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International women's day

In India's matrilineal tribe, women's special status is under threat

In the Khasi tribe in India, women enjoy special rights but their privileges are under threat.
In the Khasi tribe in India, women enjoy special rights but their privileges are under threat. © Screen grab France 24

In the Khasi tribe, an indigenous community of 1.3 million people living in the state of Meghalaya in northeast India, women enjoy a special status. A matrilineal society for centuries, it is one of fewer than 500 left in the world. But in a country where patrilineal structures are now more common and male children are preferred, it's a way of life at risk of disappearing. FRANCE 24's Clara Lecomte and Adil Bhat filed this special report.

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Children born into India's Khasi tribe bear their mothers' names, daughters inherit property from their mothers, and men move to their wives' homes after marriage.

In the village of Kongthong, Policy Khongjee, a Khasi, has a three-month-old daughter Panjob who bears her last name. Her daughter will also inherit the family's land.

"I was so happy when I had my first daughter because before that I only had boys," Khongjee says.

Women's special status is not only within the family. In Meghalaya, Khasi women are on par with men when it comes to participating in economic activities. In the village of Kwheng, locals live off agriculture and silk weaving thanks to a cooperative run by some eight women.

"In many parts of India women depend on men and their income to live," says Rikynti Syem, a member of the cooperative. "We Khasi women are responsible for the money in the family. When the man works he has to give what he earns and the woman is in charge of the expenses."

While the tradition still survives, anthropologists say it could soon disappear. Women who quit the region for work and marry outside the Khasi community threaten the continuation of the matrilineal system. But a more recent threat has emerged: A men's rights group that has been trying to establish a patrilineal society. It wants to abolish a system it says is unfair in offering special privileges to women.

Should the Khasi way of life change, it could signal a setback for women struggling to defend their rights in other parts of India.

Click on the video player above to watch this special report.

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