Revisiting gender issues

Revisiting gender issues: A study of Mizo Folktales

In the Mizol tradition orality has been a way of life since hundreds of centuries. Folktales, folksongs, nature poems, fairy tales, legends, love lores were transmitted from one generation to another verbally long before the invention of the system of writing.This inherited legacy vocally expressed and represented the rich and varied cultural and social codes of the people of Mizoram bringing forth a much larger sphere of the Mizo culture into the light of the world. The essence of culture, history and ancestry of the tribal lives of Mizo community come down to us mainly through the oral tradition. The most common and colourful genre of oral tradition is the folktale. The folktales form a part and parcel of the knowledge system m the Pre-Christianisation period (1860-1894). Mark Blender (2012) opines, “The northeast has a complex history of migration colonization, integration, border gender issues and unrest…These factors in a multitude of ways have contributed to the decline of traditional local lore, including origin myths, folk songs, and other aspects of oral culture thoughout the upland communities.” (p. 149). Still folktales persist in the collective memory of the community transmitting many of the culture’s central values and assumptions. It is through these folktales that members were initiated into the value system of the community. These folktales were gradually transformed as they were told and re-told across generations through the path of rapture and renovation in due -ourse of time. Tochhawng (2008) writes, “In most Mizo foktales, is quickly set in the introduction with the words, ilai hian mawm’ (A very long time ago). This establishes s a history, or as a story that has actually happened at one point of time, a time that is undetermined or unspecified.’’ (p. 2) As a result, they are not something of the past only but also of the present, creating and recreating a prolific and vibrant ni h of the Mizo society. They are very much related to their dynamic existence by merging the past and present most substantially.

Some of these tolktales are told by men while the others are by women narrators. Among the male composers the names of Mangsela, Lalsuthlaha. Parchhuma, Laltuchhingpa, Zakuala arc to be mentioned specially. The tales composed by these male composers provided ethical guidance for the community. They also constructed, consumed and appropriated certain customs and traditions. These folktales were highly structured and wore told faithfully without alteration. These stories not only entertain but also educate and inform people. However, these stories do change over time and from place to place. Evidently in a patriarchal society like that of the Mizos these folktales served as a site of patriarchal discourses to reinforce patriarchal ideologies and to subjugate the females of the community. Almost all cultures recognize a differentiation between ‘men’ and ‘women’ placing a lower value upon women than men. Sherry Ortner opines that this imbalance is not of biological origin; rather it must derive from cultural factors. She located the problem of sexual asymmetry within culturally defined value systems.

Feminist scholarship tries to deconstruct male paradigms by reconstructing models attentive to women’s presence and agency Retelling of folktales in Mizo society led to the patriarchal construction of female functions and the development of the ideology that internalizing of this system assures secured continuation of social structure. These tales constantly recreated and manipulated gendered structures mediating perceptions of traditional womanhood So the society. In the first part of the paper I will attempt to look at the prerogatives of the folktales composed by males, the way they have treated the female characters in the story and how their repression of females fall into normalised standards. The aim of this work is to integrate un-understanding of gender inequality in the Mizo folktales by analyzing how tales of rn composers systematically ignored female activity in order to focus on male activities by using different standards to evaluate male and female behaviour. This will yield us valuable insights into the position given to women within the community. On the other hand, the folktales composed by women have emerged as an alternative voice evolving through a process of contestation and negotiation with time. They have represented their lives, attitudes and outlooks of their communities often challenging the gender-biased nature of their society and its inadequacies with regard to gender prejudices against Mizo women creating a new-set of values about strong, outspoken, zestful, sexual women. The purpose of this article is to study some randomly selected set of folktales to analyses these gender issues.

The folktales composed by males are full of interesting events in the lives of male members of the community. These tales are elaborate, formal or informal means of reinforcing and celebrating male privilege. The heroes of the tales are dominant, confident, ambitious and aggressive. They devote their time in acquisition of wealth and pursuit of heroic glory. Their needs of honour continue to determine their activities. Strength and action is the sole domain of the male. For example, most popular among these folktales are the tales of Chhurbura, the unrivalled hero of the Mizo folk world. Chhura, the clever, powerful simpleton along with Nahaia, his strong, valiant elder brother undertake various adventures to prove their strength to the world and emerge victoriously. Similarly, Mualzavata, Chawnbura and Saizahawla are also known for their strength, vivacity and potential. There are also women characters in these stones. But as they are portrayed from a male perspective they are restricted within the boundaries of patriarchal norms. They are represented as beautiful, innocent and subservient just as men want to find them. While men in these tales are depicted as strong, powerful and courageous, women are seen to be tender and vulnerable. Tuanpuii, Tumchhingi, Thailungi, Rimenhawii are such beautiful women characters in Mizo tales. The beauty of female protagonists is often celebrated while their diligence and wit are looked down upon. Beautiful women were chosen as wives by brave kings and valorous princes, on the other hand, arrogant and adamant women often met ill fortune. To be a female is to be graceful, submissive and faithful. They are represented as highly sexualised beings sculpted by the male gaze. They are nothing but a body to be managed by men. Seemanthini Niranjana (2001) identified, ‘’The body, even as a biological entity, is never simply a given, but is always mediated through the socio-cultural… The moral injunctions and norms that are seemingly part of the social realm are in fact inseparable from a culture’s imaging of the female body.’’ (p. 59) The societal perception of the female body spatialized specific norms of female conduct and thus the unequal relation between genders remained fixed for many centuries and to a degree continues even today. In the tale of Rimenhawii, Rimenhawii, the female protagonist is the beautiful wife of Zawlthlia. Her body is portrayed, almost without exception, for the erotic purpose. Rimenhawii attracted people across the river, but she was locked by her husband who regarded her as his possession. His act of building a strong house and locking Rimenhawii inside reinforces the patriarchal ideology of women as commodities. Her long beautiful hair intrigues the king to find out the owner of the hair. She was abducted by the king and released by her husband. The violation and ravishing of women is a common event in folktales which depicted women as helpless creatures in need of male protection. Folk tales shaped cultural values and understanding of gender inequality by invariably depicting women as beautiful passive, meek and docile while portraying men in absolute contrast as good, active and heroic. Thus women are represented only by their sexuality and pander, not by any other aspect that may form their identities. Folktales served as a carrier of the toxic patriarchal myths that are used to deceive women. Muthukumaraswamy (2006) writes, ‘The status of women were not equal to that of the men and they occupied an inferior position in every aspect of life. Notwithstanding this position, women contributed much to social work and there was no marked difference in their worth from that of the men, especially in matters concerning jhuming.” (p. 127) In case of jhuming women worked hard just like their male partners. Ngaiteii and her grandmother are found to work heavily on their jhums in Ngaiteii’s tale. Adolescent girls, married women and also old widows used to dig yams in jhums for cultivation in Mizo society. They also had to combat physical hardships of unequal familial labour and confront insecurities of being the second sex. Moreover, constraints of poverty and restrictive social norms eroded her physical and mental health. We find Kelchawngi cooking at her parent’s order in the tale of Kelchawngi. Similarly, in Chhawnlaihawihi’s tale, it was the girl’s responsibility to provide food to her seven brothers. Again, in the tale of Thailungi, she is seen fetching water from the well. Thus, females were subjected to heavy physical labour like fetching water, lifting weights, cooking foods, hammering and works related to cultivation.

Women’s bodies were routinely used as objects to buy and sell various products. In the tale of Thailungi the little girl is sold by her mother to buy an iron ball for her brother. Thailungi, the little girl was nothing more than a piece of commodity to her mother. Women in these tales were normalised, commodirized and constructed as agents of patriarchal gratification, They were objects for men not for themselves. Marriage in patrilineal Mizo society was solemnised as a bond of family tie rather than a relationship between individuals. Women do not exercise much choirp in the matter of selection of their groom. The parents were solely responsible for choosing partners for their children. The bride price was a popular custom and the price was normally fixed in terms of mithun.

In the tale of Chawngvungi and Sawngkhara we get a clear conception oi what it means to be a woman in marriage in a Mizo society. Defying the archetypal image of womanly subordination, Chawngvungi speaks a new language with the unfamiliar assertion of individualism. Despite Chawngvungi’s initial refusals to Sawngkhara’s proposals, Sawngkhara tricks Chawngvungi to marry him. The magic potion symbolises patriarchal domination which every male exercises upon female to win her consent. The custom of bride price is also evident in the tale. Sawnkhara’s parents had to part with the gong which Chawngvungi’s parents greedily accept as a rare gift before solemnising the marriage. However, in this tale, the woman protagonist is differently portrayed. The character of Chawngvunigi is a masterpiece in Mizo folk literature. Strong but vulnerable, Chawngvungi possesses individuality and fortitude. Her indomitable spirit stands shoulder to shoulder with Sawngkhara. Her forceful assertion of choice embodies her desire for freedom. She defies the atrocities of a male dominated society. As woman asserts her identity and enters a male’s bastions of power, traditional male reacts with aggression and violence to subdue her. Chawngvungi dies after giving birth to a son. However, her mother’s success in possessing her daughter’s dead body depriving her son-in-law can be interpreted as a breakthrough of the female body from the burden of traditional patriarchal norms, a radical freeing of the body from traditional gender inequality which positioned the male as the authority and the female body as the object.

Another strong woman of a Mizo folktale by a male composer is Chemteii in the tale of Chemteii who wins the mithun for her father over her two brothers. Chemteii is known for her spirit, courage and intelligence. She succeeds in answering all the questions of the chief and is rewarded with love and admiration by the chief who finally marries her. In Mizo malestream cultural tradition a son was held in high esteem while a daughter was only a means of strengthening familial ties through marriage. A girl child was deprecated and denigrated while a son was brought up with great care and attention as a future bearer of the family’s name. Chemteii stands as a protest against the patriarchal practice of privileging sons over daughters. Chemteii through her strength and wit proved a daughter could also he autonomous and protective This tale succeeds in subverting gender power politics by women empowerment to seize and claim space at the center in a traditional setting. It demonstrates how women could regain autonomy in a society dominated by women.

On the other hand, (lie folk tales composed by women are remarkable variety and reflect a deep correlation between folktales and reality Deborah Kodish (1987) writes, ’’We have descriptions of silenced folk waiting for discovery by outsiders. Taking these accounts at face value, some scholars have debated the marginal status of expressive and creative individuals within folk society…However marginal, individuals have voices and identities within their communities.’’ (p. 575) In spite of the diverse orientations of these tales they served as a means to liberate women to imagine and construct new identities. The focus of these stories is on the experience of the female protagonists who are competent, powerful and resourceful unlike those depicted in the tales of male composers. They advance the cause of women’s liberation by depicting strong females and because of their awesome imaginative power female composers played a vital role in cultivating equality among men and women. These tales possess impressionable and impressive standing that have survived the test of time for representing universal gender issues related to womanhood with which the audience still empathises. Hmuaki’s songs reflect her miserable end in the hands of patriarchy, Darpawngi’s couplet protests against gender inequality and Saikuti’s compositions establish a feminine identification with nature, both being the victims of male atrocities. Khiangte (2002) opines, “… women had been free to express their views and they had their own share of status in the village. This is indeed another salient feature of Mizo folk literature.’’ (p. ix)

Lianchhiari ib a popular iemaie composer in the realm of folktales. Lianchhiari, the beautiful daughter of the great chief was in love with a commoner named Chawntianga. Since her love tor Chawngfianga, a person below her status was almost equal to a crime in a conservative Mizo society where premarital romance was not recognised her poems are loaded with remorse and repentance. They are an explicit acknowledgement of the ethical weakness of her position. As Chawngfianga migrates secretly leaving her to her fortune, she composes excellent lyrical poems of love and separation that reveal her superlative expression of her love tor her love. She expresses her pain with fluid eloquence and coherence.

Laltherii another important female composer composed songs that are the forceful liberation of the marginalised and restricted voice of the female. Laltheri’s lover, a commoner was murdered by her brothers under the plotting of her father, the chief. As a consequence, Laltheri transformed her individual sufferings and grievances into poetry. Her tales become a vehicle of protest against the wide category of social injustices towards women in Mizo society. Those also bring forth the loneliness felt by the lamenter due to the loss of the deceased. Her lamentation starts as an expression of individual grief but ends as a record of the collective pain of women in general within the all-encompassing evils of patriarchy. Their poems symbolise social bonding and solidarity among the women folks in the community. Laltheri protested against her brother’s violent act of beheading Chalthanga her lover by stripping off her clothes, throwing her accessories and standing naked in front of her house. By this act, she inspired every woman to transgress beyond the imposed roles of patriarchy. A woman often seeks to hide her body behind assigned roles and is made to forget about her own self. Laltheri recognised the patriarchal eye behind the formulation of gender inequality and released her body from traditional trappings. She asked for a new way of thinking about one’s own body returning the  “body” to her “self.

Conclusion

Thus, woman composers of Mizo folktales reflected experiences and actions that were exclusive to women. Their tales concerned gender issues, gender inequality and sexual politics. They interrogated the patriarchal culture they inhabited through their tales. They established feminine values alternative to heroic glory through their concerns with love, piety, gentleness and compassion. Their tales serves as powerful documents that depicted essentially painful experiences of women and protested against the power of dominant patriarchal society.

Revisiting gender issues: A study of Mizo Folktales
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