Where Indian women gained the upper hand!

In most places around the world men start off in control and it’s the women who have to fight back, but in the Khasi Hills of Northeast India these roles have been totally reversed. So much so that the men have formed male rights groups and are desperately campaigning for equality!


If there’s a model society to oppose the patriarchal values of this world, then it surely has to be the Khasi culture, where women run the family, own property, take of charge of money and business, and can throw their husbands out whenever they want!

We are coming to end of our journey to find a real-life matriarchy, and this culture is suddenly looking very promising… !!!

But how do you go about assessing if a culture is matriarchal?

Well… it must all start with a bit background information – a thorough bit of research if you like. So here’s some selected history from our new eBook LAND OF LOST MALE RIGHTS about how the women of the Khasi culture gained the upper hand!

If we delve back many centuries, before the British arrived to India, there’s one folk tale that really stands out:

The legend of the fighting women

One day, long ago, when the Khasi were a nomadic hill tribe, the men and women made an agreement to create a permanent village. They decided the women would look after the children, cook, take care of domestic animals and keep ancestor worship, while the men would continue hunting and raiding.

One night, as revenge for the repeated attacks by the Khasi men, the people of the plains in Assam set out to raid a Khasi village. They chose to do so, of course, when the men were away. During the onslaught, however, the Khasi women managed to unite and form a counterattack.

The people of the plains were both surprised and overwhelmed by the ferocity of the women, and as well as driving the attackers away the women also managed to capture some. This was to come in handy, for when the Khasi men returned they didn’t believe the story until they saw the captives.

As a reward for protecting the village and children, the men agreed the clan name should come from the mother, and for the property to be given to the youngest daughter.


Even after the British arrived, it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that the colonialists noted the female orientation of Khasi society. In 1869 Lieutenant EH Steel created an article for the Ethnological Society of London about the ease with which Khasi women can divorce:


The marriage tie is easily dissolved. The husband gives the woman five cowries (small shells used as currency), and the woman throws them away; they are then free to be married again, the children remaining with the mother.

… It is needless to say that wife-beating is unknown, and seems to me to be more a token of civilised than of savage life.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the British Deputy Commissioner for Assam and Superintendent of Ethnography Major PRT Gurdon also became interested in the Khasi. He mastered the Khasi language and was the first person to describe the culture as a matriarchy!

In his monograph The Khasis (1906) he highlights the controversial issue of inheritance:


The Khasi saying is ‘Long jaid n aka kynthei’ (‘From the woman sprang the clan’). The Khasis, when reckoning descent, count from the mother only; they speak of a family of brothers and sisters, who are the great grandchildren of one great grandmother … The man is nobody.

Further, the ceremonial religion amongst Khasis, especially that of the home, is in the hands of the women. It is therefore perhaps not to be wondered at, considering the important status assigned to women by the Khasis, that women should inherit the property and not men.

Exactly how the women gained their inheritance rights, however, is still a hotly debated subject, and may not be as straightforward as the folk tale of the fighting women suggests.

The prominent Khasi historian Dr H Bareh puts forward a very different theory. He argues that when British colonial administrators were making records of who owned property, they mistakenly placed the woman as the titleholder and the youngest daughter as her heir. Dr Bareh explains that in the olden days, property was communally owned by the whole village or clan, and the uncle of the family (the wife’s brother) was in charge of everything. But prior to British arrival this tradition was already in decline, leaving the wife who was only the caretaker of the house to be mistakenly seen as the owner.

If this is true, nothing appears to suggest that the British administration made this mistake on purpose, so it may simply have been a cultural detail lost in translation, combined perhaps with a British administrator eager to get back for his afternoon tea!


Anyway, come the modern commercial era, when property is suddenly worth money and status – it’s no wonder some Khasi men are now feeling hard done by.

To really cap the strength of the women and put the final nail in the coffin for the men, the 1997 Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council (KHADC) created the ‘Khasi Lineage Act’, which states that anyone who doesn’t follow the matrilineal system of name and inheritance will cease to be Khasi.

This means, anyone who chooses not to give the property to the youngest daughter, or not to give the mother’s name to the children, will lose all rights of being a Scheduled Tribe, which includes such benefits as tax reliefs, government jobs, free trade licences and various grants and scholarships.

So, with the local autonomous body of the KHADC enforcing these laws, it really does seem like the women have gained the upper hand!

Thank you for your interest in our project.

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