Tribal women edged out of forests

  • 30/05/1992

IS one born a woman or does one become one? Were women all through history burdened by inequitous norms and rules even during the period when surplus accumulation did not form the basis of social order? Are women innately non-violent and nurturing beings, particularly in interacting with nature?

The two great social movements of this century, feminism and ecology, have raised issues of this kind which have intrigued many because of their political and policy-making implications.

A central issue is the right of women to land and forests. A growing number of scholars argue that evolving systems which guarantee women's access to and control over these resources is a necessary precondition to social and ecological stability. There is a feeling that non-patriarchal, communitarian solidarity is the route to save mother earth.

The problem with such an argument for most lay persons is that it seems to contradict what we see in everyday life and what we know from official history. Gender and Tribe: Women, Land and Forests in jharkhand, a slender volume by well-known scholar activists, Govind Kelkar and Dev Nathan, challepges-ibe ruling orthodoxy by delving into Jharkhand's history. For the authors, lharkhand is a worthwhile text to interrogate, not only because it has been reduced to a Fourth World status within a Third World country, but more because its populace has constantly protested against this changing status.

The Kelkar-Nathan thesis suggests that not only have Jharkhand's adivasis lost control over their land and forests, but that the earlier communitarian systems of control, management and output sharing are disintegrating. The worst hit are women, whose status seems to decline in direct proportion to shifts from forest to land and the increasing influence of caste values in everyday life. Thus the participation of women in the local community in terms of politics and resource management, declines as we move from the foraging tribes (Birhor) to mainly agriculturist tribes (Santhal, He. Munda and Oraon).

The authors further argue that if full-fledged patriarchy, i.e. control of women both within and outside the home, has not yet been consolidated, it is primarily because of the importance of forest-based gathering and women's control over income from this activity. Nevertheless, the rot has set in deep.

Except for widows, and that too in matripcal orders, few women are recognised even customarily as heads of households. Taboos prevalent in caste society, such as restrictirIg women from touching the plough, are now widespread. Intensification of conflicts within tribal societies for control Ianl is leading to the greater mart m lis tion of women through me, like ostracising them as witches.

While more accomplished anthropologists may differ with this account of the growing subordination of women, the general argument presented is unlikely to invite serious dissent. More so since Kelkar and Nathan have scrupulously avoided taking extremist and radical-reductionis positions u lu Vandana Shiva like invoking the feminine principle as the cardinal one for ordering premodern life.

They do not argue that women alone have an ecological consciousness - an argument that had substantially eroded the power of Shiva's and Maria Mies's work. One does need to add, however, that the authors' labour-centred interpretation of the generation of surplus, or of the origin of the family and private property, suffers from an over-reliance on Engels. But, fortunately, they have not overly glorified the tribals or their political struggles.

What does come through in this nuanced account is that among foraging tribal communities, particu- larly within the household, a gender division of Iabour does not denote patriarchy. According to the authors, women enjoy considerable autonomy; violence against them is rare. While control of land and its produce is heavily biased in favour of the male, there are residual rights for women and the transition processes that favoured the greater exclusion of women have given rise to patriarchy.

But since the break from the past is fortunately incomplete, both collectivism, wcTmen's rights and autonomy still survive in Jharkhand. Thus there remain possibilities for working towards alternative, less inequitous social formations, which are ecologically more sustainable. That, at least, remains a hope, albeit a faint one.

---Harsh Sethi works at the Gentre for the Study of Developing Societies, NewDelhi.

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