In many indigenous societies worldwide we are witnessing an increase in gender inequality. Men’s domination of women seems to be growing and women’s labour is now exploited. Zeme Naga women of Assam are lamenting the loss of support from their husbands and the burden of labour wives must take up as husbands abandon their responsibilities. Husbands are becoming more controlling. This thesis seeks to understand some of the reasons behind the decline in men’s reciprocal labour practices and the deterioration in what were once remembered as relatively egalitarian gender relations. By bringing critical, historical and feminist analyses to bear on the ethnographic data I attempt to show the ways in which women’s increasing sense of inequality is linked to Zemes’ growing marginalisation regionally and globally. I explore Zeme understandings of what makes a man ‘fit to be a man’ and the ways feminine and masculine identities engage the changes brought by colonialism and neo-colonialism.
Women’s interests were once served by the Zeme patriarchal society. I found that women continue to expect reciprocal labour exchange that was based on social structures and practices that are now largely obsolete. Employing the notion of ‘hegemonic masculinity’ (Connell 2005a) it emerged that men’s earlier practices allowed an opportunity for nearly every man to achieve the Zeme ideals of masculinity which involved the demonstration of caring behaviour towards women and other members of the community. Masculinity was largely based on access to resources that men delivered to the community according to what the people were perceived to need. The notion of women and children as men’s ‘property’ entailed responsibility and self-sacrifice on behalf of men and a relatively equitable division of labour around child care. Indeed, the well-being of women and children was a constituent of Zeme normative masculinity.
However, Zeme engagements with what may be termed the agents of ‘modernity’: economies, religions, agricultural projects, schooling and the creation of Statehood, have contributed to devaluing Zeme livelihoods and cosmologies. This has had significant repercussions for Zeme gender relations, which include relations among men, and is changing the direction of the pursuit of masculine ideals. I argue that these transformations have contributed to sidelining a core component of Zeme hegemonic masculinity, the ability to ‘provide what the people need’ as well as creating inequalities of opportunities for men to demonstrate ‘care’ in this way. On the other hand, these processes are also presenting new opportunities for women to contest men’s interests, and to make claims over community issues that were one avenues of prestige for men.