women’s roles. For it’s not as if women can’t be seen on the streets—as vendors, or running small businesses. They can wear what they want, without inviting judgement. They are educated, and can generally decide whom to marry. But they are not encouraged to participate in politics, take part in battles or hunt, and there are some religious functions, such as the Sekrenyi festival, where, as the NMA’s Angela Yhome points out, women are excluded from some rituals because they are not considered pure enough. A Naga woman is not entitled to inherit her clan’s ancestral or landed properties, and this is true for all tribes. She may construct a house or buy some land, but, on her marriage, it will belong to her parents or brothers. Once a married couple decides to separate or divorce, the children and property belong to the husband. A woman does not have any rights over her biological children or her property.

While they all identify with the exonym Naga outside the state, within it their tribal identity is dominant.

Verrier Elwin, in his book Nagaland (1961), writes: “The basic interest of every Naga is his family, the clan, the Khel, the village. This is what he regards as his culture, which must not be interfered with. He is passionately attached to his land, his system of land tenure, the arrangements for the government of his village, the organization of cultivation, the administration of tribal justice through the village and tribal courts."

Some customary laws, like those among the Konyak tribe nudging a rapist and the survivor to reach a consensus on marriage, aren’t as commonly followed. Others, regarding inheritance and marriage, hold good even among the educated class. Nagaland has 16 tribes and the amount of freedom a woman gets depends on how liberal her tribe is. For instance, according to last year’s “Enquiry Into The Status Of Women In Nagaland", a 192-page report brought out by the Nagaland chapter of the well-known grass-roots organization North East Network, an Ao Naga woman can’t become a member of the Putu Menden, the traditional village council. In the Chakhesang tribe, if a woman commits adultery, she is forced to leave her husband’s house with only the clothes she is wearing. But if a married man brings his lover home, he doesn’t need to leave, but will have to give his wife half the property acquired during his married life.

A vegetable market en route to Dimapur from Kohima, predominantly run by women.

Invisible fights

Watsu Mungdang, the apex women’s organization of the Ao tribe, was formed in 1983 in Mokokchung, after a series of sexual assaults and human rights violations.

The organization has also been fighting for property rights, but even these activists believe the sanctity of ancestral land needs to be maintained. They believe it is only acquired land that is unjustly denied to women. “Because we are a patriarchal society, if I have to marry in a different clan, I will become their family, and if I inherit my ancestral property, that will go to a different family, a different clan. Inheritance among tribes is a big issue. How can we give the land of our ancestors, a part of our land, to the other clan? But acquired (property), we should have a right on," says Amenla Sashi from Watsu Mungdang.

In the last two-three years, the organization has shifted its focus to economic empowerment. “In so many aspects, we are working on an equal footing with men. When we look at the family structures, we are not deprived of any right, we are liberated, but when it comes to political representation or economic empowerment, we are far behind. Economic independence of a woman will pave the way for her empowerment in many other aspects of her life, so that’s our focus now," says Chubasangla Longkumep, president, Watsu Mungdang’s Kohima branch.

The organization is holding seminars, helping women farmers find ways to enhance their farm produce, and introducing them to different ways of marketing. A committee was set up this April to pull in trainers and experts to convert women’s agricultural work into income.

The economy of the state depends largely on agriculture, with the majority of the population living in rural areas. A large number of women in Nagaland are cultivators—a substantial number are engaged in informal trade, and make for a majority of the market-stall holders and vendors selling vegetables and indigenous produce. Even though these women are the major source of support for their families, few of them have access to government schemes, economic credits and opportunities to improve their economic status.

“Economically, women don’t have the strength men do. If she is economically empowered, she can do what she wants with her assets. At the moment, she has to depend on the menfolk," says Longkumep.

According to the 2011 census, female literacy in the state is 76.11%, and male literacy, 82.75%. Longkumep says there was a time when educating girls was not the norm. There are still instances in the interiors where girls are denied education, but things have changed.

In eastern Nagaland, where the Eastern Nagaland Women’s Organization (Enwo) has been working since 2008, education and trafficking are two big concerns. “Eastern Nagaland is still dealing with extreme poverty and when you don’t have even one meal a day, families choose which ward to educate based on gender, rather than capabilities, because the woman will ultimately go to a different house. So, as an organization, Enwo works towards finding ways to educate as many girls as possible, without putting all the burden on the parents," says Birila Tokiu, a former president of Enwo. Families in the eastern region send their girls to places like Kohima—they are promised a better life, education and money, but many of them are trapped into becoming domestic helps. Tokiu says several cases of sexual harassment and rape have emerged from such “trafficking".

From violence against women to trafficking and discrimination in politics, the story is the same as in the rest of the country. But in Nagaland, says Juliana Medom, assistant state coordinator, State Resource Centre for Women: “The women’s movement hasn’t really taken a healthy growth. Women’s movements in other states, or even globally, always started with women who were enlightened, but slowly went to the grass-roots level—educating and involving them in the fight. What we saw recently was not a mass movement. So many women were completely unaware of what was happening."

Given its history of violence and identity issues, the state buried the gender question for a long time. At least the conversation around Nagaland’s gender story has begun.

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