by Wapanginla, SCM India
The region of North East India comprises of eight States—Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura. This region is one of the homelands of many heterogeneous people. In this region, 442 languages and dialects are spoken. There are so many different communities and each have their own distinct culture and historical context. No two tribes have the same culture and history. In such a mixed community, the situation and status of women in North East India is very much complicated. In spite of these diversities, there is also communality among the tribes. In North East India, there exist both patriarchal and matrilineal system. Patriarchy is a culture, which the tribes have been practicing for centuries and this system will continue to exist in the present society. Discrimination, subordination and oppression of women are products of patriarchal culture, in which men exercise control over women, restrict women’s freedom of choice, behaviour, action, and even thought. Even in the context of matrilineal society, example, Khasi-Jaintia and Garo societies, whose matrilineal practice is still very strong but yet practically it is the patriarchy that dominates. In this paper I would like to bring out the status of women in the society and role of women in the Church in North East India.
The introduction of Christian faith by the foreign missionaries in the region of North East India brought about radical changes in the tribal society. In spite of the deferred opinions, most of the scholars acknowledge the contribution of Christianity towards the uplifting of women. However, this does not mean that the position and status of the women took a complete different shape. Today, in most of the tribal societies in North East India, women are considered to have equal status with men. It is because there is a free and liberal society, where mixing with the opposite sex is open and free. In other words, they are free and have better opportunities in the community in comparison with the women of other societies. But traditionally, they are regarded to be submissive and are kept away from active participation in both socio-political and religious activities. They are made to submit to and depend upon man and to confine themselves mainly to domestic duties. As what Renthy Keitzer, a prominent Naga theologian says, their freedom is limited; strictly speaking, they are not free in the modern sense of the term.
Today women are the most oppressed section of the society. They are struggling for full humanhood, for equal rights and justice in all spheres of life. The worldwide patriarchal culture considers women as inferior and dependent beings to men. For many centuries, both men and women have been educated and domesticated by the thought and notion of patriarchal biasness. Our stories and traditions have been largely integrated and transmitted in the light of this domesticated culture. Before the patriarchal society was well organised and shifted to a rigid and hierarchical structure, women had enjoyed active participation in various social activities and had almost equal rights as men. However, in the course of time women’s role and status were diminished gradually due to the dominant ideology of patriarchy. Thus, while women are seen as inferior and subordinate, men are regarded as superior, having power to dominate women.
Women in matrilineal societies like the Khasi-Jaintias and Garos enjoy a better position. The youngest daughter inherits ancestral property and female lineage is maintained. Yet, this does not contribute to the equality with men.
When we look at the socio-political sphere, men certainly have shown respect to women than before, but the fundamental concept of womanhood as inferior to manhood is not changed by Christianity though they could mingle freely with men and take part in social activities, one would see a male above. This is clearly reflected in the structure of the Church in which women are given low position. In the tribal traditional societies, the village council which consisted only of men held the highest administrative power. In many villages, this tradition still continues. At the State level the situation is somewhat different but the fact still remains that the male leadership is dominating all parties.
In the socio-economic spheres, a large majority of tribal female workers are engaged in agriculture. They are seldom employed in industries and other business activities. Women who work outside the home still remain responsible for the domestic work of the household. Thus, bearing a double work burden which is a serious obstacle both to better employment opportunities and to socio, economic and political participation. According to economists, household works are non-productive because they do not add to the national income. Household works are described by these economists as un-organised, unpaid or invisible. This means that 99 per cent of the women are engaged in non-productive works, they are deprived of taking up leadership roles in the society. According to S. Shimray, the overall status of women is undoubtedly lower than of their male counterparts. In the process of history, women have been systematically conquered and deprived of their own history. They are blindfolded from the truth of their own historical privileges. Among the poor and the marginalised, the most unprivileged and poorest are women.
In North East India, women constitute about half of the population and half of the membership of the Church. In spite of the fact that they are important to both Church and society, women are not acknowledged and are not given an important role to play and this hinders them from a full participation in the ministry.
Thanzauva, a Mizo theologian has the view that in the early formative stage of tribal Christian Church, there was no discrimination against women, who could participate actively in the Church as evangelists, teachers and deacons. One reason he gives for this is the lack of able male leaders. This should have certainly contributed much towards the uplifting of women in tribal Christian society. But the equal partnership was still far from realisation. Certain traditional practices could not be avoided even after the community had embraced Christianity.
The role of women in the Church ministry has always been defined by the traditional role of women in tribal society and this determines their status in the Church. R.L. Hununi says that the new theological awareness coupled with the changing world in which new models for women began to be available, made it difficult for the most educated women to accept the traditional roles assigned to them in both society and the Church. In the Church more women are feeling that they are called by God into the ministry and more and more women are seeking theological education. The ministry of the church remains incomplete without the full and equal participation of women. For if men and women are both created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27 and 5:1-3), they are inseparable and their equal status as well as dual ministry is assumed. Women have special gift to offer to theology. In Christian ministry both men and women must work together in multiple ways with the goal to establish the Reign of God in Christ had initiated.
Alice Walking too says, discrimination is more common in the Church than in the secular circles. High ranking women officers and even women ministers are found in the secular sector. It is in the Church circles that leadership of women is not fully accepted. The structure of the Church hinders equal participation of men and women in the ministry. Though women contribute a lion’s share for the betterment of the Church, they are debarred and marginalised in ecclesial employment. Fully qualified and trained women are often denied their ordination, leadership, administration, policy-making etc. Women are expected to play assisting roles only.
In North East India, the issue of women ordination was raised only a few years ago. A landmark was achieved when Ao Baptist Arogo Mungdang (ABAM) ordained two Ao-Naga women, Noksangchila in 1992, ad Senangshila in 1993. Later in 1996, D. Bongshot was ordained in Thamlakhuren Baptist Church under the Lamkang Naga Association and Kim Vaiphei in February 1977, under the Kuki Baptist Association.
This is indeed a great step towards equal participation of men and women in ministry. In this regard, R.L. Hnuni rightly pointed out that it is time to give up the traditional that always expect only women to be the ones who would adjust to the situation, but to treat them equally as men. She also calls for re-examining and restating the unjust traditional view by restructuring the Church to be accommodative and do away with evils of inequality, injustice and discrimination.
In conclusion, the above following discussions demonstrate the condition and status of women in North East India and called for the need to be liberated in all areas of life. The women’s role and status was low traditionally and remain so at the present. In spite of significant contribution of women to the life of society, women and womanhood have been subjected to sufferings and exploitation even in the Church of North East India, there is a wide gap between men and women. It is therefore necessary for the church to re-examine and change the traditional attitudes towards women and bring them back to a fuller humanhood, so that the purpose of God will be fulfilled, by sharing the partnership in God’s mission.