Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Khasis - an uncle society on the ropes?

A reader alerted me to an interesting story in The Australian about the Khasi people in north India:

TO MANY males it sounds the perfect existence. "The men here have no responsibilities," says Kaith Pariat, a member of the Khasi tribe, an ancient community of about a million people who live in the hills of northeast India.

"All we have to do is to eat, drink, play the guitar and produce children." For all their permitted fecklessness, however, the Khasi men are far from happy. Fed up with being branded the weaker sex and discriminated against, under centuries-old traditions, they have started what may be the world's only "men's lib" movement.

The tribe is a rare example of a matrilineal community. It is the youngest daughter who inherits property and children take their mothers' surnames. If a family does not have a daughter, it must adopt one to become its heir.

Men are expected to sleep in the house of the mother-in-law and to keep quiet. They are excluded from clan meetings, which are presided over by a network of matriarchs. This strict social hierarchy is supported by the Indian Constitution, which recognises the traditions of official ethnic minorities and gives them legal status.

Men say this was acceptable in the past, when activities such as hunting took them away from home for long periods. But today, thanks in part to the influence of Christianity, the trend is for nuclear families and men say they are mere dogsbodies.

"The father of the household has no power," Mr Pariat, 58, told The Times. "He has no rights. Even if he has a very good character but his wife is a loose woman, he cannot take custody of his children." He has founded the Syngkhong Rympei Thymai ("the wedge that supports the wobbly table"), a movement with about 2,000 members that is fighting for the law to be changed and social structures reorganised. He says its key demand is that children take their fathers' surnames.

"If children take my title they are part of my clan and I will have the weight of responsibility on my shoulders. That means I will have to lead a more stable life. It will take our men out of the rut they are in," he said.

"The lack of responsibility is killing us. Boys are dropping out of school. Men are taking to drugs and drinking themselves to death by the age of 40."

Here we have an example of a failing "uncle" society. In uncle societies there is usually little emphasis placed on marital stability and/or sexual fidelity. In the case of the Khasis it seems that it is marital stability which is missing:

According to Khasi laws, a woman ... may end a marriage at her will with no objection from her husband.

The lack of marital stability has consequences:

Divorces amongst both Khasis and Syntengs are of common occurrence, the result being that the children in many cases are ignorant of even the names of their fathers. For the mother, on the other hand, the children cherish a very strong affection, all their sympathies and affections binding them closely to the mother's kin.

Let's say you belong to a society in which there are basic forms of agriculture combined perhaps with hunting or fishing. If there is little emphasis placed on sexual fidelity or marital stability, then men either won't be sure of their paternity or else the paternal connection will be weak. It then makes sense for a man to put more effort into his nieces and nephews, since these are certainly closely related to him, and for descent and inheritance to be organised through the maternal line (a matrilineal system).

So there are societies in which the male role of uncle is more important than the male role of father. In such societies, a man on marriage might well go to live with his wife's clan. But his position there will be a minor one - he will be merely the "begetter" of children. Or, he might stay with his mother and sisters and merely visit his "wife" at night (the Mosuo system). If he earns or produces something, it will then go to his mother and sisters and he might have some standing in the maternal clan as an uncle (a matrifocal system).

Here are some more descriptions of how the Khasis once lived:

Not only is the mother the head and source, and only bond of union, of the family: in the most primitive part of the hills, the Synteng country, she is the only owner of real property, and through her alone is inheritance transmitted. The father has no kinship with his children, who belong to their mother's clan; what he earns goes to his own matriarchal stock...

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, as shi kpoh, which, being literally translated, is one womb; i.e. the issue of one womb. The man is nobody. If he is a brother, u kur, a brother being taken to mean an uterine brother, or a cousin-german, he will be lost to the family or clan directly he marries. If he be a husband, he is looked upon merely as a u shong kha, a begetter.

These uncle societies might be matrilineal and matrifocal but they are not matriarchal. Tribal governance remains in the hands of men (the Khasis, for instance, were once ruled by kings). Even in the family, although there is much authority held by the senior female, the uncles also often have ultimate power:

Despite its matrilineal descent, Khasi society cannot be said to be matriarchal: although women have a word to say, the ultimate authority reside with the eldest males of the matrilineage.

The uncle societies may have functioned better when basic agriculture could be left to women and men focused on activities that drew them away from home, such as hunting or warfare.

But such societies have obvious weaknesses. The men who live in their wife's household have little responsibility either to provide or to assume paternal responsibility. And even when men do have responsibilities as uncles, that can't be as strong a connection as you would have to your own children in your own household.

So it was the father societies that proved to be more dynamic and which gave rise to the great civilisations.

The dysfunction of uncle societies is likely to be even greater today when there is less need for men to hunt or to live as warriors. Which leads on to the complaint made by the Khasi male liberationist quoted above:

"If children take my title they are part of my clan and I will have the weight of responsibility on my shoulders. That means I will have to lead a more stable life. It will take our men out of the rut they are in," he said.

"The lack of responsibility is killing us. Boys are dropping out of school. Men are taking to drugs and drinking themselves to death by the age of 40."

We often lose sight of why we have the customs we do. Take, for instance, the fact that our society is patrilineal and children take their father's name and descent is reckoned through the father's line. There was a purpose to this - it was part of creating a father society, of connecting men to a paternal role and responsibility - something which cannot merely be assumed or taken for granted.

The alternative is not some great, feminist, lost matriarchy. The historic alternative was to have an uncle society, one in which fathers had little role or responsibility within a community and in which society did not, therefore, develop civilisationally.


  1. If the guys were to have the system changed so that male names were passed down that would probably be a substantial change to the society. The men, however, are in such a weak position, no land and no protection in their relationships. I think that probably matters more than the keeping of the name. It seems like a pretty ghastly society.

    Some societies have property passed through the female line but this seems an unusually dysfunctional one.

  2. The black society is an uncle society, I think.

  3. @ Alte

    "The black society is an uncle society, I think."

    I was thinking the same thing, remembering how Hanna Rosin described the lower class black culture as a "matriarchy" in her "End of Men" essay.

    It also occurred to me that the "feminism of poverty" that the feminists lament is the result of an uncle society. Poverty is the natural consequence of divesting males of their children and hence removing their motivation to provide for them.

  4. whoops - meant "feminization of poverty"

  5. A better question, if enough men in society would begin to take the MGTOW path, what would stop a system like the Khasi's from spurting up?

  6. James,

    They might say that we allready live in one.

  7. You may have a point there jesse...!

  8. One of the root problems in a society in which the men hunt and the women grow food is that the rise of civilization depends on improving the productivity of agriculture. Hunter-gatherer societies, in which women gather berries and nuts and plant small patches of vegetables and tubers, while the men hunt, are doomed to economic stagnation. How much will the productivity of hunting improve over time? How much will be productivity of gathering the very crops that must be gathered by hand, whose harvesting cannot be mechanized, ever increase over the centuries?

    When the agriculture centers on growing cereal grains, the men do very physical work (seeding, plowing, taming and leading plow animals, gathering and cutting sheaves of grain, etc.) The women supplement this food with tubers, berries, etc., and the men hunt a little during seasonal down times. But, the men have time between planting and harvesting to think up improvements: irrigation and water transport methods, terracing and other soil preservation methods, crop rotation, better fencing to keep out animals, etc.

    Hunter-gatherer men (and women) have little motivation for innovation. Cereal grain producing men have a lot of motivation for innovation. Hence, civilization develops. The Khasi men are doomed to low status if the whole tribe is going to live off tubers, berries, and hand-picked vegetables in a mountainous area not suited to modern agriculture.

  9. It seems bizarre that they want to jump from hunter gathering straight to women's/men's lib. It seems there are a few steps in between.

  10. I just wanted to note that I have the book review of Radical Homemaker up now, as some of your readers were interested.

  11. Question:

    Where do you go to learn more about "uncle societies"

  12. Edward Sun (born-to-be-sun) proud to have my mom's surname, SUN.Friday, 8 June 2012 at 06:00:00 GMT+10

    You are being misinformed... this is not even half of the truth about the Khasi Society.. in fact, very far from it. i am a Khasi male of 30.. it's true that we take our mother's surnames. what is not true is what mr. Pariat was saying that the men here have no responsibilities. it could be true, maybe, in his case and with few other chauvinists like him who are just "too good" to be treated at par with women in the society who, more often than not, are more harworking than them (Mr. Pariat and his company of male chauvinists). and to say that many Khasi men are far from happy because their only duty is to produce children and being branded as weaker sex is even more ironic. we actually have more responsibilities than many other men in other societies in comparison.. one, we have to be responsible uncles (a highly respectable status in the society, we have the final say in our own clan's matter and note, not the youngest daughter). secondly, as fathers we have to be the best. our childrens future depends on how we live as thier responsible fathers. i dont need my kids to have my surnames for me to be responsible for everything in their life.. they have my BLOOD. as the saying goes, blood is thicker than water, or in this case, blood is more pronounced than surname. i love my nephews and nieces, even more so i love my kids.. i am a happy responsible father and my kids and of corse, my wife love me. and whats more? i can even go to my moms house anytime and get the love and affection of my nephews and nieces who look up to me. what more do i want?
    btw, mr . Pariat.just how do you intend to revolutionise the age-old system? your own surname (PARIAT) is probably not your mom's surname since you are obviously, not in favour of it. it has to be your dad's surname. but then again, thats a problem (a big one, in fact) 'cause your father would've taken his mother's "title" (surname). just for argument's sake, let say that your father took his father's surname. but again, YOur father's father would have definitely taken his mother's surname 'cause until recently, (i.e., until you and your so-called Syngkhong rympei movement came into existence not long ago, probably 10-20 years max, but i doubt that too)nobody even thought of such a phony idea of chainging the whole (well rooted) system.
    if you think that you have no power in your own household, i believe you are not man enough to even be a father. why do you have to worry about what other cultures do? in fact, you should be proud that our culture is unoque and our society is one of the strongest in the whole of india. we are traditionalists but we are also a very progressive society in many terms. in a country like india, we are a very good example 'cause women here are treated equally in every way and not like most parts of india where a girl child is being killed every now and then just because shes not a boy. i may add just one more thing. because of our system of lineage, we have become a very clean society sexually beacuse the system prevents us from being in a sexual relationship with our very close kins (no marriage within the same kur(clan), or kpoh (the same womb)). in short in-breeding is totally impossible.

  13. Edward Sun (born-to-be-sun) proud to have my mom's surname, SUN.Friday, 8 June 2012 at 06:01:00 GMT+10

    The danger now lies with mr PAriats offsprings. for example lets say their surname(i.e. their motheir's) is "x" if they took his surname, which is Pariat, they become Pariat. now, if they happen to meet someone with the surname "x" and they happen to marry them, they would be like marrying a member of their own clan(from the mother's side). and know this, in khasi society, members of the same clan are very closely related, almost like brithers and sisters, even if they hvent known each other from before. it can be proven scientifically. so it would be like marrying his/her own sister/brother. and any right-minded and responsible father would not want this to happen, now would we, mr.Pariat? you yourself being a Khasi would know it better.. unless you want to change the whole society and its system completly, which, of course, is not possible and never will be.
    By the way, mr. Pariat if you were a man of character like this article in this blog claims you to be, then you wouldnt be whining about your wife having the only benefits that your children are taking her surname. she's their parent too. if you think you deserve to be the one that your kids should take their surname from, then she equally deserves it too. So, let's stop grumbling about it and lets start to focus on more important issues than a surname. Let tradition take care of it.