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Eva Margaret Hansdak

Many a social scientist has observed that women of the ‘lower’ strata of society play important socio-economic roles in the family. They therefore enjoy a better status in their societies than women belonging to the ‘upper’ strata. There is thus a tendency to romanticise the position of tribal women. Some scholars hold that ‘primitive’ societies like tribes give a high status to women, but others disagree. According to Sachchidananda, “it is almost impossible to depict women’s roles and status in a single statement. In the tribal world of India we also meet the same difficulty.” He goes on to say that “women’s roles and status all over the world are generally determined by social institutions and norms, religious ideologies, eco-systems and class positions”. Being such a vast and varied country, India contains conditions which widely differ across geographic, climatic, ethnic, linguistic, religious, ecological and occupational lines. An attempt is made here to give an overview of the economic, social, political and religious status of tribal women in India.

Economic Status
In traditional tribal societies, the economic roles of men and women are sharply divided. In the nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes, men do the hunting while women collect fruits, edible roots, tubers, firewood and other household necessities. In some of these tribes, women may also be involved in supplementary occupations, like ropemaking among the Birhors. Women also cook, look after the children and manage all household affairs. In the pastoral tribes, looking after the cattle is the exclusive duty of menfolk. In the Toda tribe of the Nilgiris, women are not even allowed to enter the dairy as they are
considered impure.

The bulk of the tribal people in India subsist on agriculture. In tribes such as the Mundas, Oraons, Santals, Hos, Kharias, Gonds, etc., women look after harvesting and transplanting. Men are responsible for ploughing, levelling and watching over the crops. When relatively free from household duties and agriculture, women also prepare rice beer. Some tasks like ploughing and thatching the roof are taboo for them and may even call for social sanctions, if indulged in. The economic roles of tribal women are more significant in certain parts of the central and western Himalayas. Besides their household duties, they help in cultivation and bring fodder for the cattle. The Kinnaur women of Himachal Pradesh help their men in harvesting apples from orchards. In agriculture they do everything except ploughing, which includes weeding, harvesting, threshing and winnowing. In the pastoral hill tribes, women are also expected to spin the wool and do the knitting.

In matrilineal societies like the Khasi and Garo tribes of Meghalaya, property is transmitted from mother to daughter. Certain occupations are exclusively in the hands of women, for example weaving and stitching, sale of fish, etc. In these communities we find a numerical dominance of women in trade. In a matrilineal society it is women who are responsible for looking after children, brothers, sisters, husbands, parents, etc. They thus have to work hard to earn money.

In patrilineal tribes, property is transmitted from father to son and women have no right to inherit or own property. Yet, a widow may enjoy her husband’s property as long as she is alive. In the absence of a son, a daughter may enjoy the property. But her children will never inherit it and it will ultimately revert to her father’s lineage. In some tribes women are given a small portion of their fathers’ land when their husbands desert them. This arrangement is to ensure their economic protection and the land reverts to the fathers’ lineage after their death.

Social Status
The practice of paying ‘bride price’ is observed among many tribes. The groom pays a token amount to the bride’s father in order to marry her. This practice shows that women are seen as assets and not liabilities in tribal societies. They substantially contribute
 va Margaret Hansdak is a Lecturer at the Department of English, Gossner College, Ranchi – 834001, and Vice-President, NCCI. She is much involved in social work among the Santals, especially in the education of young men
and women. 50 Promoting Tribal Rights and Culture to the workforce, income and wellbeing of the family and are accorded due respect and credit for it. The husband consults his wife in all important questions, including property matters. Though significantly contributing to agricultural activities, women are debarred from trade, services, etc., which require greater mobility and contact with strangers. For all other purposes, they enjoy a more or less equal status. Traditional customs are comparatively more liberal to women. There is no segregation and women have freedom and independence. They may go outside the house for economic and other activities. They may visit the local weekly market and fairs, sing  dance in public, enjoy the native drink, and move freely in the fields or forests. They may sell some home produce and also keep the earnings if they wish to do so. Before her marriage a tribal girl enjoys the same freedom as her brother. She also has the freedom to choose her marriage partner. After marriage, the wife may seek a divorce whenever she wants, and marry again. Even after the death of her husband, she is exempted from the restrictions of widowhood and may remarry. A strong belief in witchcraft prevails among many tribes, even among its educated members. It is believed that a woman who practices witchcraft is responsible for unexplained misfortunes and deaths in the village. When a woman (often a widow, or a barren or old woman) is branded a witch, she is usually killed by the villagers
after a public trial. The prime duty of women is child bearing. Barrenness is looked upon as a curse from heaven and is often the cause for abandonment by the husband. A barren woman may even be branded as anti-social or a witch. Discrimination between girls and boys is not obvious but the birth of a male child is a matter of greater rejoicing. For the birth of male heirs ensures that the family lineage will be carried forward.

Political and Religious Status
Tribal societies are well organised and have well developed political and judicial systems of their own. In traditional tribal communities, women have no political role at all. They are not allowed to hold office in the village council and to participate in the council meetings. Though they always have a strong voice in the decision-making process in the family and home, they have no direct say in matters relating to common concerns in the village. They usually convey their opinions to the village council through their husbands and other menfolk. Nowadays, things are changing on this front and it is not uncommon to find a woman manjhi in Santal villages. In most patrilineal societies women do not have an important
role in religious activities. They are not allowed to officiate in any of the ceremonies, whether at birth, death or marriage, or in other occasions or festivals. But they greatly contribute in the ceremonies. Sachchidananda observes that many responsibilities connected with worship are allotted to them. Women for example clean and decorate the place of worship, prepare and serve the native drink, and in some
tribes sing to invoke the spirit. Verrier adds that, among the Saoras of Orissa, each village has one or two women called Kuranbois who engage themselves in divination and the spiritual treatment of illness. They play an important role in society because, in the absence of doctors, they are called to cure the sick. There is a similar institution among the Abors of Arunachal Pradesh.

Trends of Change
It would be absurd to assume that the tribal communities are unaffected by the rapid changes taking place in today’s world. The changes are obvious in India since Independence. The government’s efforts to bring the tribals into the ‘mainstream’ and its policies of protective discrimination have accelerated the process of change.

Today the tribal community is no longer homogeneous. Many tribals have moved up in the social and economic ladder and they are difficult to distinguish from the non-tribals. At the same time a large number still continue to live as hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers. Many educated tribal women have taken up positions as teachers, nurses, doctors, lawyers, officers and so on. Several have moved out
of their traditional villages and migrated to different parts of the country, and they do not find it necessary to abide by the traditional social rules which once were binding on their mothers and grandmothers. Women who have taken up salaried jobs enjoy a great deal of economic freedom and many have acquired landed property and other assets. Within Christianity, a number of tribal women are The Status of Tribal Women 51 52 Promoting Tribal Rights and Culture pursuing theological studies and a few have even been ordained priests.
Large-scale industrialisation and mining operations have opened new vistas of employment for tribals. Several women have moved out of their traditional roles to work as construction labourers, and in the railways, roadways, factories, etc. Others work in brick kilns in faraway places or as domestic helpers in urban areas. Some tribal women have also entered the political arena. The efforts of the government to reserve 33% of the seats for women will also further the participation of tribal women. Yet, as other chapters of this booklet show, the oppression of the tribals is very striking in Independent India and many developments and new trends are causing great misery to millions of them, including women.

Sachchidananda has rightly pointed out that “society is in a flux where there are enormous opportunities of vertical, horizontal and psychic mobility”. While some scholars view any change in the tribal society as a traumatic event for women, others opine that this opens newer realities and wider horizons for them. In any case, tribal women certainly enjoy greater freedom and independence than their counterparts in mainstream Indian society. This is true in both matrilineal and patrilineal social structures. Compared to other societies, the tribal way of life seems to provide greater equality to tribal women.

According to Elwin Verrier, the “tribal woman is indeed in many ways the equal, if not the rival, of the tribal man… (Tribal women) have an important role in festivity and funeral ; they can more than hold their own with their men; they are free and self-reliant, respected and loved by their menfolk, and adored by their children.
Their life is full, interesting and satisfied.”

_. Elwin Verrier, 1976, “Tribal Women”, in Devaki Jain (ed.), Indian Women,Govt of India, New Delhi. _. Sachchidananda, 1979,
The Changing Munda,Concept Publishing House, New Delhi. _. Singh K.S., 1985,

 “Tribal Women:An Anthropological Perspective”, in J.P. Singh, N.N. Vyas and R.S. Mann
Tribal Women and Development, MLV Research Institute, Udaipur.
The Status of Tribal Women 53

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