DALIT & TRIBES, FROM THE MARGINS

The Tabooed Women: Understanding the role of women in Rituals among the Misings and the Deori communities of Assam

“Sure God created man before woman. But then you always make a rough draft
Before the final masterpiece” –Anonymous

Fact 1: There are a very few discussions on Gender. Most of the times people try to avoid it seeing it as a controversial topic.
Fact 2: Most of the discussion becomes unfruitful as every participant tries to portray himself/herself as gender-sensitive limiting the discussions to politically correct terminologies.

It needs no mention here to prove that discussions on women empowerment and gender is very limited, most of the times confined only to feminist circles. Many a times, it is avoided or just pushed to the corner considering it as a less important topic to give preference to other ‘important issues’. And when it comes to discussions on the status on women in tribal society, the debates always get centered around glorification of the tribal women. The discussants would go ga ga over the role of economic importance a tribal women plays, the hard work she does etc. Never is the positions, she enjoy, discussed. The tribal women is romanticized and so is a concept where people claim that women enjoy equal status with men in the tribal communities. I do agree to the fact that she might enjoy a relatively higher status in comparison to women in other communities but her condition is no better.
The Misings and the Deoris are two tribal comunities of Assam in India.The Misings are the second largest tribe of Assam and reside mostly in in Dhemaji, North Lakhimpur, Sonitpur, Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Sibsagar, Jorhat and Golaghat of Assam in India. A few live in and around Pasighat of East Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh too. The Deoris are the second least populated tribe in Assam and are found mostly in Sivsagar, Jorhat, Dibrugarh, Lakhimpur, Sonitpur, Dhemaji, Tinsukia district and Lohit & Changlang Districts of Arunachal Pradesh. I was studying the belief system of both the communities as a part of my research thesis for my Masters. Though my focus was on documenting the religious process of both the communities and focusing on acculturation processes and revivalism in both the communities, it did not stop me from exploring the roles and positions played by the women in both the communities.

There is lot of restrictions among the women of both the communities the researcher studied. When we analyze the role of women in both Mising and Deori communities it can clearly be said that the women plays a role of great importance both economically and socially. In fact in economical structure she plays a very strong role. The woman rears pigs, goats, poultry etc which forms a great share of family income. The women participate equally in the agricultural activities also. She is involved in transplanting and also cutting the harvest in the field. She also goes and works out to earn extra income and support the family. In fact the women today have started weaving and all the products that she was weaved are marketed, which forms a considerable amount of money. Thus, it can be undeniably claimed that she plays a role of great economic importance in the family. But when it comes to the roles she plays in the belief system, it views a different picture. The central belief system of both the communities revolves around the perception about the supernatural beings and their action and influence on human society and human beings. Both the communities perceive that the favours of the supernatural beings and the spirits are must for survival as both the tribes resides in very hostile environment with massive floods ravaging them every year.

In all the tribal communities in India and perhaps in all cultures, the menstruating women are considered to be impure. And the Deoris and the Misings are no exception. Thus, there is ‘deliberate seclusion’ of the menstruating women from every ritual. The process begins from the puberty ritual where the girl is supposed to stay inside the house and follow certain strict rules and restrictions. When a girl attains puberty she is considered a taboo and she is not supposed to come out in public for a few days. She is also not supposed to eat certain food and also is not supposed to do any household chores . She is ceremoniously greeted to the outer world where she is considered marriageable age. The ritual which is done to greet her to the outer world is called Hanti-Biya and is prevalent among the Misings in large scale. The Deoris in olden times did not celebrate this ritual but it has come in big scale due to the sanskritisation process.

There are also certain rituals which are considered only male affair. The Raj Kcbang among the Deoris and the Dobur present among the Mising communities are examples of such rituals. Both the rituals are done for the well being of the entire community, but half the population of the communities-women are barred from participating in the same. And also if there are any women in the village are having their menstrual cycle then she is supposed to leave the village and go and stay at other village and only return when the ritual is over.These rituals are complete male affair.

In fact even in normal life, when the woman in the family is having her menstrual cycles then she also restrains herself from cooking and the cooking is done by a male member of the family or any other female member who is not having her cycles. In fact clothes like petticoat and undergarments are soaked in a different rope so that it is visible to no male or no male member walks across the rope by mistake.

The menstrual cycle period is considered impure by the both the communities. In every purification ritual the water is to be fetched by a girl who has not attained puberty. No ritual, whether family level or community level can be attained by a female during her menstrual period. It can also be found during the birth of a baby. The mother is considered impure after the birth of the son till the umbilical cord falls off and the purification ritual is not done. The purification ritual is called ‘Husi’ and Hanti pani (holy water) is prepared by the Bhakats (the ones who perform the rituals) where mantras are chanted into the water. The Holy water is sprinkled in the entire house, the baby and the mother and the blood stained clothes and the umbilical chord are either thrown away in a place where no human visits or are buried in the ground. The performance of the ‘Husi’ also highlights the massive Hinduisation process of the tribals of North-east as there is no written documents which proves that certain ritual was done before. Today the ‘Husi’ ceremony is also marked as the Baticising of the baby into Hindu religion.

Many religious rituals cannot be completed without a women participating in the ritual. But we can analyze the role played by the women in those rituals. In most of the rituals among the Deoris and the Misings the women most of the times play a secondary role. They are responsible for tasks like filtering the rice beer and also collecting water tasks etc. The head of the family plays all the role of importance. It can be found in the Bhakat system prevalent among the communities. The Bhakatiya system was brought into existence by Srimanta Sankardeva in his effort to acculturate the tribal communities. Here also the male after taking saran (christen) becomes the head priest and his wife becomes the assistant priest and all the mantras are chanted by the male and his wife joins and assist him if necessary. In every ritual all the cooking and making rice beer is done by the female Bhakat. She also gets lesser offerings than her husband or the male priest in every ritual. A single female can never take saran and become a priest. She should have a partner if she wants to be so. More over among the Deoris no female folk can hold any post of importance in the Midiku (The sacred community temple of the Deoris)

EPILOGUE: The above article is an outcome of a brief study and might not incorporate all the aspects of the roles played by women in the rituals. The paper is just to give a glimpse of the secondary position that is still given to women in communities. If the above article is able to raise a few eyebrows or influence any of it’s readers to look at the positions and roles played by women critically and question gendered structures, then it can without doubt be considered a success.

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10 thoughts on “The Tabooed Women: Understanding the role of women in Rituals among the Misings and the Deori communities of Assam

  1. You say – she plays an important economic role. But does she provide only the labour, does she have a voice in the decision making relating to these economic activities – does she have any control over the family income? … from the rest of the narrative, I would assume she does not…

  2. Good analysis. I find it interesting how women, especially in their menstrual cycle, are so feared, and thus, restricted by men. Men in leadership roles often fear the power of women. Foucault does an excellent analysis of the origins of this power in his book “A History of Sexuality.” Give it a read Pegu and keep up the awesome work!

  3. Seemingly there is a tradition of ‘division of labour’ in a manner that produces ideological naturalization just as in Bhakataiya culture. The notions of purity and impurity after reproduction stigmatizes women’s reproductive labour in the private and public spaces, while it allows a ‘secondary’ role in some of the social spheres such as rituals. All this is an outcome of binary male-female division that acts as the foundation here.

  4. It was nice reading the article where you brought up the issues of tribal women with respect to their roles and positions in the society. the inherent patriachal structures not only forbid women from taking up important roles and positions but at the same time many of the customary laws we still continue to follow today snatch away the basic right of tribal women from decision making powers in the family and even rights to ownership of property too..It would be nice if you bring in more aspects with regards to women’s decision making level in family planning..inheritance..political participation..keep up the good work!!

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