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NEW DELHI: Lawmakers belonging to the Khasi tribe in northeast India are seeking to give equal inheritance rights to daughters and sons, in a move that women members of the group fear will introduce patriarchal norms to one of the world’s last matrilineal communities.

In the northeastern Indian state of Meghalaya, women control property and inheritance.

In accordance with Khasi traditional law, children receive their mother’s last name and husbands move into the homes of their wives. The youngest daughter is the custodian of ancestral land and property. She also looks after the parents and becomes the head of the household after her mother’s death.

For some time, male lawmakers of the group have been trying to introduce change, and last week submitted to the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council a new law proposal, the Khasi Inheritance of Property Bill 2021, which they say will allow Khasi parents to divide ancestral property according to their wills.

“The objective of the bill is to streamline the inheritance of self-acquired property and ancestral property from the parents to children,” the council’s head, Titosstarwell Chyne, told Arab News. “According to the bill, we give space to parents to get chance to give equal shares even to boys, not only to girls,” he said.

“This is not a major change, but an attempt to give parents greater leverage in distributing properties equally among children.”

But women in the Khasi community see the changes suggested by the male-dominated legislative body as an attempt to take away their rights.

Hasina Kharbhih, founder of the Meghalaya-based Impulse NGO network, said that the development is “bringing patriarchal influences into the age-old tradition.”

She told Arab News: “This is basically taking away the rights that have been practiced by women — rights that have been inherited.”

What Kharbhih particularly objected to is a provision in the bill that would deprive Khasi women of their inheritance rights if they marry outside their community. “I am the youngest daughter,” Kharbhih said. “We are allowed to marry outside our community as long you keep the surname and children keep the surname. It is a practice that has been there for ages.”

Angela Rangad, another Khasi woman activist in Meghalaya, said that the bill aimed to “destroy the matrilineal system,” adding: “Along with lineage, custodianship of ancestral property is a defining organizing principle of Khasi matrilineal society, and hence needs to be celebrated and protected.

“This newly proposed law will destroy matrilineal society as we know it and one needs to also question if the KHADC even has the jurisdiction to invent new customs which is what this new bill is doing.”

Patricia Mukhim, editor of Meghalaya’s oldest English-language newspaper, The Shillong Times, said that the bill is “aimed at disempowering women and is very patriarchal in nature.”

She also questioned how the bill was proposed with no public discussion. “Usually, a public discussion takes place before tabling any bill in the legislative assembly, but no such discussion took place in the case of this bill,” Mukhim told Arab News. “The district council does not have any women. It’s a male club. Even if women want to give arguments, they can’t, because they are not in the council.”

For some male commentators such as Starfing Pdahkasiej, a Khasi journalist based in Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, the bill is not anti-women, but rather an attempt to strive for equality.

He said: “Do those women who call the bill anti-women want their daughters to live in a mansion while their sons live on the streets?

“The bill was needed a long time back,” he added. “It will allow both male and female family members to inherit something.”

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