What do the recent protests in Nagaland mean for its women? Two Melbourne-based Nagas speak out
Nagaland might be tucked away in the remote north east region of India but in recent times the state has made headlines globally on an issue that resonates with the rights of women even in the developing world. It all began with the announcement for the February1 elections to civic bodies when tribal leaders vehemently opposed the 33 per cent reservation for women in these local elections. What followed were violent protests leading to the death of at least three people, political turmoil and, above all, a disillusioned electorate. Three months later, everything is the same. Or so it seems.
At the heart of the debate is the argument by all-male Naga tribal bodies who firmly believe that women in their society cannot take part in public life, that a woman’s rightful place is in the kitchen, and that she is not equal to a man. In their defence they cite an article of the Constitution of India – Article 371(A) – which is a special provision granted to the state under which not only the customary law, social practice and belief of the people of Nagaland but also the resources of the state verdantly remain safeguarded from the intervention of the federal Indian government and its various policies, unless the State Assembly so decides by resolution.
Far away from Nagaland, here in Melbourne two Naga women Dolly Kikon and Inotoli Zhimomi are carrying forward the conversation on the rights of the Naga woman. When the protests broke out in February, the duo started a petition appealing to the Naga community and the respective state and federal government bodies to recognise the importance of a gender inclusive political participation. They voiced their earnest concern that Naga women’s quest for gender justice will be pushed even further backwards and the structural injustice they face even greater if such a cowardly suggestion by the Nagaland government is adopted. There were more than 750 signatories to their petition but as expected so-called Naga intellectuals slammed their action calling it interference to the “internal affairs” of the Nagas.
For Kikon and Zhimomi, this is an issue whose time has come. Having both been born and brought up in Nagaland, they have had first-hand experiences of treatment in steep patriarchal culture that the world knows so little about.
For Zhimomi, the struggle and discrimination of being born a girl began as a three-year old when she saw her two brothers enjoying more privileges than her. “My parents didn’t mean to discriminate but it was a given that because I was a girl I didn’t need to have, say, more books or clothes than my brothers.” Her role was relegated to the kitchen from a young age as her father being a tribal chief often had an assembly of members at the house. She realised very early that there were questions she could not ask. “That’s where my journey with feminism starts,” she reflects.
Similarly, Kikon, an anthropologist and a lecturer at the University of Melbourne, recalls growing up with a single mother and under the scanner of “an extremely patriarchal and sexist tribal gaze”. That apart, both male and female relatives often passed harsh and insensitive comments about her mother. “Many of them would tell my mother that her husband left her because she was unable to keep a man. I remember how adults would pass comments about my mom’s inability to cook or discipline the children. I particularly remember how a male relative came and started mocking me when I passed the Class X (Year 10) exam with a first division. A day after declaration of the results, he came and told my mother that he was also thinking of divorcing his wife since it appeared to be the new trend that children of single mothers were scoring first divisions in school!.
“I had no voice or no part in any decision-making process. It was harsh growing up in an environment where the only conversation that was right was that of the male voice. I grew up with a lot of anxiety as a child because the first thing I was conditioned to do was follow orders of the male members in the family and to clean the house and cook. The house had to be spick and span, chores done, water fetched from the well, etc.. There was no notion of relaxation. On top of it, the relatives coming home had a lot of angst against my mother. For some reason, everything was her fault. In such a violent atmosphere, the children become a casualty in the process,” says Kikon.
Fortunately for both Kikon and Zhimomi, their studies became an ’escape‘. Focusing on their education, they left Nagaland and headed for different fields. Kikon studied Bachelor of Laws (LLB) at the University of Delhi and went on to obtain her doctoral degree in Anthropology from Stanford University. After completing her postdoctoral research fellowship at Stockholm University, she accepted a faculty position at the University of Melbourne. Zhimomi studied theology in Nagaland and devoted her time as a teacher in the Karen refugee camps of Thailand. She came to Australia on a scholarship for Master’s in Theology. After completing her seminary education, she obtained a Masters in Human Rights from the Melbourne Law School and served as a para legal volunteer and human rights activist in Victoria. Today Zhimomi works for an Australian state agency focusing on various aspects of rights issues and also runs the Naga Education House in Melbourne.
But being away from Nagaland has not shielded them from the tribulations of their society. Rather, driven with a commitment and enthusiasm to contribute their bit to causes of gender justice in their respective communities – from Nagaland all the way to their current home in Melbourne – both have pursued different kinds of advocacy work focusing on justice and human rights, among other things. And right now it is the protest against women’s representation in local body elections that is getting their goat.
“If Naga customary law is seen as the foundation of justice, the exclusion of women from these powerful decision making-bodies negates the entire notion that these are pillars of justice. The Indian state and the male traditional bodies alike are responsible for excluding the Naga women from all spheres of representative political processes. Article 371 (A) is a prime example of the patriarchal nature of the Indian constitution that bestows the Naga male bodies to have full authority and power to interpret customary affairs covering social, religious, and criminal cases,” reflects Kikon in her many write-ups to the press.
So what does it mean to be a Naga woman? “If the Naga movement for the right to self-determination, or the civil and political rights movement, or the solidarity alliances has meant anything at all, it simply means the quest for justice. For me, justice is not a goal that can be achieved by simply implementing 33 per cent reservation for Naga women alone. This vision of justice that Naga feminists dream about is based on a collective consciousness about a world where male and female/queer will march together and build a just society together. This longing deeply marks the identity of every Naga women who have been subjected to humiliation, shame, and oppression.
“This cry and yearning was visible during the 33 per cent reservation. Instead of understanding how these voices were situated in a particular history of gender violence and injustice, there were continuous attempts to discredit these voices and cries. These were interpreted as attempts to shame the society or shame Naga men. How can the cry for justice and freedom from the lips of Naga women be read as shameful? Aren’t these moments of struggles that very processes that rejects gender subjugation? These moments remind us about the conditions how Naga women across every tribes have been compelled to serve the family 24X7 and yet remain silent,” rues Kikon.
In the same vein, Zhimomi says, “Naga women will speak out and speak openly and no one can stop that anymore. Personally as a Naga patriotic woman, after more than 53 years of Naga political history of statehood, the waiting is over for me. This history indicates to me and to other Naga women who believe in the national cause, that the Naga self-determination struggle has nothing much to offer in terms of freedom from gender-based violence and oppression. The three histories namely traditional system, state and the self-determination are inseparably linked. We all know who heads those bodies. So joining other Naga Women’s voices, I too say, ‘enough is enough’.”
Since their petition, both have been trolled on the internet. Interestingly, it is also the Central Nagaland Tribes Council (CNTC) who in a statement drew attention to “some women activists” it believes were part of a group sensationalising views and opinions. The CNTC said, “These women were still ‘hell bent’ and doing whatever means possible to accelerate their campaign outside Nagaland to non-Nagas who have no iota of knowledge about our Naga customs and traditions.”
Clearly, Kikon and Zhimomi remain undeterred. Both are in fact, hell bent, on keeping the conversation on the rights of the Naga women alive because it is high time the state saw the election of more than one woman representative in politics in its entire 53-year history of attaining statehood.
“It’s interesting to be a woman in a patriarchal set up or so called tribal authority,” smiles Zhimomi, who has dabbled in issues of human rights and indigenous people.
Kikon, herself a researcher and an advocate of human rights, believes, “This is the time to create a form of Naga gender justice that becomes a norm and ignites conversations about addressing many more political issues such as racism, discrimination, and the rights of tribal migrants in contemporary India.”
The future is not knowable but the fact remains, everything these two Melbourne-based Nagas do is tied to their culture of origin – in all its complexities and splendour.
By Indira Laisram