Inside the coven

She walks in mystery: Women-only communities are often imbued with a peculiarly secretive air, a sense of the inscrutable, whereas secret societies for the male are shorthand for honour and loyalty. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

She walks in mystery: Women-only communities are often imbued with a peculiarly secretive air, a sense of the inscrutable, whereas secret societies for the male are shorthand for honour and loyalty. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar   -  The Hindu

Easy pickings: Case studies in the book reveal that victims of witch-hunting in Assam are widows, aged women or women who are unprotected and closely related to the accusers. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Easy pickings: Case studies in the book reveal that victims of witch-hunting in Assam are widows, aged women or women who are unprotected and closely related to the accusers. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar   -  The Hindu

Communities of Women in Assam; Edited by Nandana Dutta; Non-fiction; Routledge; ₹995

An admirable collection of essays cuts through the clichés to deliver an in-depth account of women-only communities in Assam

Three years ago I visited Gauripur (in western Assam) to study folk songs of the region. Several lyrics showed the influence of other folk music traditions across the eastern part of the country, especially Bengal and Bihar. For many of these musical traditions, Gauripur included, the matter of preservation (which, for music, necessarily means propagation) was left to groups of women, mostly. Conversations with some of these women offered me a window into how music is passed down via oral memory; how this process often results in multiple variations in meaning and context. Why the opacity in the first place, you’d think. The answer is simple: women-only communities are often imbued with a peculiarly secretive air, a sense of the inscrutable. ‘Secret societies’ in the world of men become shorthand for honour and loyalty, whereas for women, the secrecy becomes a kind of solipsism, an end unto itself.

Women’s folk songs have occupied a significant role in smaller carnivalesque spaces, such as wedding ceremonies (here, the term is used after Mikhail Bakhtin; a permissive space where the normal order of things is subverted through humour, chaos and/or profanity). But they are seldom thought of as being relevant politically. Indeed, women coming together for song and dance is seen as a sign of ‘traditional’ female gossip in the offing. This notion seeps into many all-women experiences, where the fact of the personal meeting the political is overlooked and often ridiculed. How do we preserve the historicity and the cultural context of these experiences?

A new volume of essays called Communities of Women in Assam (edited by Nandana Dutta) addressed this challenge. It has to be counted as one of the best resources on the subject. It details the diverse roles played by communities of women. Some of them, as the book shows, maintain an outward appearance of empowerment and radical ideologies, but nevertheless succumb to entrenched patriarchal practices. To that extent, this book is also an account of resistance; resistance to the inaccurate but inexplicably popular notion of the North-East as a utopia for gender equality.

A wing and a prayer

As a child growing up among puritanical elders, I vividly remember the namghar, a place of neo-Vaishnavite worship. The idea of the namghar was established in medieval times. A lot of frequent worshippers were elderly women (who are supposed to have discarded carnal pleasures). The namghar allowed for a sisterhood which was very conscious and loyal to its social core. Even today, the voice of these namotis is essentially an internalised one; they have been disciplined by decades of patriarchy. So much so that in the town Barpeta, a large number of them voted against the plea to allow women inside the manikut (sacred shrine).

Juanita Kakoty examines some of these dichotomies in her essay on sisterhood and the namghar in Assam, as existing in both Patbaushi (two km from Barpeta) and Guwahati. Women’s participation in namghar activities was influenced by their caste status, age and their functioning as a collective. It did not really have any bearing on the politics of the village. Emotional bonds are still visible while preparing prasad or during naam-prasanga competitions. But these are not divorced from the larger dynamic of social relations.

Take, for instance, the case of menstruating women — they are forbidden from entering the sacred space, as notions of purity and pollution still apply. And the elderly namotis approve. From the folkloric past to current times, it is mostly the desexualised woman who is seen exercising vengeful power, perhaps owing to the fact that her body is no longer perceived as ‘useful’ to men. Many interesting stories have come to the fore as a result of this. In Silpukhuri Mahila Namghar, women over 80 were allowed access to the manikut with the Atoi’s (clerical devotee and senior adviser) supervision. The rest of the women (aged 50-80) told Kakoty that the “need” to enter the sacred shrine never arose.

A custom becomes one not because the powerful always want to control but because the powerless many get habituated with the folkloric justification around that very custom. If one looks at other religious spaces like the Kamakhya temple (during Ambubachi mela), there is a cultural acceptance of the myth of the menstruating goddess.

To practise the ‘custom’, young women who attain puberty during this period are made to go through a long fast and purification ritual; this is unquestionable in upper-caste families. These events tell us that women’s bonds are considered necessary in order to keep validating patriarchal ideas as “natural public ideas”.

Sometimes, women’s communities come together without realising that they share a commonality that goes beyond their religious/immigrant identity. Payal Jain cites the example of the Jain women of Dibrugarh. They meet at Jagriti and Parishad, two active centres that organise both religious and cultural programmes for women. While their constitution is limited — they only mingle with Jain women — it is incorrect to characterise them all as being ‘victims’ of the household. They bond over laughter and, yes, gossip, outside the confines of their houses. And these spaces, though temporary, act as buffer zones. Some of them think a smaller, tightly-knit community like theirs is easier to sustain and, hence, their distance from local Assamese women cannot be read as arrogance. This is a fascinating case study, one that reminds us why we need to study the politics of intermingling from as many points of observation as possible.

What do these “little” freedoms signify? How do we read and incorporate them within a larger history of the feminist movement?

Raymond Williams wrote: “Community can be the warmly persuasive word to describe an existing set of relationships, or the warmly persuasive word to describe an alternative set of relationships”. His definition attempts to capture how the politics of a particular community need not necessarily be in allegiance with a state or a nation’s politics, but that it may function outside of it.

It is also true that within that very community, there may be forces that deny its “formalisation” and instead form their own groups. Simultaneously, an alternative formation of a community could be both exclusionary and inclusive in practice.

W is for witching

By denying women access to knowledge, the privileged could maintain the status quo in a more orderly fashion. Fighting back, women found more creative ways of learning, often with indigenous tools. But the scorn that they had to face took a toll on all kinds of local knowledge systems. The historians of modern science have, more often than not, been dismissive of alternative forms of knowledge that exists in the ‘traditional’ domain. This ever-growing rift between the supposedly backward ethnic knowledge systems and the techno-intelligentsia has perpetrated biases against indigenous peoples.

In 2015, a 60-year-old woman named Moni Orang was dismembered in front of villagers in the Sonitpur district in Assam. It was reported that most villagers favoured the killing because they believed her powers of sorcery would destroy the village. In her essay ‘Witch-hunting and resistance to the formation of women’s community’, Anjali Daimary shares her insight into the current practice of witch-hunting in parts of Assam.

Her case studies revealed that the victims were widows, aged women or women who were unprotected and closely related to the accusers. She explains that female criminalisation is structured with the Ojha-Daini opposition. Dainis are believed to own special spirit powers to cure illnesses. They are rumoured to use those powers for evil purposes. Often, in tribal communities like the Bodos, superstition has it that only a medicine man, or the Ojha, can “counter” the powers possessed by witches. So, while Ojhas are perceived as saviours for their deeds, witches are castigated for the same. A stark reality which shows gender colours even the practices of sorcery — which, after all, is an intrinsic part of some traditional rituals.

The core of this debate has been raised by Sutopa Raichaudhury in her essay ‘Nature, Science and Women’s Community’, an excellent analysis of how gendered modern science has been since its inception. Science is perceived as an objective subject. However, one forgets how it emerged under the patronage of a male-dominant, colonising culture. It emphasised nature and science being opposite forces, as female and male respectively. Science had to ‘tame’ nature in order to re-conceptualise reality.

As Raichaudhury’s fieldwork progressed in the village of Kumargaon, her interactions with the community of resident Lalung women grew. This group of mostly illiterate women shared an ecological bond with their village and passed along their knowledge to younger women. They have a meticulous method of picking herbs and foodstuff from the forest, which is their only way of survival during natural disasters like floods. They have invented an “indigenous food processing technology”. The author observed that when this group worked together they had far greater power. The symbiotic relationship between nature and women is often taken for granted — or exploited to form prejudices about the female anatomy’s ‘mystique’. The Lalung women, on the other hand, honour this relationship creatively, with whatever little help they have.

Educate, agitate, organise

The first Assam Pradeshik Mahila Samiti was formed by Chandraprava Saikiani in 1926. Inspired by Gandhian ideals, she actively took to organising the underprivileged women of her era. In her personal life, she rejected convention and had a child outside wedlock. According to Krisha Das’s study of Agnisnata Chandraprava (a biography of Saikiani written by Pushpalata Das), “Her rebellion (…) took the shape of a revolution that registered a new era in the Assamese society at the crucial point of its encounter with colonial modernity.” It was one of the first attempts at assembling a women’s collective in a rural area, where the lack of education was a major barrier against organising.

Around the 1970s, the idea of the Mahila Samiti encouraged the birth of organisations like the Assam Lekhika Sanstha, which brought aboard women whose writings were not considered mainstream enough. Though not standing in direct opposition to the Assam Sahitya Sabha, writes Dolikajyoti Sharma, its emergence was a reaction to the male-dominated writing emanating from the Sabha. The works published by the Lekhika Sanstha weren’t limited to literary genres. They tried to use literature as a tool for socio-cultural reform. Reading between the lines, Sharma brings out an interesting observation — that of self-censorship in the act of writing. Many writers have been found to endorse “family values” and heteronormativity in the anthology (Lekhikar Galpa). But it is not all doom and gloom. New experimental writers are opening up gateways for subversion as well. One hopes that with the visibility of the LGBTIQ rights movement in the State, there will be more interactions between these groups.

Because, as far as cross-fertilisation of ideas across women-communities is concerned, we still have a long way to go. On that road, it is not just important to shed light on areas like literature and art but also less studied things like fishing or gathering herbs. These unwritten stories act as accounts of constant resistance, for they are not affected by the pitfalls of popular evaluation. Their coming together is not “apolitical”, as is often misread. Far from it, in fact.

Rini Barman is a Delhi-based independent writer

Published on June 09, 2017

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