The simplest way for us to understand matriarchal societies is these are societies in which the economic, normative and property rights are in the hands of female members of the family. Matriarchal societies are also the ones where the head of the household is a woman. Some people confuse the idea of matriarchy as being opposite to patriarchy. This may not be very accurate since patriarchy comes with the baggage of dominance, which may not be manifested in a matriarchy. In fact, most supposedly ‘martriarchal’ societies in India are actually ‘matrilineal’ in the way they operate.
There are terms related to the word matriarchal like matrilineal and matrilocal. Matrilineal refers to descent along the females in the family. Matrilocal refers to the concept that the married couple stay close to the girl’s family, which is opposite to the traditional idea of staying close to the boys family. Most of these terms are used interchangeably.
Few tribes in India are matriarchal even today. But in its essence, none can be called matriarchal. Tribes like the Nairs of Kerala and the Garo and Khasis from Meghalaya can in the least be called matrilineal as they follow the rules of descent and lineage from the mother’s line. The Khasis are the biggest matrilineal society in the world today.
So what does it mean to be part of a matrilineal society in India today? Does it mean complete and utter independence and equality for women in social, economic and political aspects? Or is it just a nominal concept that rests on paper that doesn’t manifest in reality?
I think the answer lies somewhere in between. The matrilineal societies of the north east offer no representation even today in local and state policy for women. 2 out of 60 representatives from the state of Meghalaya are women. At the same time, there seem to be no restrictions on women social movement. Women are free to choose their husbands who often come to live with them post marriage. Men have no property rights in these societies; most of the inheritance goes to the youngest daughter in the family. In Kerala on the other hand, there is a higher representation of women in political processes, owing undoubtedly to the rate of literacy and higher sex ratio of females. Many would claim that the progress of women in the state has a lot to do with its mentality towards women; women are not liabilities here. Their history of freedom and power has kept them more forward and empowered even today, in taking decisions for themselves and supporting their family. We may say that this minority culture has definitely had its advantages even though its reach has been minimal and scattered. Way to go for women’s societies.