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Discourse on gender discrimination in the Naga context

Participating members on Day 1 of the Consultation, organized by Sisterhood Network, on ‘Gender Issues and Challenges in Naga Society’ at IMC Hall, Dimapur.
What is the identity of a Naga woman? Before marriage, it is attached to the father’s clan, and land, and to the husband’s after. Without a male tag, a Naga woman has neither land nor identity—neither a social nor political being. A Consultation on gender issues and challenges in Naga society held by the Sisterhood Network on 7-8 September at IMC Hall in Dimapur brought out the essence of gender discrimination in the Naga context to an audience of young women from Nagaland from myriad fields.

For some years now, a heated debate on positive discrimination for women in governance in Nagaland has brought the spotlight on the identity and status of women, as individuals and a collective, in Naga society. To this, most Naga men have responded with crude incompetence, furthering neither the debate nor empowerment. “The identity of Naga women for the world lies behind a veil of liberty; in reality, a Naga woman is conditioned by oppressive customary laws and has no voice in making decisions for her community,” said Rosemary Dzüvichü, advisor to the Naga Mothers’ Association (NMA), in her keynote address on the first day of the Consultation, which was opened by the Director of Sisterhood Network, Alongla Aier.

Present also, for a prayer session, was Khakheli Zhimoni, the Associate Women Pastor of the Sumi Baptist Church of Dimapur, who called for a gender inclusive language of god. Highlighting the “paternal patriarchal” form of social organization of Naga society, Dzüvichü explained how Naga men use established cultural practices and traditions to undermine the role of women in politics. “Relativity of the past is used to bind women to their traditional position in society. Reservation for all marginalized communities is allowed but women have to stick by their roles ascribed ‘since time immemorial’,” she remarked, sarcastically, to her audience that broke into giggles in silent agreement.

Nagaland state, in five decades of its existence, has never seen a woman legislator, and the only female Member of Parliament it contributed was the nominated Rano Shaiza. The Nagaland Legislative Assembly consists of 60 elected men who affect policies; gender insensitivity, needless to say, is common. “A quarter of the seats and funds of every Village Development Board (VDB) is reserved for women since 1980 but we rarely see gender sensitive development, or women rising to positions from which to affect the same. Even though some villages have made excellent use of this reservation, most women in Nagaland can still not access and utilize these funds,” said Dzüvichü, who has been leading a judicial movement to implement 33% reservation for women in town and municipal councils in Nagaland that will open up 82 seats for women here. Intended to be for certain tenure, reservation in governance might create the opportunity that Naga women have not had “since time immemorial”.   

Going into the depth of the matter, however, was Monalisa Changkija’s paper on ‘Naga Women and Customary Law (Land, Politics and Culture)’ which highlighted the discrimination prevalent in the “advanced” Ao tribe. Changkija, the Editor of Nagaland Page, has remarked on a number of occasions on the rising level of conservatism in modern Ao/Naga society, “you can take the man out of the village but you can’t take the village out of the man!” With marginal attitudinal difference between tribes and clans, cultural oppression of women remains consistent. “Not only is language used to underscore the low status of women in our society but high prestige is accorded to Naga women while rights are denied to them,” asserts her paper. This state of oppression has also defined how the identity of a Naga woman is shaped, which remains peripheral to the community. In Changkija’s view, it will be the entry of women into traditional decision making bodies like the Puttu Menden, apart from governance, that will initiate the change in outlook towards the status of women, thereby changing the perceived identity of Naga women.

Exemplifying why this would be necessary, Associate Director of Nagaland Development Outreach, H. Asang Phom, on the second day of the Consultation, presented a paper on violence and health issues affecting Naga women. Surviving in extreme work conditions and left out of governance, societal and cultural centers, women have to tolerate abuse to “save face”. Husbands lost to political conflict, drugs, HIV/AIDS and alcohol create a separate level of difficulties in terms of identity and economics. The long group discussion that her paper sparked pointed to the abysmal trend of alcoholic husbands beating wives regularly, the low rate of reported cases of physical abuse among Naga women, lack of institutions (through the government or the church) that protect and counsel women, lack of proper reproductive healthcare, and the list goes on. Additionally, the effect of cultural impunity of domestic violence on young minds can be seen in both public and private Naga spaces today.  
The last paper by Abokali Zhimomi, Director of Organic Nagaland, explained the frustrating circumstances of property and drudgery that women farmers in Nagaland are put through. Presenting details from her work in Lukhai village in Zunheboto, this young entrepreneur systematically elucidated why, and how, in spite of being primary food producers, Naga women continue to have no economic gains, cannot access capital or credit facilities, are uneducated, have a low sense of worth and feel incapable of guiding the next generation.

The Consultation was concluded by K. Ela, Director of Prodigals Home, Dimapur, followed by a vote of thanks by Azungla Imsong, Program Coordinator of Sisterhood Network in Dimapur. The observations and lessons drawn from this Consultation will be used to produce a guide on the said topic that hopes to influence both men and women on gender issues.   

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