Archives of North East Network

xth March, 2022
Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland



︎︎︎    Exhibition as a tool for social change

︎︎︎    Archives of Social Work Organisation as transformative exhibits towards inclusive public discourse

‘In the north east of India, women enjoy greater mobility and visibility than women of other communities in the country. This is often cited to portray a picture of equity between men and women in the region and has given rise to the presumption that VAW is not a major concern in the area. Data collected by the North East Network however suggests that violence against women, particularly domestic violence, is on the rise in the North-east.’ 

- Excerpts from Voices from the Fringe, Experiences of female survivors of violence in shelter homes, Assam State Action Research Study report by NEN.

The regional narrative for the most part of its exposure in local and national media has been shaped by polarizing aspects of either landscape and cultural heritage, or conflicts arising due to ideas associated with the nation-state. Such narratives which are controlled and shaped by dominant agendas have led to widespread partial perspectives about the region that not only shapes a false understanding of identity in pop-culture, but also poses serious harm to indigenous population of the region during such an age of accessible exposure to the ‘globalized’ world.

More than ever, it becomes necessary now to make efforts that seek to create platforms and public forums that facilitate stories and conversations from a nuanced understanding of the region driven by local communities and practitioners. The composition of the archives of NEN as artistic intervention in public space brings into dialogue an alternate feminist perspective from the region that will help incubate new conversations.

This process seeks to extend a bridge by using the medium of public exhibition as an artistic tool between social work practitioners, research, academia to an open and inclusive public discourse.

When this project was in a conceptual state, the ideas about translating social work archives into artworks were fleeting abstract visuals. The contextual collaboration with North East Network established the framework within which these ideas could take shape. As we started the process of visiting the Guwahati office of NEN, and going through their public records and archives, the form of the idea began to grow. Through gravity and depth of the work that NEN has been doing, the idea soon grew big enough to facilitate an entire platform for a series of participatory and collaborative actions.

Over the course of the next few months, we will be sharing excerpts of narratives from the archives of North East Network. At the same time, we will be ideating on how to best approach this project and make it as transparent and inclusive as possible.

The pictures above are from an NEN Publication: Srijani – Nari Katha Vol. II, published in 2020.

Pic 1: Manju Devi                        Pic 5: Priyanka Deka
Pic 2: Janu Saharia                      Pic 6: Usha Lakara
Pic 3: Narmada Devi                      Pic 7: Korobi Nath
Pic 4: Joshila Haro                       Pic 8: Binita Talukdar

Violence against women (VAW) was recognised as one of the eleven critical areas of concern by the Commission on the Status of Women, in its Country Report for the Fourth World Conference on Women at Beijing in 1994. There has been growing alarm about different kinds of violence and abuse being committed on women all over the world. Such violence is not random violence in which the victims happen to be women and girls; the risk factor is being female. In other words, the roots of such violence are gender-based. The United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (1993) defines violence against women as ‘any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life’.

A study by North East Network in 30 Panchayats and 10 Village Council Development Committees in 8 districts of Assam, 2015

Map of the macro

Enquiry Into the status of Women in Nagaland

"Men are like trunks and women are like leaves”

Said a Gaon Bura in a Naga Village. Even though there seems to be a protective veil on the status of women in Nagaland to be progressive and equal with men, the realities reveal the difference. It is very poignant to note the comment of a male village leader in relation to women's access to political space when he said " if we can change the Bible, then we can also change our customs." Despite the fact that the constitutional rights of women are guaranteed, they continue to be inaccessible and are superseded by customary practices and usages. Until recently, women have been excluded from Village Councils , thereby denying them the opportunity to govern the village and administer justice.

The culture of silence around the issues of violence against women strongly prevails, as the society is indoctrinated to sustain the violence. Again, the lack of documented evidence on the issues and the customary practices deeply entrenched in patriarchal beliefs make it more difficult for women to access existing constitutional justice mechanisms.

Assets and Ownership

Rural communities of Nagaland are closely knitted and depend on subsistence agrarian economy. In Naga society, land is an important asset because the Naga economy depends on land-based resources for survival and all tribal identities are established on the land or territory people occupy. Land even had spiritual significance as connoted in forms of dreams and visions where some places are regarded as sacred land. To the Nagas, land constitutes the most important immovable asset and ownership in Naga society basically refers to the power to decide over the usage and sale of any asset. During the study, it was mentioned by women that they may have a decision over moveable assets like “the kitchen articles” while regarding immovable assets women may be given a piece of land to cultivate, but she can only use it for a limited time and can never decide to sell it. In terms of monetary assets in a household, women are entrusted with managerial roles, but decision-making power lies with the men. Given the traditional practice, women fail to see the importance of having ownership rights but with continuous engagement women have started questioning and reasoning why they are denied such rights.

Work and Employment

Oral folklores and literature on Naga society indicate that manual work that involves physical labor was considered "work" in olden days. Fear, Shame and Taboo were the three principles guiding everyday life of the Nagas. In respect to the second principle "Menye" or shame, it was noted that it was shameful for a man and a woman who do not know how to do manual works such as weaving cloth, making baskets or carving wood. Within the family structure, parents had the role of teaching their children on skills and techniques of manual work.

Though traditionally work was based on gender, such as weaving was strictly for women and hunting was for men, it is certain that women did receive a status and recognition for her abilities and skills. Such women were praised , appreciated and endowed with blessings of getting a good husband and this was a way of recognizing a woman for her contributions. Women's contribution was recognized only because she will be providing her service for her husband and her family. On the contrary, men's achievements in skills of warfare and hunting were greatly celebrated by the entire community.

Sandwiched between transitions, the Naga society has seen drastic shift of younger people migrating to urban settings for education and job which brings in better opportunities. Notably the skills and technique in handicrafts, weaving etc are undermined as these are not considered ideal occupations today. At the same time, the continuation of such patterns of work remains the mainstay of Nagaland's rural economy.

However, within this changing structure, gendered differences continue when one looks at the aspirations and expectations of families and society on men and women.

Political Participation

The issue of women political participation in Nagaland got highlighted with the women led movements demanding representation in the local assembly. The Nagaland Municipal (First Amendment) Act 2006 (Sec 23A) provided for 33% representation of women, however this Act was vehemently opposed by several tribal organizations on grounds that it challenges customary laws and the social fabric of the Nagas.

Article 371A gives customary laws prominence over constitutional rights and very often justified in Nagaland to deny inclusion of women in the political and electoral process. Exclusion of women legislators over the years has adverse implications on women's voice within Nagaland as well as in larger platform of socio political issues.

The entire responsibility of socio political participation in Nagaland is ingrained in layers of gendered participation. Gender stereotyping often assumes that engagement in political process has its masculine traits and leadership is only a male domain. The concept of political socialization rests on the concept that during childhood, women are introduced to socially constructed norms of politics.

Nagaland society had a history of chieftaimship which was inherently decided by men and besides village administration, territorial protection was an important role of the chief. With the coming of modern governance system, the traditional bodies have integrated with modern institutions such as the Village Council. At the same time, traditional values and perceptions continue to curtail women's political participation as male authoritative figure and representation of clan remains strong.

Violence Against Women (VAW)

In the context of Nagaland, VAW is always seen from the perspective of the outsider, that the causes of VAW are due to conflict, lack of development, militarization and all other external factors. That is a very narrow understanding of VAW, as it penetrates from social, economic, cultural and political spheres during the lifetime of a women.

The perceptions around defining VAW in the context of this study are vague, narrowly acknowledging its existence within the family sphere. The society's concept of rationalizing causes of VAW is very narrow; a woman is often blamed for igniting quarrels which leads to violence. Poor parenting is also blamed as one of the factor causing violence, while noting the norm and practice that moral and value upbringing of a child is always held accountable on mothers.

The stereotypical approach of convicting women as the instigators of VAW overarches the crime itself. Men have the opinion of correlating rape with women's mobility and unconventional dressing. Domestic violence is excused as normal fights between spouses, making it a personal matter outside the purview of the society. Such concept on understanding violence within homes limits social responsibility.

On a deeper analysis into the reasons for violence, the roots are supported with gendered expectations, threats to challenging power and the patriarch. Patriarchal system creates a structure of the oppressor and the oppressed, which is repeatedly reinforced through the use of power and control of women's agency.

Women being the oppressed, have to continually make efforts of putting the patriarch at ease, ensuring his security over power and control. Being a submissive women is considered " a good women" and failing to comply within the expected gender roles in the family can put women in difficult positions of facing violence. A "bad woman" is deprived of socio-economic support and security.

The concept of 'rights for women' is very vague in all the study locations. Women were unsure of what entails 'rights'. Their perception of rights was accorded on the grounds of sympathy personified the concept of a 'good woman'. At the community level, the institution of Family, Church and the Village Council play the major role in delivering justice on VAW. Though customary laws exist to deal with certain forms of VAW, but often these institutions become silent spectators of violence thus upholding the culture of silence. The role of the state in perpetuating violence is also evident when women in difficult situations fail to receive support. When there is poor governance, women in these difficult situations face more vulnerabilities of being socially excluded, depriving them of social security and support which they actually deserve.

The Beijing Platform For Action (PFA) points out that an environment that maintains world peace and promotes and protects human rights, democracy and the peaceful settlement of disputes is an important factor for the advancement of women. The PFA further highlights that in many parts of the world, armed and other types of conflict persist and aggression, foreign occupation, ethnic conflicts are an ongoing reality affecting women and men. PFA defines situations of armed conflicts as that which
brings about

"gross and systematic violations and situations that constitute serious obstacles to the full enjoyment of human right",

and that "such violations include, torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, summary and arbitrary executions, disappearances, arbitrary detention, all forms of racial discrimination, foreign occupation and alien domination, xenophobia, poverty, hunger and other denials of economic, social, and cultural rights, religious intolerance,terrorism, discrimination against women and the lack of rule of law".

It is natural that in conflict situations, women will be positioned differently depending on community and family affiliations. However, irrespective of what role they play, all women are discriminated against. The underlying thread running through the violations and discriminations that women suffer is the unequal power relations between men and women and the stereotyped roles they have to fit into. It is important to pay attention to the roles that women play in situations of armed conflict and gauge the depth of the violations they suffer by addressing to the needs of the following categories of women:

   Women relatives of armed activists:

Mothers, wives, sisters, daughters and partners of armed activists who are in the struggle by choice otherwise, but are impacted upon in the same way.

 Women relatives of state armed forces:

Mothers, wives, sisters, daughters and partners of the police, armed personnel and targeted state officials and others, who have no choice in being part of the conflict and who often remain the forgotten and invisible category.

 Women militants and combatants:

Women who are actively involved in the struggle,

  (a) by choice

  (b) through coercion or

  (c) who have become part of the struggle because of circumstances.

 Women as shelter providers:

Women who provide food, shelter and labor to the combatants, either as sympathizers or through coercion and are extremely vulnerable either way.

Women as victims of sexual and physical abuse:

Mostly uninvolved, innocent civilians but could also be from any other category, belonging to any age group, and targeted by both the State and non-state abusers.

 Women as peace negotiators:

Women leaders who have taken the initiative, not   always supported by the community and extremely vulnerable to suspicions and attacks by all factions of non/state actors.

 Women rights activists:

Women activists who raise critical questions on issues relating to decreasing democratic spaces, political violence, increased control over women's bodies and bodily integrity of women, are extremely vulnerable. Raising disconcerting questions about society, communities, families, and about norms and attitudes, these women are often targeted in insidious ways by both the non/state actors directly or indirectly.

The women of Manipur deserve a special mention in the history of Manipur because of their concerted efforts in addressing political, social and economic issues since the colonial period to the present. Their movement prepared a space for women to influence the emergence of a new Manipur after the Second World War.

Nupi Lan which loosely translates to women’s war in English is an important movement in the history of Manipur. The Manipuri women waged two historic wars in 1904 and 1939 against mass exploitation and artificial famine triggered by the British imperialists. Historians opine that the Nupi Lan movement contributed much to the making of Manipur. First, it sowed the seeds of economic and political reforms and secondly it was a turning point to the political lives of leaders like Jan Neta Hijam Irabot, who later founded the Communist Party of Manipur.

Manipuri women are mobile and they are fully involved in enterprise and trade. The role of Meitei women is very clearly defined. Leishabis are the young unmarried maidens whose main activity in the rural areas is weaving. Following them are the Mous or married women managing the household and children and finally the elder women or the Hanubis. The Hanubis control trade and organise themselves to fight against social evils collectively.

The Ima (refers to mother), used to handle marital disputes, divorce, etc. The Imas bring in a humane element into the patriarchal world of justice and law. Pre-colonial Manipur had women’s courts called ‘Pajas’ which were later done away by the Britishers.

Another unusual feature in Meitei society is women’s important role in religious rituals. Rituals in the household are normally performed by the Maibis (priestesses), to bring luck or to chase the evil eye from homes. The women also used to play a central role in Meitei weddings.

Most of Manipur’s trade is controlled by the older women. Ima Keithal or Mother’s Market, is a sprawling market place thronged by women. Ima Keithal besides being a centre of trade is also a forum for women to meet and discuss socio-political issues to make collective decisions for their betterment. It is also a commonplace for women from different socio-economic groups to share their concerns. Solidarity and inter-dependence of women can also be understood from the fact that they form what is known as ‘marup’ (savings group or co-operative credit societies). The women form Marups not only to facilitate trade but for giving loans on interest.

The day-to-day work of Meitei woman reflect significantly on norms of marriage and ownership. Men do not have right over wife’s dowry and the concept of dowry is different from the rest of the country. The Leishabi collect their dowry through earnings and have exclusive rights over their own earnings. The Leishabi uses her dowry to start a business when she gets older. While a woman does not have property rights, she has rights to her mother’s property - mother’s stall or a plot in the Keithal and mother’s dowry or streedhan.

The protection of homesteads and localities from social ills, armed conflict and human rights violation was initiated by the women since 1977. The use of lighted torches to signify their form of protest against social evils as well as advocacy towards community protection earned them the name of Meira Paibi, literally meaning ‘Torch Bearers’. The movement was run by the brave women and mothers of the Ka-ching district aimed at redressing the human right violations committed by the paramilitary and armed forces against the innocent.

Extracts / Excerpts