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Esther Syiem's essay traces the paradoxical nature of women’s status in Khasi matrilineal society. At once empowered and oppressed, Khasi women learn to negotiate these contradictions in their day-to-day engagements with society. Matriliny, for example, is often seen as empowering for women: this, combined with more egalitarian tribal traditions and culture, has given Khasi women greater visibility and mobility and has helped to build solidarities among them.
Despite being both visible and vocal, like their sisters across the country Khasi women too face a skewed sex ratio, a lack of reproductive choices, widespread domestic violence and a host of other issues. The author suggests that these contradictions are better understood by looking at the origin of the Khasis, a time when, because men went to war and often did not return for long periods, women were designated as keepers of the family name and of social values. These became their domain. While inheritance passed through them, much decision-making power in public spaces, particularly in the field of politics, stayed in the hands of men. Although culturally and legally, for example, there is no bar to Khasi women participating in politics or standing for elections, but by and large, despite being ‘empowered’ in other spheres, women tend to stay out.
With the breaking down of the relative isolation of tribal cultures in India, and with more women stepping out of their homes and seeking jobs, change has begun to seep into Khasi lives and transform old relationships and equations. Pointing to this as an important development, the author pleads for Khasi society, and Khasi men in particular, to be open to this change, and to embrace it without limiting the agency of women.
Samita Sen’s essay traces the history of the Indian Women’s Movement from the 1920s to the present day. The chronological as well as thematic logic of the essay follows three primary heads: a historical background, the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) controversy, and the political implications of the reservation for women in legislatures.
The historical background highlights four critical issues: the tensions and fractures within the women’s movement, how these fractures were related to the mediated relationship between women and the conception of their ownership by the nation-state, how the differences amongst women could be managed or transcended to create a political community to which women will want to belong, as opposed to being shunted into it, and finally, the issue of women’s agency in politics.
The discussion on the UCC becomes an example of how the community and communal politics are deeply implicated in the politicization of personal laws, and how the rise of nationalism and the politicization of the ‘private’ familial domain placed personal laws at the centre of the colonial-nationalist conflict. The initial consensus amongst the women’s movement for reforming the gender discrimination in personal laws broke down by the time the Women’s Reservation Bill was introduced. This also marked a shift in focus from demanding legislation from the state to a greater participation of women in state affairs.
For Sen, a new feminist politics has to address struggles of class, caste, community, religion et al, without displacing gender as the central concern, making this essay one of crucial importance for understanding the origins of the issues facing feminist politics today.
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