The title seems like a no-brainer that the existence of gender inequality in Nagaland should be put into question. But surprisingly many males including educated people in leadership positions hold the view that there is no gender discrimination in Nagaland. Therefore, before going into enumerating or highlighting the degree of gender discrimination, it may be worth looking at the debate on the existence of gender inequality itself.
We hear it from the pulpit or elsewhere which goes something like this: Once upon a time, there was gender inequality when Nagas practiced headhunting. There were battles between villages/tribes and therefore male warriors and boys were regarded over women and girls. Due to customary practices and the traditional way of life, men occupied all the leadership positions. But with the coming of Christianity and modern education, there is no more gender inequality. Girls are doing really well in studies and are beating boys in exams. Women are becoming officers. But is that assessment true and does it correspond with reality?
This year, I had two experiences which cement the fact that our Naga society is discriminating towards women. “Two experiences? We experience discrimination every day”, womenfolk will say and they are right. One only has to ask a woman, any woman, and you will be told that genders are indeed not equal. It is in our very system; it is in how the society, families, and various institutions are structured and run. Why some men miss it is probably because it is inbuilt in the system. Let me proceed with my two experiences anyway. I was a member of a study team on infant and maternal mortality and travelled to several villages to talk to people. I stayed in one village for a few days and in one of the meetings, I talked to the village council members. All the 52 members of the village council were males and I asked why. The explanation given was that the Naga villages are run as per Naga customary law where the village council is the ‘court’ as well as the ‘police’ of the village. Therefore women in the traditional custom of the Nagas cannot be enforcers of the law. The leaders said that crucial issues are discussed which cannot even be spoken of at home. Therefore in matters which concerns security of the village, it will require strong-headed males who will not crumble under pressure and divulge the matters being discussed. The leaders opined that equal gender representation or 33% women reservation is not applicable in the Naga society because it will go against the customary practices of the Nagas. There were other derogatory comments and male chauvinistic talks which were not worth recording. But the pervasive male dominant attitude came out strongly from that interview. It is not confined to rural areas. In my other experience, there was a talk from a church pulpit in our Capital city that with the coming of Christianity, gender discrimination is gone. It was uttered with a sense that this ‘equality’ was a gift that women received (as a result of religious ‘enlightenment’), rather than a Right which is inherent. Such attitude which is dismissive of the existence of gender discrimination provides no stimulus to work towards gender equality.
Data in wide ranging areas show that gender disparity is prevalent. For example, in Nagaland the gender gap in literacy rate is 6.6% in 2011 census. The same data source shows that in some districts, the female literacy is still below the State’s average of 10 years ago. That means a lot of women are over 10 years behind the average Naga in terms of literacy.
Naga society is in transition where age-old understanding of male dominance and superiority coexists with increasing understanding of gender equality. Although mindsets are slowly changing, the structures and systems of the society are even slower to change. It will require more than letting things run its ‘natural course’, hoping that people will eventually become aware that gender discrimination do exist ‘even’ in our society and in our own homes.