‘If I smile at you with cherry red lipstick, I do it out of courtesy and not curiosity.’ — Vinatoli Yeptho
Vinatoli Yeptho is from Dimapur, Nagaland. She wrote and performed a poem, shared many times online, counteracting stereotypes that emerge from the Northeast of India and expressed defiance against the labels given to her as a girl from this unique part of the country.
A common perception is that ‘Northeasterners’ are spoiling traditional Indian culture by being more Westernised. Women and girls specifically, are sometimes reprimanded for their choice of attire; Western, tight-fitting clothes paired with fairer and oriental-looking face (‘once, when I was in Ahmedabad, a girl who was very friendly towards me asked me which part of China I come from’) invites second-glances and staring when they travel out of their states and into the ‘mainland’. There’s no denying that it’s cold up there, so what’s the use in a loose, cotton kurti over warm, denim jeans?
Before the British colonised India, except for some parts of the Brahmaputra valley, most of the Northeast existed as a separate land, isolated, with their own religions. It was only with the British that the introduction of the Evangelical church converted almost all the tribes to Christianity. The church exposed them to new standards of the modern world including scripts for their languages, education, and new clothing and custom; the people I meet dress in Western clothing, have Christian names and seem slightly more free to display a relationship in public with those of the opposite sex (in Meghalaya’s capital, Shillong, we felt the sense of companionship amongst mixed-gender groups walking in the streets being much more at ease, and this was much more frequent than in Mumbai). This hybrid culture, mixed with remainders of Hinduism, the introduction of Buddhism, traditional Indian cuisine, new languages, ancient tribes (throwing in the astounding physical geography) makes it a place unlike any other I have ever seen; a kaleidoscope of India.
In Meghalaya, Matriliny gives women from the Khasi, Jaintia and Garo tribe-culture rights of inheritance and succession. The youngest daughter of the family inherits the family property and is considered the custodian and preserver of her clan, family, and lineage. Under the matrilineal system, the family lineage (and name) is passed on through the mother’s clan line and when a child is married, they move in to live with the family of the daughter rather than, traditionally, with the son. Karolin Kluppel is a German photographer who has captured powerful and beautiful images in the beautiful backdrops of the state. But, I think that these visuals seen out of context can obscure the fact that although women have more control in some ways, they are still living under the guise of patriarchy in more traditional structures (such as in formal institutions like the legislative assembly). While the women are the head of the family, when it comes to ascertaining their political rights, they are in a disadvantageous position. In the political system, women are entrusted with administrative functions and not with leading or protective roles. It is encouraging though, to know that women in Meghalaya can have the freedom, independence, and choice in family matters and, to an extent, it appears ironic and a little disorientating to hear of campaigns from men who live there who are fighting for more equal rights.
In the capital Shillong however, we meet a twenty-year-old student named Livi and we have a positive conversation about her experience as a young woman living there. She tells me that in Shillong, it is ‘known as one of the best places for education in the whole of Northeast.’
‘I feel that a woman could be seen to be more respected in the Northeast than in other parts, and I think that in general, they feel safer due to the way people around them are helpful, kind and generous at all times. I personally find Nagaland to be one of the safest places in India; our people are very hospitable, well-cultured and very much founded in traditions. I am not only proud of my home, but I know that it is unique and different. You notice the freedom as soon as you arrive here.’
On the long train home to Mumbai from Darjeeling, we found ourselves without a confirmed ticket and only on the waiting list for beds. We chose to board the train anyway, hoping to upgrade, when a man named Binoy offered us his bed for the most part of a day whilst he shared with other passengers until we could upgrade our own tickets. Packed like sardines, we talked and shared food (even tasting hot chillies from the plains of the Northeast). Binoy later told us that he didn’t think twice about helping us because he respected us; we had told him our story and he admired that although we knew about how difficult it can be for women in India, we had still chosen to come and work here. He explained that he was proud of being from the Northeast and always thought of it as a more equal and just place for women; he wanted to do anything he could to solidify this.
‘Are you not scared?’ we are often asked as solo women in India. Never scared, we think, only curious, grateful, and happy to learn from the people we continue to meet.
‘Remember that my forefathers were head hunters. I was born out of a clan of warriors / Remember the world’s hottest chilli is growing in my grandmother’s garden.’
[Vinatoli is a student at the National University of Juridical Sciences. Her poem has opened avenues for discussions around the racism that people from Northeast India must face every day from the rest of the country.]