August 1, 2018 / 8:12 AM / 21 days ago

India's indigenous women reject bill discouraging marriage outside the tribe

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Indigenous women in northeastern India are calling on the Meghalaya state government to block a bill that would deny them rights, including the ability to inherit land, if they marry outside their tribe.

Khasi women are the latest to join a growing movement in the country challenging discriminatory legislation and practices.

The bill was passed last month by the tribe’s governing body, which said it is a measure to protect the group’s indigenous identity.

If approved by the state governor, it would deny women their tribal status and rights if they marry a non-Khasi man. Their children would also not be seen as Khasi.

“It is to put a stop to mixed marriages, as they are a threat to our tribe,” said H.S. Shylla, chief of the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council, which oversees matters such as inheritance, and management of land and forests.

That argument does not make sense to Patricia Mukhim, an activist who is Khasi and edits a local newspaper.

“Khasi people have inter-married since time immemorial. This bill targets women and smacks of patriarchy,” Mukhim said on Wednesday.

“It is sexist and unconstitutional. We are asking the state government to stop its passage,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Khasis, along with two other tribes in Meghalaya, are among the few matrilineal societies in India. Children take their mother’s name, and daughters inherit property from their mothers.

But Khasi women lack the power to make important decisions - including on the sale or transfer of land - and the new law would weaken their rights further, and ostracize them from their community, according to campaigners and analysts.

“The matrilineal system helps protect customary land,” said Walter Fernandes, a senior fellow at the think tank North Eastern Social Research Centre.

“With this law, there is a danger that more land will be taken away from women.”

Some Khasi women have taken to social media to express their opposition to the bill, joining women across India who are pushing back against laws and customs that deny them equal rights to property ownership.

Amendments in 2005 to the Hindu Succession Act, which governs matters of inheritance among Hindus who make up about 80 percent of India’s population, made women’s inheritance rights equal to those of men.

But some state laws and religious customs run counter to it.

According to India’s Shariat Act, Muslim women are entitled to only half the man’s share of property - and this is being challenged by more women in local courts.

A woman from Jammu and Kashmir is challenging a law that denies women the right to own property in that state if they are married to someone from outside the state.

Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran. Editing by Jared Ferrie. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.

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