Tribal women in most societies have more economic and social rights than their counterparts in other societies. However, this assertion hides a system of patriarchy where women rarely get the opportunity to enter public and political domain. This imbalance is being challenged by a Poumai Naga village by the name Phyamai Naotumai Me which is trying to unite women so they can claim a stake outside of the confines of the household
There is a certain romance in spreading the discourse that Naga women enjoy freedom and equality at a level much higher than the women in other parts of the country. This belief is rooted in the fact that Naga societies do not subject its women to social evils like female infanticide, child marriage, and sati; in addition, women are considered economically independent. However, the narrative woven around fierce independence and value of Naga women deviates focus from certain social norms of patriarchy that continues to treat them as the second sex. Nothing underscores this more than the fact that a girl is educated to increase her prospect of securing a good husband in the future. In other words, women are still treated as adjunct to men. This attitude defies the very purpose of education which is to empower and give shape to life as one desires. It is this attitude which puts the tribals in a different civilization stage compared with the rest of the advanced world. And it is this very attitude that a Poumai Naga village Phyamai Naotumai Me is trying to subvert.
Their journey to empowerment began in December 2013 when Phyamai Naotumai Me organized a women’s conference to address the social, economical and educational issues that women faced. In 2023, the same village organized the second conference Phyahriipfii Niih under the theme Women Igniting Change. The theme was conceived with the idea to empower women to affect change in the society on individual level and as collective initiative. In the cover picture of the souvenir is a woman staring at the butterfly and the infinite sky. D.A. Esther, the editor of the souvenir, explains, “The young woman dressed in traditional clothes represents the Poumai women who love and take pride in their cultural identity. She represents the sense of rootedness that we must cultivate as we move forward with the changing time and world. Her eyes are fixed on two things in the air: the butterfly and the infinite sky. She has the aspiration to spread her wings and learn how to fly to the infinite sky to learn and discover all the mysteries of the universe that God has tasked us to seek and understand. This is flimsy but she knows that if women are not forced against the law of nature, she can transition like a butterfly from its embryonic cocoon. And what motivates her is the human instinct which is the will to cross barriers and frontiers.”
The second conference was organized from 6th to 9th January 2023. Ph. Kiihne, the convener of the conference, elaborates on the rationale behind the conference, “The purpose of the conference is to establish the voice of women as more organized. This is not to stay that women are not organized at all. Women civil societies are formed but these bodies are less than active. Through this conference we are trying to make the cause of women as more organized by making the women aware about their rights which would empower them. And this conference is not limited to raise awareness about women’s rights and education, but also with issues among women. Our emphasis has been that women are also responsible for the poor condition of women. Women have also displayed toxic femininity by favoring the education of the male child. On the whole, the conference is not just about making women more informed but also to help them realize and overcome their flaws.”
The four day conference witnessed the participation of women from different walks of life. Women without formal schooling, daily wagers, cultivators, first generation of educated women, and professionally successful women to name a few attended the conference. H Changue said, “I never had an opportunity to go to school so this conference gave me a lot of mixed feelings. Listening to all the speeches and performances of the people, I was sad that I never had the opportunity and now I am too old to aspire for any. But I am also happy to see that there is so much of power when women come together and stand up for each other. My only wish now is that we elect a woman MLA (legislator), because only a woman can understand another woman problem more intimately. This is my prayer from now because we have been underrepresented in politics and from my understanding only a female MLA can improve the condition of women.”
The conference also had a sense of community life which is the chief characteristic of tribal community. Often in this highly individualistic world, the sense of community life is lost. People move to urban places where individual identity becomes very fluid. This conference in order to restore the sense of community life invited women who have married men from different communities and had settled elsewhere. D. Roveine who has married an outsider said, “Regardless of whether women marry men from the same tribe or an outsider, the sense of loss of rootedness is always there. We grow distant from the community we grew up in. When I received the invitation to attend the conference, I was a little indifferent about it. May be because I was withdrawn from my past life, and I decided not to go. But when I saw the pictures and videos of the conference, I immediately packed my essentials and headed for the conference with my children. It was home coming for me, to see all my childhood friends. This conference restored our memories our way of life, our community way of life, the way we all children grew up in boys’ and girls’ dormitories and taught about how we should always live a community, because there is no greater unity than that.”
Th. Kholue, a college lecturer, said, “Women in our community have always lived as the inferior sex. The men always decided what women should be and what women should think. Women did not have much say in the public discourse because men constituted the village council that decides the daily affairs of the people. This conference is one rare instance where women could come and articulate themselves and speak for themselves and present themselves as thinking and creative beings. We need more this kind of public exposure. There was a gap of about ten years between the two conferences. This time around everyone unanimously agreed that we need to have this kind of conference more regularly.”
The conference Phyahriipfii Niih is basically a public discourse to de-subjugate the convention that construct women as the very opposite of men, as the sex with no self-will who should submit and yield to the control of others. And that woman should have no life of her own but only in her affections for others. The conference emphasis on women as natural barrier and frontier crossers strikes the natural instinct of humankind which is to evolve and seek social, political and economic mobility. The conference is of those small steps that would enable women to take a giant leap into the future.
About the author: Boniface G Kamei belongs to the Rongmei Naga tribe of Manipur, India. He is currently a research scholar at the University of Hyderabad.