Women battle Gender bias in Naga Society

Naga rulers are a curious spectacle - opposing tooth and nail the Naga women’s right to 33 per cent reservation in the Municipal Council, a legislation which they had themselves passed in the Assembly in 2006. Once again the bastion of unabashed patriarchy that is Nagaland showed its authoritarian male fist when the Ao Senden, the apex council of the Ao tribe, issued a fatwa against the women’s October 1 rally to protest the revoking of this law by the Nagaland Legislative Assembly (NLA).

While the Joint Action Committee for Women’s Reservation (JACWR) called for observation of ‘Black Day’’ the Senden warned the women against holding the rally in the Ao areas. The Senden diktat indicated that Ao women leaders, who, in fact, are among the frontal leaders of the women’s right movement, would be appropriately punished if they disobeyed, and they would be ‘solely responsible for the consequences.’

But the women gave a befitting reply by going ahead with rallies across the state. Baring Mokokchung, Longleng, Kiphire and Tuensang,  hundreds of women across the state came out in support of the “Black Day’ protest in the state capital Kohima called by  Joint Action Committee on Women Reservation(JACWR) to condemn rejection of 33 per cent women reservation by the state. Nagaland State Women Commission (NSWC) chair person Sanu Vamuzo called on women not to be discouraged at the lack of mass support for their cause. Their cause will win the day, she said, because it is right.

 

Fifteen women leaders from different tribes accompanied the Joint Action Committee to submit their memorandum to the Governor asking his office to condemn the back-tracking by the state legislators and urged him to see to it that their constitutional rights was not trampled upon.

The NLA revoked the 33 per cent reservation for women amendment on September 22. JACWR is protesting at the same time an adverse ruling by the Guwahati High Court which they feel is unfair and unjust.

 The Senden along with other such institutions  in the state have been against such  empowerment of women in civic bodies for various reasons which including the belief that reservation for women has never been a Naga-Ao practice and is against traditions, as as Dr Sangjyu Yaden, president of the Ao Senden said. To be fair to the men, some of them do believe that women should contest as equals without reservations. But this argument has been exposed by the counter-argument by Sanu Vamuzo, who in an article underlined the Government’s commitment to reservation as an instrument to bring up suppressed, marginalized and the unrepresented sections of society into the decision making fold. Naga women are nowhere in any of the governance institutions of the state.                 

 The JACWR, is a women’s federation constituted by the apex women’s groups of the various tribes as well as other women’s non government organizations (NGO) including the popular federations like  Naga Mothers Association, Eastern Nagaland Women Organization, Naga Women Hoho Dimapur, Tenyimi Women Organisation and Watsu Mongdang, the apex group of Ao women.  

Undeterred the JACWR has appealed to in the Supreme Court to protect their just rights. Rosemary Dzuvichü, an academician, at the forefront of this battle for gender justice called the NLA move a ‘betrayal’ of all Naga women and the biggest violation of women’s constitutional rights. She said that the government has been making various excuses which have little to do with reservation for women in councils such as their vaunted fear that it dilutes article 371(A) which is the bedrock of Nagaland state autonomy from direct Central rule.

 She doubted that they had consulted any women as the two organizations said to have been consulted such as the Naga Hoho and the Eastern Naga People Organisation did not have any women representation. She lamented that Naga intellectual views have received scant attention by the rulers who are all out to crush women under the heel of traditional male control.

The Naga women have been braving the gender browbeating, threat of physical violence and ex-communication from their tribes over these years as they took the challenge head on. Like women elsewhere who have struggled against male bias within their own societies, the Naga women are in a trench battle against the patriarchal prejudice against women within their own tribes, and it is tough fighting against such a widespread opposition as all the decision making institutions, modern and traditional are virtually a man’s club. Many of them like Dzuvichu who refuse to be cowed down are ridiculed at best and at worst face ostracization and even physical harm. “But we have to overcome all that for the sake of our women,” she said.

Overcome they will it would seem. To go back to the beginning of their struggle, it was their efforts which  forced the then Legislators to put back the missing clause for women’s reservation in the original Muncipal Council Act, which was mysteriously missing in the original Act passed in 2001. After this they suffered another set back when the  Naga society failed the acid test of women’s empowerment. Fierce opposition from various sections including four villages in the bye elections for the Mokokchung Council (2008) prevented women from campaigning and filing nominations. But they organized themselves into the JACWR and approached the Guwahati High Courtm, hoping judicial proding would force the government to live up to its constitutional duties. The GHC ruled in their favour in 2010.

The annulment this September by the NLA was a major set back. But the reasons for rejecting it  the legislators expose them as slaves of the patriarchal mentality and not as leaders who are there to direct the state towards a just and peaceful Nagaland where all citizens are equal.

The venerable legislators felt that the 33 per cent reservation for women was a ‘mistake hurriedly amended under pressure and ignorance’ (T R Zeliang), or as Nagaland Home minister L Imkong puts it during the March 2012 Budget Session: the law, if implemented, may cause ‘a potential law and order problem’, while others said it was ‘against the customs and practices of the Nagas. 

 The resolution to reject it was moved by no less than the Urban Development Minister Dr. Shürhozelie. At the same time, the Congress Party’s silence over the issue when it had hailed the amendment at first is disturbing to say the least.  Surprisingly, while both ruling and opposition legislators joined forces against the women’s reservation law, the Nagaland Government issued a notification through the Governor re-affirming 1/3 reservation for women in all civic bodies in the state. 

With such a boost the JACWR enthusiastically started consultations to ensure consensus candidates in all the wards; they had 78 candidates to chose from.  A joint consultation resolved to ask the state government to make all necessary arrangements and ensure free, fair and peaceful elections for the councils.

The President of the Naga Mothers Association (NMA) Abeiu Meru and Convener of JACWR also wrote to Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio asking him to ensure that the legislators stand by the law guaranteeing reservation for women. In the letter, the JACWR refuted the argument by the Naga Hoho and the Eastern Naga Peoples Organization - which fear that the law if implemented would affect the traditional land holding system of the Nagas, and also infringed upon Article 371(A).

These views are misleading, the women have leaders argued. These issues have no connection with the 33 per cent reservation law, which is an instrument for bringing in the women’s voices into the governance processes. “Reservation for women in Municipal and Town Councils as per the Municipal Act has no connection with land holding systems or customary laws of the Nagas,” she said.

 The women leaders have written reams of articles in the local newspapers giving their views and to create awareness among the people about the true situation of Naga women in the society and the need for reservation in the modern civic bodies. Some of them like Chozuhle Kihki, a gender specialist pleads for a chance for Naga women to prove that they can be an equal partner in building a stronger Nagaland. Women are not able to participate in decision making which indicates their powerlessness and this is the very reason why reservation is needed for women, she argues.

Academicians like Dr Jamedi Longkumer have sought a balanced view and improvement of women’s position in society through reservation  and Zaserieno Kruse, a Church based scholar took pains to point out that the traditional Biblical belief that woman is to be subservient to men is superseded by the greater principle of oneness and equality among all regardless of caste, creed or gender. 

The continuing gender battle in Naga society is classic fare which itself proves that its womenfolk live as the underdog, and is in urgent need of rescue from the clutches of rampaging patriarchy.

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