Beria is in the village council

Tungshang Ningreichon (L) and Beria Wanglum ( R) are seen here at the 9th Women’s Conference and Assembly held at Chandel in October 2013.
I met Beria Wanglum at the 9th Naga Women’s Conference and Assembly that was held from 4-7 October 2013 in Chandel.

Beria is a beautiful 35 year old Anal woman from a village called Cheengkhu that houses about 42 families. Anal is one of the Naga tribes of Chandel, a district in the state of Manipur, named as one of the country's 250 most backward districts (out of a total of 640) in 2006 by the Ministry of Panchayati Raj.

Beria is the eldest among 11 siblings of 9 boys and 2 girls. Her parents are cultivators and uneducated, but did not hesitate to send their children to school; Beria studied and graduated in Chandel. She then moved to Delhi and worked there for 3 years in two places: a mobile showroom and a department store. In Delhi she met a Tibetan guy, fell in love and got married. In 2005 she returned home to deliver their baby and did not go back to Delhi but decided to stay on in the village with her daughter.

Today, she is the secretary of the Cheengkhu Village Council and is, perhaps, the only woman to be in a Village Council from among nearly 1000 Naga villages in Manipur spanning across different districts. The polity of the Nagas lies in the village where the political authority ideally rest with the people and the legislative, executive and judiciary powers are exercised through these councils, which are formed by male clan representatives. Women traditionally do not participate in the village council and any attempt is met with resistance. In a tradition where chieftainship is hereditary and lineage traced through the father, it is rare for a woman to be in such a place and this is what makes Beria’s participation exceptional.

Curious about how a small village like Cheengkhu accommodates a woman in a traditionally male bastion, I asked Beria what prompted her to join the Council and if she had to struggle her way in.  She said that ‘Anal customary law does not allow women to be elected to the village authority. However, people are slowly beginning to understand the importance of women’s contribution and participation in political spaces’. She mentioned the role of an organization called Christian Social Development Organization (CSDO) that works in 16 villages across the district including Cheengkhu village which has been advocating for integration of women in village administration. The impact is being seen and, in 2009, Cheengkhu village drafted a new constitution giving women the right to be in the Village Council. Following this, a decision to elect a woman was taken in one of their village assembly meetings. A year later, Beria was elected as a member and eventually as the secretary of the Council.

What is it like to be in a male dominated space? She confessed that she was initially nervous as she had little idea about the Village Council and its administration; however, with the co-operation of the local pastor, women’s society and youth organization of the village she slowly gained confidence in carrying out her duties as the secretary. She was also the women’s co-ordinator of the Anal Students Union in Chandel but joining the Council has given her more determination, direction and strength; she is grateful that some male church leaders have been instrumental in bringing about these changes in the village.

I asked her about her dreams for her people. She shared, rather modestly, that she would like more women in the Council and that she is working towards the same. She also dreams of good education for her people, especially girls. She is of the view that education of girls is important and should be promoted so that they may excel in society.

She feels shy about her non fluency in the English language. It reminded me of my war with this language and took me back to memories of my struggle with it during my graduation days. I told her about how nervous I used to be but was forced to speak English when I joined college outside the state. She looked at me with interest. I told her about how very hard we tried not to mingle with English speaking people because we worried that when we speak, it would sound like a song gone awfully wrong and our grammars fly like that of the drunkard in the village.

We laughed and held hands and deep down I celebrated the journey that Naga women have made against war, violence and patriarchy, with Beria as one of its wayfarers.