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Mainstream, VOL L No 12, March 10, 2012

Status of Tribal Women in India

Tuesday 13 March 2012, by J.J. Roy Burman


Tribals or adivasis, as they are popularly known as a symbol of self-assertion, comprise of around 8.2 per cent of the national population. The tribals are concentrated mostly in the central belt of India and parts of the North-East. The status of women in the tribal societies is compa-ratively better than that of the women in general society—apparently so. The sex ratio of the tribes in India during 1991 showed 971 females per 1000 males while it was 927 females among the general population. Mitra and Singh (Internet) write that discrimination against women, occupational differentiation, and emphasis on status and hierarchical social ordering that characterise the predominant Hindu culture are generally absent among the tribal groups. Bhasin (2007) also writes that though tribes too have son preference, they do not discriminate against girls by female infanticide or sex determination tests.

The status of tribal women can be judged mainly by the roles they play in society. Their roles are determined to a large extent through the system of descent. The families try to pass their property by the line of descent. The family surnames too are traced on the basis of the system of descent. In an unilineal system the descent is traced either through the male or female line. When the descent is traced through the mother’s line, it is called a matrilinear system and when it is traced through the father’s line, it is called a patrilinear system. Most of the tribes in India follow a patrilinear system. There are exceptional cases like the Khasi, Jaintia, Garo and Lalung of Meghalaya in the North-East who follow the matrilinear system. The Mappilas of Kerala too are a matrilineal community. There are very rare cases of bilineal descent.

The status of a person quite often depends on the system of authority he/she enjoys in the community. When the authority is held through the male line, it is called ‘patriarchy’ and when it is held through the female line, it is called ‘matriarchy’. Quite frequently one mixes up ‘descent’ with ‘authority’. Not surprisingly, the Khasis are often believed to follow matriarchy. But in reality though the property is inherited through the mother’s line, the final authority of the household vests with the mother’s brother.

The position of a woman to a large extent depends on the kind of family one is placed in. In a joint family system the eldest woman usually enjoys a prerogative in the decision-making process. The type of family differs to a large extent with the type of marriage prevalent in the community. The nuclear family formed through monogamy is the most common type of family prevalent in the tribal communities in India. The extended type of family is also quite a common norm wherein the daughters leave the natal home after marriage to distant places. The older sons too leave the parents after marriage to set up new homes in the near vicinity. It is common to find the youngest son residing with the parents even after marriage.
Some of the tribes in India enter into polygamy. When one man marries more than one wife, it is called polygyny. Polygyny can be of two types. When the wives are sisters, it is called sororal polygyny and when the wives are unrelated, it is called non-sororal polygyny. When one woman marries more than one husband, it is called polyandry. When the husbands are own brothers, the type of marriage is called fraternal polyandry. When the husbands are unrelated, the type of marriage is called non-fraternal polyandry. The Todas of Nilgiri or the Bhutias of Ladakh and Sikkim are polyandrous. It is quite often found that two or three wives marrying four or five brothers. This system is called polygynandry. This system is quite common among the Jaunsaris of Jaunsar Bawar in Uttarakhand. In such marriages the eldest woman usually wields greater respect and command. Among the Jaunsaris each family is usually found to have dwellings at different elevations along the hill ranges. The dwellings at the central village are called ‘sadar’. The eldest wife usually resides there. While the younger wives have to toil hard between the farm houses located close to the valley or the ones at the higher reaches, divorce is quite common among the Jaunsaris and it is usually the younger wives who desert their husbands.

Since women in the tribal communities toil hard, they are considered to be assets. Not surprisingly, the practice of bride price during marriages is quite common among them. This is in sharp contrast to the general caste-Hindu population. Sometimes when the prospective groom is not in a position to pay the bride price, he has to render physical labour and service at the wife’s house. At times he even stays back at the wife’s house throughout his life to reside as a ‘ghar jowai’. In recent years as the capitalist economy is setting in and women are being deprived of their traditional role, their economic value is decreasing and the practice of ‘bride-price’ is giving way to the system of dowry as witnessed in the general society. Among the Jaunsaris, the new husbands have to pay the suit money or the amount paid as bride-price by the former husband to the girl during earlier marriage. This amount becomes quite large as interest is also added to it. In order to repay the ‘suit’ money, the wife is often sent away seasonally to the cities like Dehradun, Meerut, Sahranpur, Moradabad, Lucknow and Delhi to work as prostitutes. They virtually turn into ‘bonded’ labourers.

The status of the tribal women usually depends on the economic roles they play. The tribals in the past were usually forest dwellers and their livelihood to a great extent depended on the food-gathering economy. More than the men, the women walked long distances to fetch wood and fodder. Besides, they also collected fruits, roots and tubers, lac, gums and leaves for self-con-sumption and sale. The men also complemented them by collecting timber and logs. They climbed the trees to shake down the fruits that were gathered on the ground by women. As there has been large scale deforestation, women have to slog harder to retain the gathering economy. Chaudhary (2010) observes that in the tribal areas of Betul in Madhya Pradesh, collection and marketing of firewood is generally the domain of tribal women. They sell it at Sahpur and whatever income they have, they immediately spend it on meeting the basic requirements such as rice, pulse, edible oil, soap, detergent powder, tobacco, bidi and so on.

In many parts of the country, swidden cultivation or slash and burn cultivation or jhum cultivation, as it is called in the North-East, was in vogue. Boserup calls swidden cultivation as a women’s enterprise since it is they who almost entirely managed the show. While the men mainly felled the trees and spread them around on the ground to dry before collectively kindling fire, it is the women who were engaged in broadcasting the seeds, weeding and harvesting. It is the women who preserved the seeds at home and took the decisions about the crops to be cultivated every season. The men mostly guarded the crops from wild animals and trapped wild-life games, big and small.

In recent years, due to the population explosion and in-migration, the jhum cultivation is gradually losing its viability. Besides, due to the capitalist policies of the state jhum cultivation is giving way to permanent terraced wet-rice cultivation. Multi-cropping practices too are getting lost and the emphasis on mono-cropping is being laid. Cash crops and horticulture are also being preferred. In the process women are losing their labour work and in many places of the North-East like Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, migrant male labourers are being employed.
Apart from the hill areas, tribals have also in present days opted for settled cultivation in place of the forest-based economy. They are also preferring to raise cash crops and exotic high-breed crops. In the process the women are getting displaced from their work. In West Bengal, the Santhal women in groups migrate down or go for ‘namal’ down to the southern districts for weeding and transplanting after completing the cultivation work in their own dry areas.

For quite some time the tribes have been exposed to industries in central India. There have come many big and small dams and many development projects as well. The forests being depleted and very little poor quality land to cultivate on, the tribes are compelled to serve in the industrial sector to work as coolies. In many parts of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan also the tribes are being forced to work in brick kilns and the building sector in cities. When visiting these places seasonally, tribal men and women are both exploited by the contractors and middlemen. The women suffer all the more as they get sexually abused. Besides, they are paid much less as compared to the men.

The tribal women in the North-East were famous for their weaving skills. Almost every tribal girl used to learn weaving at home. They usually used to weave in their leisure time and for self-consumption. Each textile used to portray a certain history of the respective tribes. But now with commercialisation of the products, the women have lost control over the designs as the market has come to be the decisive factor. Besides, in many cases Marwari traders have taken over the business and are getting the textiles woven by migrant non-tribal persons.
Tribal women as such enjoy very little control over immovable property. They hardly ever inherit land, particularly in the patrilineal societies. Among the Khasis as well, it is mainly the youngest daughter or ‘khadduh’, as she is locally known, who inherits the house and property. The tribal women generally inherit the ornaments from the mother. The customary laws do not permit them to own land. It is mainly due to this reason that often the Santal widows are declared as witch and murdered by close relatives. (Kelkar and Devnathan: 1993) Lalhriatpuii (2010) writes about the Mizo women in Mizoram that they were extremely discrimi-nated against with regard to the inheritance of property as they were never given rights over the landed property. If there is no son in the family, the family property including ancestral home should go to the nephew of the father.
It is, however, seen that the kitchen garden is controlled by the wife. The pigs, goats and chicken too are owned by her. The sale proceeds of the domesticated animals are retained by the housewife and she makes purchases of her own liking when visiting her parental home. Women are also adept at selling fruits and forest products in the weekly markets. Vegetables and horti-cultural products are usually sold by them in the markets.

Women among some of the tribes of the North-East are very proficient in doing business. It is mainly the Khasi women who run shops in the markets of Shillong and Nongpoh in Meghalaya. Many women in Mizoram too manage big shops and large business. Lalhriatpuii (ibid.) observes that the women workforce in the State of Mizoram is concentrated more in the primary sector and many of them are turning to become agricultural labourers. She further observes: “Many women run small family businesses, called micro enterprises, which require very little initial capital and often involve the marketing of food articles and handicrafts produced under the domestic system. No doubt women’s limited access to capital leads to higher rates of return on their tiny investments. But the unbelievably low capital-labour ratios confine women to low productivity undertakings.”

The tribal women in India have virtually no role to play in the social and political spheres. Even in the past though for many tribes in central India and in the North-East there were bachelor’s dormitories, there was hardly anything for the girls. The girls used to fag around for the boys residing in the dormitories. The tribal women had no place in the village councils. The women were never represented in the traditional panchayats. It is only now, due to the mandatory provisions of the state, that some women are getting elected in the panchayats. But even in such cases, usually the women are dictated by husbands or relatives who already wielded enough power in the locality. Even then there is hardly any tribal woman MLA or MP in the country. In the case of Agatha Sangma, the Union Minister of Social Welfare, she is an exception; her father Purno Sangma happened to be a prominent politician of the country and also served as the Speaker of the Lok Sabha in Parliament for one term.

During the recent upsurges in the North-East or central India, many tribal women have joined the underground army. They are found leaving their homes and undergoing military training. In the North-East, many of the girls were known for running errands for the underground. Several of them have laid down their lives too. But even among them, the women have never been known for wielding the leadership. The Naga Mothers Association has earned some good name in recent times for becoming interlocutors between the underground and Indian security forces. Even during the head-hunting days, the Naga women acted very bravely to usher in peace between warring villages. They operated as peacemakers between the warring villagers (Zehol: 1998)—“If we recall that the Tangkhul, like other Naga society who were feuding communities, we find that in the Tangkhul society, the women are assigned some responsibilities of critical importance. In an account on head hunting among the Nagas, a special section has been assigned to women’s role. It is mentioned there that, when a party was pressed very far killing a warrior or two, and the verdict was known, a neutral force come in. The neutral force belonged whether to the neighbouring villages or the neutral ladies called Pukhareila... they could not be harmed as a rule. She was highly respected for neutrality, and they were called as ambassadors of peace. In the bygone days, when head hunting was practiced, these Pukhareilas played vital role saving lives of men.” Vitso (2003) also observes that among the Chakhesang Nagas of Nagalnd, the wife of the traditional village priest wielded a lot of power and respect. She also notes that though traditionally the women had no political power, their decisions, particularly related to women’s issues, were always respected.

In the course of history one comes across the names of only two queens who had fought against their enemies. The name of Rani Durgabati of Garh Mandla in Madhya Pradesh is of course too well known. The other figure is Rani Gaidinliu, the Naga leader who headed a revolt against the British. She also led the Zeliangrong Nagas for a homeland in the contiguous areas of Manipur, Nagaland and Assam. She was named as a Rani by Jawaharlal Nehru who came to learn about her during the freedom movement. Gassah has stated that women rulers had appeared even among the Jaintias in Meghalaya, (Downs: 1996) In recent times, the Bhotia tribal women of Kumaon came to the fore when they led a forest movement—the Chipko Andolan—against the timber contractors. The tribal women of Reni village in particular became famous as they hugged the pine trees to save them from the saws of the loggers.

Christianity has brought about a significant emancipation of the tribal women. While earlier the women were restricted from attending schools, it is the missionaries who opened schools and encouraged the girls to attend them. They also opened up church forums where women could participate and also take the lead. The Protestant Church took a lead over the Catholic Church in these matters. The Roman Catholic Fathers offered lesser space to the tribal women in the parishes. No wonder that the Protestants became much more acceptable in the matrilineal tribes like the Khasi and Garo. They gave trainings to the girls to be not just good home-makers but to become teachers, doctors and nurses. But Lalhriatpuii (op. cit.) states that the women in Mizo society are excluded in all decision-making bodies in both social organisa-tions and church life. They get no representation in the church administration in spite of playing a crucial role in the evangelical work. She concludes: “Church plays a dominant role in Mizo society. Therefore, the criterion of judgement of a developing church or State is the condition of women, the way they are treated and regarded and the type of jobs they are given.”

To conclude, it may be stated once again that though the women in the tribal society in India enjoy a greater freedom to mix and move around, their social organisations and institutions are still discriminatory particularly with regard to the customary laws that guide the ownership of property and inheritance or also with regard to exercising authority both in the domestic and public spheres.


Chaudhary, S.N., 2010, Tribal Economy at Crossroads, New Delhi: Rawat.
Kelkar, G. and Devnathan, 1993, “Women’s Law Rights and Witches” in M. Miri (ed.), Continuity and Change in Tribal Society; Shimla: IIAS.
Lalhriatpuii, 2010, Economic Participation of Women in Mizoram; New Delhi: Concept.
Vitso, A., 2003, Customary Law and Women: The Chakhesang Nagas; New Delhi: Regency.
Zehol, L., 1998, Women in Naga Society; New Delhi: Regency.

The author is a Professor, Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policies, School of Social Sciences, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

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