In popular perception among tribal societies in Arunachal Pradesh, women’s rights and gender equality are generally understood in terms of advancement in education, the ability of women to migrate for careers, freedom in choice of clothing and more significantly, their partner.
Based on this narrow understanding of the subject, patriarchal tribal societies in Arunachal Pradesh have contributed to the sugar coated view that tribal societies have been gender-inclusive since time immemorial, with an elevated position for indigenous or tribal women, compared to other regions of India.
However, this interpretation of gender equality among tribal societies is a profoundly problematic narrative that needs to be reimagined.
According to official government records, Arunachal Pradesh is home to “26 major tribes and over 100 sub-tribes”. The state’s population as per the last Census was 13,82,611 and it has an area of 83,743 square kilometres. The projected population by most counts puts the numbers closer to 16 lakhs, which would still make it one of the least populated states.
As in other majority areas and states of the country, customary laws are still practiced at various levels of government . And as in most parts of India, land inheritance laws have traditionally favored men, or fathers and sons.
It is in this context that the Arunachal Pradesh State Women Commission (APSWC), in collaboration with Arunachal Pradesh State for Protection of Child Rights (APSPRCR) and Arunachal Pradesh’s Women Welfare Society (APWWS), drafted the Arunachal Pradesh Marriage and Inheritance of Property Bill (APMIP Bill), 2021.
The Bill aims to address the broader issues of socio-economic conditions and rights of the women. The Bill has proposed to regulate marriage registration, alimony and divorce. It has also pushed to treat polygamy as an offence and ensure property rights for legally married wives and widows.
When the Bill draft was made public, it was intensely opposed by all the tribal civil society organisations (CSOs) and the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union (AAPSU), which claimed that the section 43 clause in the Bill is “anti-tribal”.
Eventually, the CSOs succeeded in stopping the Bill from being passed in the assembly without any deliberations or debates by relying on customary laws. However, the public discourse around this bill has brought to light the gender fault lines and highlighted the deep-rooted patriarchal structure of tribal societies in Arunachal Pradesh.
The recent case of Roshni Dada is one such example. She was publicly labelled across social media sites as ungrateful and anti-tribal for speaking up in an MTV reality show about the practices of polygamy, patriarchy, and the preference for a male child among her tribe (Nyishi) and tribal societies of Arunachal Pradesh in generaln.
This public shaming of Roshni Dada right after the vicious counteractions of the tribal CSOs against the Bill yet again expose the relevance of culturally embedded masculine and patriarchal ways of disciplining and oppressing women in tribal societies.