Reading Time: 9 minutes

Easterine Kire’s novel A Terrible Matriarchy explores the complexities of gender roles and societal expectations in a traditional Naga society. The narrative centres on the life of Dielieno, a young woman who must navigate the challenges of growing up in a matriarchal system while grappling with her desires and aspirations. A Terrible Matriarchy offers a nuanced and insightful exploration of gender roles and societal expectations in a traditional Naga society. Through the lens of Dielieno’s journey, the novel challenges stereotypes and highlights the complexities of female identity and aspirations within a matriarchal system.

Angami Naga’s society is patriarchal, where the descent and inheritance are passed along the male line. Like any tribal social system, the Naga man exercises authority and power over the household and property. The birth of a male child is an occasion of celebration, while a girl child is never considered “a real family member”. A girl child is generally believed to be a member of another household- through marriage. The novel presents a picture of how patriarchy and gender operate in society. The novel begins with Dielieno, a girl child of four and a half. She suffers greatly at the hands of her grandmother. As a child, she does not understand why her grandmother acts coldly towards her.

The novel shows a grandmother and child’s unhealthy relationship in a patriarchal tribal society. Gender discrimination is performed through inequality. Upon reaching her grandmother’s home, Dielieno is treated as unclean and asked to bathe before entering her grandmother’s house. She is even assigned duty: to rise early in the morning, fetch water from the well, sweep and clean the house, wash clothes, feed the chicken, dry and store vegetables, and run an errand at every command from early morning till evening. Her grandmother even punished her for not working or finishing the task on time. Dielieno had to act the way her grandmother wanted her to be. Patriarchal society expects and put many restrictions on girls, but these social rules and restriction were not meant for boys. In the novel, men are seen as more privileged than women. They are allowed to enjoy, get drunk, get into street fights and even beat their wives. Patriarchal society does not impose any responsibilities on them, whether to take care of the family or the child or towards society. They can do whatever they want, with the excuse being ‘they are boys’.

In many cultural gender studies, gender hierarchy is expressed through food. A woman has less access to food than a man, a practice supported by their economic dependence on men and the belief that women eat less. The process of gender training began with the use of food as a power to subordinate women. In the novel, Dielieno remembers how her grandmother treats her by serving only one piece of chicken, more pieces, and a chicken leg to her brother when they were in her grandmother’s house. Little did she know that being denied one more chicken piece by her grandmother showed how society prefers a boy over a girl. Dielieno is too young to understand her grandmother’s discriminating treatment between her and her brothers. She innocently thought that maybe it was because at grandmother’s house, as the food was cooked and served by her, it was ‘her’ food, and she had every right to do with it as she wished. She even notices her mother giving a portion of meat from her mother’s plate to her brothers. 

Gender is hierarchal, and this hierarchy is fundamentally tied to power. In the novel, grandmother Vibano becomes the authoritative figure. She is the eldest and exerts control over the young ones just like patriarchy does. She controls all the other women characters: Dielieno, her mother Nino and Bano, who feared and suffered inevitable abuse and discrimination at the hands of the grandmother. Kire twists the theme of gender discrimination and shows a woman exploiting her granddaughter and other female members of the family. Dielieno’s childhood is sacrificed to appease the grandmother. Whenever she tries to confront the injustice, she is silenced by her father, who reprimands her by saying: “it is for your own good; your grandmother would never do anything to you that is not for your welfare” or “She only wants to raise you to be a good woman”. Dielieno remembers her grandmother never addressed her by calling her her name; she is referred to as “the girl”, denying her any identity. As she stays, she learns that being a girl gives her less privilege in the system. Dielieno learned discrimination based on sex and gender. In her grandmother’s house, she felt inferior and unwanted. She wished to be loved and cared for like her four brothers. Grandmother’s treatment was so much for her young mind that she even wished she would die instead of staying at her house and in her presence. She is so afraid of being scolded that she suffers a nightmare. Dielieno is tame under the gaze of her grandmother; from having been denied a warm bath in chilling weather to playtime or rest, Dielieno, even to the extent of denial of her education, suffers humiliation being a girl at the hands of her grandmother, who is revealed to practice and promote patriarchal tradition under the guise of matriarchy. 

Gender discrimination is revealed in the grandmother’s treatment of Vini, Dielieno’s younger brother. He has alcoholism, has a violent temper, and a headache for the family. However, grandmother Vibano has total praise for Vini. She pampered and even bribed him by giving him money to gain his love and attention, even her field portion. Deilieno had to take responsibility for her parent’s household. Unlike her brothers, she is questioned, bullied, and humiliated by her grandmother, who judges her in every aspect of her life: her behaviour, her friends, her studies, her career and even her choice of lifestyle.

The novel shows the complex layer of gender oppression found in a patriarchy-dominated society on three levels –social, economic and political. All three generations of women bear the brunt of gender inequality -grandmother, mother and Dielieno. Grandmother Vibano demonstrates her as a subscriber to patriarchal ideology, and in other words, she plays as the child of patriarchy. Grandmother’s patriarchal attitude is the result of her childhood experience. Grandmother saw her mother suffer hardship, extreme poverty, helplessness, and exclusion from many social benefits and aspects because she had no male child. Grandmother looks at her grandsons as a kind of security. Her attitude defines how patriarchal ideology is embedded and culturally constructed. She becomes the means to advocate for the male-centric society. She believes that the male heir can give her security, free from fear, and earn respect for her in the male-dominated society. Patriarchy operates as a power to subjugate women. The novel looks into how patriarchal assertion is manifold in ways that challenge the commonly held feminist point of view. Patriarchal practice ensures that women are in subordinate positions, which entails the performance of most of the domestic work falling on women, making them look less appealing. Dielieno observes unequal work distribution between the two sexes, whether between her and her brothers in her grandmother’s household or her house between her parents. Grandmother was herself the victim of sexual or gender politics.

A Terrible Matriarchy is a book about the coming of age of a little Naga girl. It is not about feminism, even though the grandmother is a strong feminine presence. She is a negative presence because she treats her grandchildren unequally, and she tries to impose her old-fashioned will on their lives by dictating who they should marry and whether the young protagonist should get an education. This novel is also not about a patriarchal system that oppresses women. The men in the book support Dielieno, encouraging her to study, get a job, and be independent. Her brother Leto even steps forward to finance her college education, which is not oppression. In the book, there is some gender abuse within the same gender where the grandmother oppresses the women and girls in her family. 

Grandmother Vibano’s obsession with male heirs and her sexist views make Dielieno hate her with a vengeance. While grandmother dotes on her grandsons, she detests female freedom. She is the matriarch who binds her family in strict rules; she is the abuser of the patriarchal power, resulting in gender abuse within the same gender, and in the process, she ends up abusing herself. Apart from Dielieno, other female characters in the novel suffer under the patriarchal structure of the Angami society of Nagaland. Neikuo, Bano, Nisano – the lives of these women are testaments to the presence and prevalence of patriarchy in the Naga social fabric. Neikuo, the old unmarried sister of Sizo and grandmother Vibano, has no property of her own.

A noteworthy aspect of Kire’s book is her delineation of the constant tug-of-war between tradition and modernity. Dielieno is shown to be growing up at a time when the importance of education for Angami girls was still being debated and not prioritized. Grandmother Vibano has obvious ideas about the fact that girls do not need education as it does not help them in any way to attain their most important goal, that of becoming a good Naga wife and mother. Dielieno’s parents, however, have modern views and believe that she should receive an education as much as her brothers had the right to. Dielieno’s entire life was centred on attending school and studying well. To not make her grandmother angry, she would wake up earlier than usual and finish all her household work to be allowed to go to school. Once permitted to go to school, she puts her heart and soul into learning and achieving the most out of her education. She proves to be a good and hardworking student and, over time, can gain the admiration of her teachers as well. Dielieno is one of those few girls who completes her education and works as a teacher to support her family. Kire depicts the evolving Angami society amidst tremendous changes, mainly showcased by the modern ideas of parents who consider it essential for their daughters to get an education and take an avid interest in the girls’ careers.

In the evolving Angami society where modern ideas and thoughts are dawning, it is interesting to see how a natural process such as menstruation is referred to as ‘the curse’. Young girls like Dielieno feel terrified of such ‘grown-up matters’. Kire’s portrayal of how Dielieno and her friend hesitate to approach shopkeepers to buy sanitary napkins conveys many ideas of society’s perspective of such situations. However, true to the Bildungsroman genre, Dielieno also sheds her cocoon and can finally deal with such situations practically.

The novel delves into the contradictions and complexities of a matriarchal society, where women hold positions of power and authority, yet their autonomy is often constrained by societal norms and expectations. Vibano, the matriarchal figure, embodies society’s traditional values and expectations. She is a solid and authoritative figure who upholds the customs and rituals that govern the community. However, her rigid adherence to tradition can be seen as oppressive, as it limits the personal freedoms of individuals, particularly women. Dielieno, the protagonist, undergoes a significant journey of self-discovery and personal growth throughout the novel. Initially, she is conflicted between her desire for independence and her obligations to her family and community. She grapples with the traditional expectations placed upon her as a woman in a matriarchal society, struggling to reconcile her aspirations with societal norms. Dielieno observes the double standards and hypocrisy that exist within the matriarchy, as women are expected to uphold traditional values while also being subjected to restrictions on their freedoms. As the narrative progresses, Dielieno begins questioning the rigid gender roles and the authority figures in her life. She challenges the injustices she witnesses and seeks to break free from the constraints imposed upon her. Her journey is marked by doubt, defiance, and resilience as she navigates the complexities of her personal and societal identities.

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Devika Panikar
δάσκαλος (dáskalos) means the teacher in Greek. Devika Panikar has been teaching English Language and Literature since 2006. She is an Assistant Professor with the Directorate of Collegiate Education under the Government of Kerala. She teaches at the Government Colleges under this directorate and is now posted at the Government Law College, Thiruvananthapuram. This website is a collection of lecture notes she prepared by referencing various sources for her students’ perusal. It has been compiled here for the sake of future generations.