The Shadow Lines

While the infamous Delhi gang rape is still fresh on the nation’s conscience, a senior Congress leader of Assam who had allegedly raped a woman in lower Assam’s Chirang district was thrashed by angry villagers, before being handed over to the police. Bikram Singh Brahma, who is the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts’ (BTAD’s) Congress Co-ordination Committee president, was allegedly caught by the family members of the woman while he reportedly tried to rape the woman.

To bust stereotypes about women of the region being empowered and liberated, there are many communities where women are treated as ‘mere commodities’. Most of the tribes of Northeast India adhere to age-old customary laws instead of the statutory laws in matters of matrimony, inheritance and divorce. The unwritten tribal laws are usually recognised as binding by their communities.

A customary law can be defined as a traditional common rule or practice that has become an intrinsic part of the accepted and expected conduct in a community, profession, or trade and is treated as a legal requirement. Most tribes consider their customary laws intrinsic to their identity though most of them are rooted in patriarchy.

“A rotten fence and an old wife can be changed anytime,” is a common proverb in Mizoram. Under the existing customary laws, when a man divorces his wife, the latter leaves the house without virtually anything, even if she contributed a lot to the family’s assets. However, things are gradually changing with the Mizo Divorce Ordinance 2008 which will put an end to certain divorce laws under the “male-friendly” Mizo Customary Law which are highly anti-women.

This is just a small instance. In parts of Arunachal Pradesh, child marriage is still prevalent. In some of the tribes, a girl child is treated as a tradable commodity, negotiable for a price determined by parents or guardians of the girl and the male to whom she is to be bound by matrimony.

“Despite legislations granting women’s representation in decision making bodies like Town and Municipal Councils, patriarchal mindset and culture of male dominance prohibits women from enjoying their entitlements.”

In fact, the Law Research Institute, Eastern Region, Gauhati High Court has completed a study on customary laws and practices of 50 tribes of the North-Eastern region. The published reports highlight the various aspects of life of the tribal people – the working of their social institutions like marriage, divorce, custody and guardianship of children, adoption, maintenance etc, their system of land holding and administration of justice. The study supported by the North Eastern Council (NEC) was carried out with the help of local research officers and the institute has already published many of its findings. Dr Jeuti Barooah says, “Tribal people do not have codified laws. They have their own customary laws that have given them a distinct identity.”

Mary Beth Sanate of the ngo Rural Women Upliftment Society based in Churachandpur in Manipur says, “Incidents of violence against women are often kept under wraps and are decided by the male-dominated local governing bodies. We had studied the customary laws of various states in Northeast India and assessed the advantages as well as the disadvantages. We saw that the customary laws are not protecting the rights of women and are instead an obstacle for women to get justice and find a place in decision-making bodies.”

Sanate adds that local governing bodies are less democratic under the village authorities that decide cases of divorce, child custody, violence against women. “The village authorities are elected on the basis of clan and women do not have a clan. Women hardly get space and justice in the decision-making bodies. The customary laws should be reviewed in a gender-sensitive manner,” she adds.

The decades of conflict in the region has also led to rape as an instrument of oppression. Justice J S Verma, former Chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission (India) has said that the law enforcement agencies are the biggest violators of human rights in the country. For instance, the infamous Manorama rape case of Manipur managed to surge into the national headlines. The 32 year old woman named Thangjam Manorama alias Henthoi was brutally tortured and allegedly executed by personnel of the paramilitary force of 17 Assam Rifles stationed in Manipur, after she was picked by them in the early hours of 11 July 2004.

According to a report in the Asian Human Rights Commission, “most of the rape cases go unreported for obvious reasons… The victims typically fear being stigmatized, losing marriage opportunities, revealing lost virginity, or are reluctant to talk about a sexual act in public. Under any circumstances, the perpetrators are almost never found guilty, the victims receive no compensation and are liable to be harassed, while their families are also traumatised and at a loss as to what steps to take.” It added, “Women themselves are now being forced to take responsibility to prevent rape. The Meira Paibi (Women Torch – Bearers) have been the vanguard of this movement, and are present in all localities. But the Meira Paibis are now also becoming a target of abuse for their human rights work.” Often, these victims of conflict are targeted by human traffickers.

Anjuman Ara Begum of WinG, a network of women organisations in Northeast India writes, “Despite legislations granting women’s representation in decision making bodies like Town and Municipal Councils, patriarchal mindset and culture of male dominance prohibits women from enjoying their entitlements. This has been observed in the recent developments in Nagaland regarding the women reservation issue.”

The Nagaland Government had passed an amendment in 2006 ensuring 33% reservation for women in all town and municipal councils in Nagaland. Women groups in Nagaland have been constantly submitting memorandums to ensure the proper implementation of this amendment in the state but all fall on deaf ears of the male dominated political structure. Despite these efforts, elections are at halt in the state due to the ongoing peace process. Various excuses like customary laws, the peace process, premature timing are often citied to discourage women’s participation in the decision making bodies.

“Being frustrated over the whole exercise, women’s bodies in the state formed the Action Committee on Women Reservation consisting of the Naga Mothers Association (NMA), Eastern Naga Women Organisation, Naga Women Hoho, Dimapur and the Watsu Mongdang and demanded immediate implementation of the Nagaland Municipal Amendment Act 2006 ensuring 33% reservation of seats for women in all towns and municipalities in Nagaland. A month’s deadline was given to the State government to hold elections and implement the Act ensuring women’s participation,” informs Begum.

It’s time to unveil the many facets of women in a region comprising eight heterogeneous states, often ghettoized as a monolith. The women of the region face almost the same kind of discrimination and violence as in any other part of the country, which often go unreported and unnoticed.

Teresa Rehman is an award-winning journalist who chronicles the lives of ordinary people in the seven states that make up the North-East of India. She was born in Shillong and started her journalistic career in Delhi before returning to report on the untold stories of a region marked by state-sponsored violence against its people and a strong sense of neglect and alienation from 'mainstream' India. Winner of two 'Excellence in Journalism' awards.

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