Patriarchy Within Tribal Communities: How Broad Frameworks Limit Rights Discussions

This year’s theme for the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples was ‘The Role of Indigenous Women in the Preservation and Transmission of Traditional Knowledge’. While indigenous women are said to be the best preservers of traditional knowledge, at the same time, they are declined equal property rights based on the “traditional customary law” of most tribal communities in India.

At the end of June, discussions and debates about tribal communities took centre stage when the BJP-led NDA announced Draupadi Murmu as its presidential candidate. All over the media, Murmu was now the face of the 8.6% tribal population of the nation. BJP’s move was appreciated not only by independent parties but by the opposition as well. On July 21, Murmu won with 64% votes against Congress’s candidate Yashwant Sinha.

While India celebrated its first tribal woman president, the tribal community shared a mixed response to Murmu’s win. Her victory once again brought tribals and their issues into the limelight across academic and media discussions.

So, while India gets its first tribal woman president, the issue of patriarchy within tribal communities still remain unacknowledged. A review of relevant literature and newspaper articles reveals that, despite global discussions on tribal issues on their land, identity, religion, and constitutional rights, tribal patriarchy remains under-theorised.

As a PhD research scholar in tribal studies, I am intrigued by the constraint debates on tribals over jal, jungle, jameen in academia. In the course of my research, I realised that tribal patriarchy has not yet gained the status qouist-academic space that questions inequality and oppression of tribals. There exists a dangerous homogenisation of tribal issues — land alienation, displacement, and lost access to forest and natural resources. Such homogenisation over the years has developed an adamant space that fails to acknowledge the problems within the community.

At a fundamental level, anthropology, sociology, history, and all major areas of research in academia provide a set of predefined persistent problems of the tribal community. For more than a decade now, theories on tribal studies have immersed itself on the issues of tribals to be “treated equally in the political domain and to be treated unequally in the socio-cultural domain”. However, in the case of discrimination faced by tribal women within the community, academia departs from the trajectory of gender-based nuances.

Also read: Over the Last 75 Years, Struggles of India’s Tribal Communities Have Multiplied

One could argue that the initial rumblings on tribals were strategically dominated by male anthropologists who established a community-centric viewpoint to look at the tribals. Such a broad framework has in fact limited the discussions on tribal issues. Worse, the present academia fails to acknowledge gender-based discrimination within the tribal community. On the one hand, jal, jungle, jameen stand for the socio-political resistance against the government and dikus (outsiders); on the other hand, tribal women are restrained from inheriting property.

Since we lack academic research on the nuances of patriarchy within the tribal community, I would describe tribal patriarchy as the systematic institutional customary laws of the tribals that privileges men, normalises male dominance over private property, and therefore prohibit women to equally own resources, inherit property, and participate in socio-political decisions.

Draupadi Murmu’s victory should open up academic discussions on the inequality and discrimination faced by tribal women within and outside the larger society. One such incident that confronted and challenged tribal patriarchy was Prabha Minz’s judgment at the Jharkhand high court on April 22. The judgment read:

“The plaintiff is a female member of Oraon tribe, and the title and possession to her admitted ancestral property is under challenge on the ground that she is female and has no right of inheritance under customary law applicable to tribals.”

The customary law among the tribal communities of Jharkhand is widely recognised and accepted. Totally patriarchal in nature, it favours tribal men when it comes to ownership of land and other property. The mentioned judgment also referred to the Supreme Court judgment that “cautioned the courts to restrain themselves interfering in the tribal customary law of inheritance as that would endanger and bring chaos in the peaceful life of tribal community”.

To add to this debate, recently, a few male-dominated tribal organisations proposed a demand to terminate the tribal rights and provisions of a tribal woman who marries a non-tribal man. The advocates of the demand claim that inter-community marriage would destroy the culture of the tribal community. Moreover, they argue that a non-tribal man manipulates a tribal woman to marry him to grab the tribal land bought by the tribal woman. There is no doubt that there are such cases of non-tribal men marrying tribal women for their land. I believe there should be strict laws to prevent such incidents, but why does this demand of excluding tribals from their constitutional and community rights for inter-caste/community marriage only apply to women?

Today, while scrolling through news channels, online and offline conferences, and social media posts on World Indigenous Day, I felt uncomfortable and agitated to see no discussion on tribal patriarchy. Why are we so afraid to talk about equal rights for tribal women?

 Nandini Tank is a doctoral fellow at NIT Rourkela, India.

Featured image: Tribal women carry bundles of twigs and leaves near Shantiniketan, 150 km northwest of Calcutta. Photo: Reuters