Few facts of gender inequality in indigenous community

By Jyoti Sonia Dhan

 “Indigenous societies in India are showing an increasing tendency towards growing inequality in gender relations. This is more pronounced in societies that have integrated with mainstream Indian society.” Sanjay Basu Mallik; Gender relations and witches among the indigenous communities of Jharkhand, India. 

Santal Women in Jamshedpur
Santal Women in Jamshedpur

This gender differences will remain till it reaches to the apex fused and busted, eventually, coming to equilibrium stage. (Equilibrium really?) The capitalism and cat race for power will always there to push and pull either of the sex to go up and down. A society where one can view the clouds of equilibrium in sexes was about indigenous society, where always the collectivism lies. Both the sexes stand equally, responsible for the household and to the community. The parameters that, we look into were right to decide or right in decision making first in the household then in the community. The decision making in the social activity, decisions in the economic activity went parallel and equally with both the sexes. In respect to the village context, village is a family unit on whole, so all the responsibility were shared among the members of the family , whether to be sowing the fields, repairing the roofs or arrangement of child birth to marriage ceremony, all were done by the villagers (a family).

In this spirit of the collectivism, the land is not fragmented into individual household share. The land, forest and all the natural resources were shared by the collective of the village. But, when we speak about the resources as a whole it is said to be of collective ownership. But, the British Government put the seed of fragmentation, division in this collectivism through the individual ownership of the land, so that, they (Britisher) can have access to those lands which were under the collective group. Here, begins the crisis and struggle of the land not only between the individuals of the collective but between the household.

The right to property entitlement was there among the different sub groups of the indigenous community. For instances, I could narrate about Santhal indigenous subgroups, a share is given to the female member during the ceremony “Tamen Jom”, where she can have right over the land for her sustenance. So, as the other sub groups Kharia, Oraon, Ho and Munda etc have the access to the right to the property to the female member .This was limited to singles females only.

Inspite, of all these, we still hear news of the patriarchy influences in the villages in form of witch hunting or witch in the village. You can hear stories about the witches in particular family (mother or daughter in law expertise in this art) and therefore, other families do not easily mix up with them. The question lies why a Mother or Daughter in law, we never hear men, even though we hear, it’s like moon in grey clouds. This is something of social boycotting to an individual family member thereby, to the family.

The women in the villages were inheritance with some knowledge of healing or curing a human being through the medicinal herbs. This knowledge was passed on to the next generation by the elderly women member in the family. This has been passed on to the female members only not to the male member therefore; the access of information was limited to female.

Here, the fight of knowledge creates the nomenclature of WITCH. During the research women founded many herbs which cures and many which kills a human being. So, when it comes to kills it is therefore, an evil deed, so the WITCH was strongly described. As, it was already narrated that, the male members do not have access to this knowledge, so there is a gap which somewhere moves towards the subjugation of women. This subjugation finally, resulted to violence on women mentally and physically in a grave manner. One should notice the witch hunters were more of females than finger counting males.

Ranchi – Ramani Devi was badly tortured after being branded a witch. But despite the scars in her body, the survivor is fighting back for hundreds of vulnerable women.  Ramani Devi, 45, is leading a programme all over Jharkhand through ‘Nukkad Nataks’ (street plays) to raise awareness about the practice and thus save many others who might meet a fate worse than her own.

 ‘I simply do not want repetition of what I had to face. It is all because of superstitious beliefs and nothing else,’ says Ramani. Recalling the trauma she faced, Ramani narrates: ‘I was tortured and forced to eat human excreta just because I was branded a witch by the ojhas (witch doctors).’Today Ramani is not alone in the fight. Vaisakhi, another survivor, says: ‘It is a blot on our society. We have to face such inhuman torture even in this 21st century. It is a shame that when women have reached space, we are subjected to such horror.’ Vaisakhi, in her 50s, had also been brutally beaten up by a villager, who branded her a witch. There are scores of women who have been branded witch by villagers and tortured. Many were killed, sometimes by beheading or dismembering their limbs.

Many like Ramani Devi are forced to drink urine or consume human excreta. Some are ostracized and thrown out of their villages. ‘When these women tell the gory acts and inhuman things they were subjected to, people can feel it. They succeed in pulling a good number of crowds,’ says Vasvi, a social worker engaged with Free Legal Aid Committee (FLAC), an NGO that organizes the street plays and works to spread awareness against witch killings. ‘Witch killing follows a rising graph if we look at the figures,’ says Ajoy Kumar, director of FLAC.

 In 1991-2000, a total of 522 people, mostly women, were killed after they were branded witches. We don’t have the exact figure of killing since then,’ Kumar says. According to the crime branch of the Jharkhand police, however, 190 witch killings were reported in the past five years. ‘Only an awareness programme can curb it,’ says Kumar. The street plays try to create awareness at different levels. It first tries to inform people about the reality and scientific aspects of witchcraft. It also tries to educate the people about legal aspects and how courts could punish the perpetrators. The Prevention of Witch Practices Act was formulated in 1999 to curb the menace, but in most of the cases the witch doctors went scot-free. ‘The arrested people rarely name the witch doctors fearing their wrath,’ says a police official with the Criminal Investigation Department. ‘Even the conviction rate is a low 15 percent.’

With respect to the property entitlement to the female members, land right was now limited. The historical evidence narrated many times were about the immigration of non-indigenous people and viewing the resources they hold, which actually needs for their settlement to the new land. They found the liberation of women folk in the community and their ownership in the collective resources; this created a strategy to access those resources. They influence the women to get marry with them or fix them in a situation where she cannot give a second thought of marrying other, thereby, access to land she has. This created the social obligation to the women to have right to the property. This was done to save the resources getting into the non-indigenous hands. It was all true that, women got exploited in the hands of the non-indigenous people. It was also true about obligation to save women from getting married other than the community. Still now we find the same thought of restriction in the community towards women.

What that is narrated is true and some kind of social restriction can save a society. But, is that the social restriction is only to the women? What will we say to the people (males) who sell their property to non –indigenous? What will we say a person marrying a non-indigenous? How far the person marrying non-indigenous women follows the culture of indigenous? The most important thing why there is no socialization process among the young girls in the family till she is to the marriage age about the land which belong to the indigenous group and the land have to be save for the indigenous people.

The history always narrate about the women is not in place so such normalization was done but, what we will say to the men who actually sold their share to non-indigenous. HERE, THE QUESTION IS NOT OF THE PROPERTY RIGHT TO BE GIVEN OR NOT BUT, TO ADDRESS THAT, IT IS NOT ALWAYS THE WOMEN RESPONSIBLE.

In the present scenario, the effects of the globalization creating indigenous people to shift from community concern to individual concern. The “status” words govern the society. Exposure to the outside world started to reduce space for the women in the community. This reduction of space of the women is invisible in the present times may be likely to seen 100 years move clearly among the indigenous. Here, I will speak about the urbanites and semi urbanites indigenous people. The generation which had migrated to cities and town for better livelihood had been constantly being influence by the non-indigenous. This group was the middle class group who was educated and wanted to grow in different spheres of the sectors. This group is constantly being exposed to outside world. Here, it does not mean that one should not interact but, how the community is keeping with culture of the outsiders.

First, it comes with the identity how to introduce ourselves when asked what your caste is? In indigenous community there is no feudalistic structure for caste definition; there are different sub groups residing in different geographical location and interacting peacefully among themselves. So, when describing about caste, so what they will be defined a tribal meaning coming from backward community. Here, inferiority complex is being created. Secondly, comes with the household chores it’s a women’s job, this was much influence with the urban thought. Thirdly, women who hold a job or service are more preferred as the soul mates. This area has two faces; some area women are preferred as qualified housewives while somewhere holding a profession. There have being instances about issue of marriages in the small pockets but found across. An incidence where there is no choices for a girl if a parents search a groom who is much elder to her say to 10-15 years old and she is still studying; reason for giving a daughter is person had a secured job. This kind of incidence is found more across the urban region.

Now, the question arises from where these thoughts have emerged, it was not there in the collective indigenous group. Though the indigenous were question by the non indigenous why you people gather in a collective. The right to take decision on which subject the girl will purse totally relates with the marriage proposal because, she has to fit into the in-laws norm. Again the question arises from where these cultures come? The individual life in the urban has eventually placed an individual indigenous to move in this manner.

Nevertheless, the pomp and show in the marriage ceremony, better position in better department were the symbols of the status which is gradually governing the indigenous urbanites. Fourthly, regret of having a girl child. Since, the girl child is considered not confident enough with outside chores of household. This issue is alarming and is creating threat.

The above statement is bitter to digest because this on a whole has not influence a women’s life largely; but the shift is on going may be after a decade these comments may be visible clearly. And these were my individual view and observation as being part of urban indigenous. 

The young urbanities describe the indigenous society on the parameters of the theories they study in the books but not through the past culture. The empowerment of the women they find is through economic empowerment aint it was true that, women already had economically stake hold in house , since the genesis.

Some blame the globalization for the cultural extinction where some believe in the economic growth there by proving their identity as an indigenous. But, some where in the struggle, the woman is left to lost. This lost comes from the notation the challenges she has to make. It is really not understood what make women to fall under the challenge in an indigenous society. Is it the economic empowerment or leading to subjugation in the society?

Now, where do we (indigenous) find ourselves is a question to answer and were women stand? One cannot deny the patriarchy from the world so do to this community. Still this community is a progressive because its women have space in the society. But, fears are not far away to wash away these values.

Jyoti Sonia Dhan  is a social activist.  She can be reached at

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