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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 June, 2003, 10:41 GMT 11:41 UK
Women's domination under threat

By Subir Bhaumik
BBC correspondent in Meghalaya

In much of India, parents pray for a male child. Daughters are seen as a burden and the killing of female foetuses is widespread.

Khasi women
Khasi women make all the major family decisions

But in the country's remote north eastern state of Meghalaya, the situation is very different.

Here the local Khasi and Jaintia tribesmen value their daughters who inherit all their ancestral property.

Much of the property goes to the Ka Khadduh - the youngest daughter - who becomes the centre of attraction.

"There is no scope for a dowry because women inherit all property here," says David Syiemlieh, who teaches history in the state's Northeastern Hill University.

In Meghalaya, women run family businesses, dominate the households and take all key family decisions.

We have been reduced to baby-sitters or housekeepers - we have no role in our society except fathering babies
Enoch Kharkhongor
"Nothing happens in the family unless we want it," says housewife Julia Lyngdoh. "My husband leaves it all to me and same is the case throughout our state."

According to India's National Family Health Survey, Meghalaya is where parents have shown the least interest to have a male child - 73% less than the national average.

In Meghalaya, the sons get nothing.

But Meghalaya men who have travelled to other parts of India and seen how the males dominate there are beginning to resent their role back home.

Angry men

"We have been reduced to baby-sitters or housekeepers. We have no role in our society except fathering babies," says Enoch Kharkhongor, a shopkeeper in the state's capital Shillong, now in his mid-twenties.

Khasi woman
The women inherit all property
Six years ago, Meghalaya's angry men formed a Male Liberation Group - called Symbai Rimbai Tongbai (SRT).

Ablemann Swer led the group until his death two years ago.

The SRT demands equal property rights for the male child and a greater role for men in the family.

"You know why our men are taking to liquor and drugs in such a big way. They feel they don't count," says John Lyngdoh, who now runs the group.

But the group is beginning to collapse.

"Nobody took us seriously. I now realize this is not going to work here in Meghalaya," says John's colleague Nicholas.

Increasing violence

But Angela Rangad of the North East Network - a Meghalaya-based non-government organisation - says although the Khasi and Jaintia society remains matrilineal, the patriarchal values are gaining ground.

Khasi women in a local market
Businesses are run by the women of Meghalaya
"Domestic violence against women is increasing in Meghalaya. It may not be as bad as Bihar but we are worried at the way it is increasing," says Ms Rangad.

She has a point.

The number of cases of rape and sexual abuse against women has been rising in Meghalaya.

There was outrage when a stepfather raped his daughter recently in the state's capital Shillong and also when a pregnant woman was raped in the city.

Residents say Meghalaya's matrilineal society is already being challenged.

The influence of the rest of India and its culture, carried through Bollywood films, is all beginning to have an effect.

"These Hindi films, full of women-beating, dowry fights and all that, are affecting our values. Our males are getting upset," says Roshan Wajri, a former woman legislator of the state assembly.

One of the reasons the demand for change in property laws is gaining ground in Meghalaya is because many Khasi and Jaintia women have married people from outside the region, -Dhkars as they are known.

"Our property may be lost to these outsiders. We cannot accept that," says Mick Bareh.

That is the sign of changing times.

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