Balance leadership is not gender specific
Khekiye K. Sema
[dropcap]H[/dropcap]aving attended the “Women Empowerment and Leadership Summit” on the 25th April, 2014, at the Bamboo Hall, Kisema, where, along with two other distinguished lady panellist speakers, we were allowed 15 minutes each to address our allotted subject. Mine was the above header. It was like asking me to finish before I begin and that was exactly what happened even after grossly violating their timeline. Therefore I now am making this effort to complete what I could not…due to paucity of time.One often wonders whether transformation of gender equality can abruptly be brought about through a pressure from one momentarily resurgent sector or the other without a corollary balanced grassroots upsurge in the mental and social perception, to meet those required changes. Customs and Traditions did not get formulated in a day. It gradually evolved through centuries of complex human experiences, filtered through the extremities of natural environmental circumstances withstanding the test of time. Therefore this is an area where extreme caution and sensitivity must be exercised to its optimum to first absorb the essence of our customs and traditions while attempting to rationally eliminate the redundancy of the past practices that has gone out of tune with our present realities. What needs to clearly be registered is that our forefathers too were a victim of their prevalent environmental circumstances just as much as we are of our own, today. They had no choice but to adapt their behavioural attitudes as dictated by nature and conform or be damned. Those practiced norms evolved into what we now accept as customs and traditions. Value systems change over time and will keep changing. Any civilised society is expected to reform and transform in tune with the changing times. That Constitutional Amendments that take place from time to time is a clear indicator of this fact. It must therefore follow that those customs and traditions that have outlived their relevance must now be selectively and gracefully set aside. The time has come for the Nagas to pragmatically evaluate our present circumstances and adopt adaptive measures according to the changing values, even as we try and retain the essence of those customs and traditions which answers to sensiblility. The Constitution of India grants equality to women as enshrined in its Preamble, Fundamental Rights, Fundamental Duties and Directive Principles to ensure gender equality. It has further empowered the States to adopt positive measures to eliminate discrimination against women. Within the framework of a democratic polity, our laws, development policies, Plans and programmes have aimed at women’s advancement in different spheres. However the problem seems to lies in its application for various factors.
Therefore, confining the views and observations to the North East in general and Nagaland in particular, our problem seem to stem from the subconscious belief and acceptance that customs and traditions of our ancestors are sacrosanct and cannot be subjected to change or alteration…and yet, when examined dispassionately, changes have taken place in some critical sectors of our customs and traditions already. Take the stark example of our ‘Traditional Tribal Festivals’: In the days of our ancestors these ‘festivals’ as we call it now, were a very serious form of worship to the Gods that they had no real comprehension about. Every inexplicable natural disasters and calamities were attributed to the wrath of that unknown God against which they had no defence. That unknown entity was called ‘nature’ and in the absence of knowledge, it was profoundly feared. It was also a time when spirits roamed among man freely and had to be appeased from time to time. All these natural/unnatural circumstances spawned taboos, customs and traditions that we acknowledge today. With the advent of Christianity, many of these practices of worship and taboos have seen their way out over the years even as we perfunctorily observe these ‘festivals’ to draw the intrinsic traditional values of ‘giving’ and ‘forgiving’ that accompany these festivals without really believing in the religious sanctity of the rituals itself. Take the case of ‘bride price’ that prevailed amongst some of the tribes for instance…such a custom had led many a poor suitor to a state of landlessness when landholding of the prospective groom was insisted upon as a bride price. This stringent custom has since filtered into marriage ‘feasting cost’ rather than a sharp focus on the customary fixation on the bride price itself. While this may not necessarily be a change for the better, the fact remains that the traditional norm has undergone a definitive change. Take another case of ‘Aqa axe’ (bonded labourer/slavery) custom that was practiced amongst the Sumi Tribe…it was a common customary practice where assistance given to a desperately helpless soul in the aftermath of natural or manmade disasters, customarily altering the status of such an individual becoming an ‘Aqa axe’ to the help giver. This stringent uncharitable customary practice has since waned into extinction through Christian beliefs as much as aided by Government notification, making bonded labourer-ship illegal. Times change and we are expected to change with it in order to survive sensibly and with dignity. It would not be rationally inappropriate to conclude therefore that customary laws and practices are not sacrosanct and can, should and must be subjected to reasonable amendment, modification and augmentation along the way in tune with our present value systems.
Our ancestral generation had strictly lived under the dictum of ‘might is right’. The unsavoury head-hunting practices was in fact the root foundry of a great many mandatory traditional and customary practices that had necessarily marginalised the woman folks by force of the existing circumstances of their times and not necessarily by choice. It would have been a serious physical defiance against nature to imagine women folks going out on a headhunting expedition….a time where physical prowess was the need of the hour. Necessarily, women folks were excluded from this equation for obvious reason of being the weaker sex. Well, I do know of a real time incident in Mokokchung town where a wife thrashed her husband in a public place (don’t ask me which Tribe she belonged) but such a case was the exception and not the standard rule of engagement. There was no ‘women only’ club in this deadly game of headhunting. Resultantly, women were out place and time in the violent world of man. Women folks therefore had no direct role to play in a ‘war council’ of elders understandably…here again a dictate of natural circumstance that groomed customs/ traditions. This ‘war council of elders’ has evolved into what we now know as the Village Council in the present context. The fundamental change of perspective lies in the fact that our ancestral councils dealt with the subject of headhunting, war, village security and the ultimate preparedness for survival in a turbulent world. Today, this Council deals with a different issue of village administration that has almost everything to do with a developmental focus where women folks are an equal stakeholder. It is therefore an entirely different ball game where inputs of women becomes indispensable for a balanced community growth. The comical irony in the definition of customs and traditions can well be seen in disallowing women representatives in the Municipal Councils but accept a woman as Chairperson…as in the case of Kohima Municipality. That the Government imposed it, is an argument that holds no water if customs and traditions are sacrosanct….obviously it is not. It is a clear sign that we have since crossed the timeline threshold to that of ‘right is might’ where physical prowess is no longer the determining factor. Yet we refuse to recognise it or acknowledge it. This brings us to the gender inequality and discrimination issues. While we loudly croak within the environmental confines of our small pond, steadfastly clinging on to the traditional past and taboos, good or bad, rational or irrational, the rest of the forward looking world has moved fast and far ahead. In the corporate world elsewhere for instance, gender consciousness is no longer a stringent qualifying yardstick. It has been replaced by the capability factor of an individual, male or female ….the ability to deliver. As a result we have significant number of ladies as Chief Executive Officers in the mega global corporate infrastructure. Beyond the corporate world, we have and have had several renowned female personalities heading their respective countries as Heads of State. The common exceptional characteristics lies in the fact that these ladies believe/believed in themselves as equals. This is where the all mighty differences begin. Closer to home, it would perhaps not be too wrong to conclude generally that the ladies of Nagaland and the North East lack the essence of this self-belief that nurtures confidence. They still have a far distance to cover before crossing this mental mind block bridge. The patriarchal society with its customary right to inheritance has been attributed as the greatest negative influence, discriminating and destabilising the so-called weaker gender. While the truth in this analysis cannot fully be ignored, take a rain check in a reverse order: the matriarchal society has shown no glaring differences in the social structure either. Percentage-wise for instance, how many women folks are there in Meghalaya State Assembly in spite of being a matriarchal society with all the trappings of inheritance rights? Having a Lady Minister is still the exception not the rule. Would a few seats reservation in the State Assembly significantly alter the status and destiny of women? Personally, I would perceive it only as a partial progression in the right direction no doubt but certainly not a full proof solution to the subject. Therefore, I am more inclined to believe that the severity of self inflicted inferiority complex is still the outstanding obstacle that stands in the way of the majority of women folks of the North East. It is palpably apparent. Asserting their rights is still not their cup of tea even where the Laws protect their interest. The perception that the battle line has shifted from ‘protest procession’ to a legal battle in the Supreme Court for equal representation in the municipality or other forums is fine. You still need to make it happen. Let me cite an incident to elucidate this contention. Way back in the early 1980s I was conducting a Village Development Board (VDB) awareness campaign in a village called Asukhomi. A lady was very busy serving refreshment during this meeting. After finishing her chore she stood leaning on the door frame and in due course timidly raised her hand and said, “Sir, may I ask you a question please”? “Yes, go ahead”, I encouraged her. “I am a woman member of the VDB. Have I been made a member just so that I make tea for the men folks during the meetings?… because that’s what I have only been doing so far”. A simple question that said it all…but at least in this case, she had the guts to express herself in an overwhelmingly male dominated gathering. “Do you know that the rule provides that 25% of the VDB village grant-in-aid belongs to the women”? I asked. “Yes. I am told, but even if we ask for it the men folks never give” she replied. She was mentally unprepared for any assertive response to counter the prevalent discrimination against her kind. I asked her to sit down with the rest of the male VDB members and explained in their presence, her pivotal role as the sole representative for all the women folks in her village…that the 25% woman’s share was a legally protected right by rule, which cannot be denied. She would be within her rights to stir up a women’s uprising in the village to ensure that their right is not usurped by the men folks. I also recommended that henceforth she refuse to making tea for the men folks during the meetings. In yet another mega conference of All Nagaland VDB Secretaries, VDB members and Village Council members at Kohima local ground, I made an emphatic non-vegetarian statement directed at all the women VDB members present. This was what I said: “No matter whatever else the men folks may want to touch, do not let them touch the 25% women’s share of the grant-in-aid”. Other than a roaring laughter all around the conference arena, nothing tangible happened in the aftermath. Women still have not been able to enjoy their legitimately protected rights. The lack of assertion or the will to stand up for what is legally their right is dictated by ignorance, superimposed by the subconscious belief that customs and traditions are sacrosanct. The majority has still not found it in them to cross the assertive boundary. Forgive my candid observation, but I fail to see lasting solution emerging from the Women NGOs spearheading women empowerment movement and women reservation issue by taking out protest procession and conducting seminars once in a while in the urban centres. Lessons learned from these seminars must peter down to the grassroots level… be it urban or rural, where it matters the most for adoption and application. I still subscribe to a thought that the rural masses are where the real strength lies. Unlike women folks in the other tribal belts of the mainland, educational percentage among women in the North East, more so in Nagaland, has seen a tremendous upsurge in the past decade. This must count for something, provided a focused awareness is generated. Today, Nagaland has the distinction of a Lady Chief Secretary with a hoard of responsible senior Lady Officers in Civil Administration and in various fields of bureaucracy. However, I have yet to hear of a coordinated effort of all the ladies in harness spending quality time together to forge a lasting course concerning equal destiny for women in the State. Each one is focused on individual priorities without an overall common gender motivation. The more visible Naga Mother’s Association and other women based NGOs have laudably been involved in a diverse social issues in general but in their fundamental subject of women empowerment, lacks clear vision in problem identification in a balanced manner. Creating mass awareness campaign amongst women both in the urban and rural sector is an indispensable exercise that needs to be carried out with a motivated commitment. However, their ‘arch rivals’ are men folks in the Village Councils and the Tribal Hohos as the standard bearers of customs and Traditions…with whom they should primarily be sitting across the table and debating the essence of custom and tradition vis-a vis women etc. They should perhaps begin to think out of the box and harness the dormant force into action and have a long term strategy worked out to create a real time change. Women folks have more or less an equal percentage of voting right as that of men…all they lack is a knowledgeable direction and motivation. The overshadowing influence of customary and traditional practices can only be overcome through persistent awareness campaign and reasoning… the toughest assignment which the women folks need to address…and address they must now or later. While Legislation for women reservation is a fractional remedy, the lasting impact beyond the scale of reservation can well be achieved through thorough understanding and awareness that women have an equal stake and an equal responsibility in today’s world, which perceptively outweighs the traditional and customary constrictions. Expelling an out of tune notion and conclusion borne out of tradition and custom is a gigantic job which cannot be achieved through a sporadic loud protest procession in the urban centres. It just is not good enough to impact a change…creating a grassroots movement into a momentum could.
At the end of the day, I am therefore inclined to conclude that balanced leadership is no longer gender specific…but you still have to learn to work for it and earn it.