The House Husbands of Assam
A glimpse into northeast India’s matrilineal societies
At first blush, these teenagers from a matrilineal village on the Assam and Meghalaya border didn’t seem all that different. Like many teenagers I’d worked with in south India they were growing into their bodies, shy, and sometimes giggly when talking, especially about our session topics of gender equality and reproductive health. But while walking up the steep mountainside to our next session in a neighboring village, the local facilitators Rekha Sarma and Chenmiki Laloo told me stories of boys that were shyer than average and girls being more confident. They told me of it being normal for a girl to approach a boy when she liked him, to let him know she wanted a relationship. I heard stories of young men that ran away from their wife’s home, feeling lack of responsibility and role while his wife worked outside the home. Compared to the large majority of India where the woman’s family pays the wedding expenses, the woman moves into the man’s house, takes on his name, raises the family and takes care of the household, is it wrong of me to find these matrilineal societies somewhat refreshing? That somewhere in this world, there are communities where boys have to take on the role of the less powered gender?
We held a session on gender stereotypes in the small home of one of the teenagers. Not unlike what would have played out in south India, the boys were seated on one side of the room while half of the girls were inside the tiny kitchen cooking a local snack to welcome us. We started the session and the teenagers told us about their family lives, curfew timings, where they were allowed to travel, and what their parents expected of them in terms of college degrees and jobs. My observation was that these teenage girls had much more freedom than their south Indian counterparts. Physical safety and reputation seemed less of a concern to their parents which led to greater freedom to travel and work outside the home. Yet, when we played a gender stereotypes game and asked who does the household chores, everyone agreed it was the women of the house. I gently pointed out that even as we walked in to the session, no boys were in the kitchen cooking. So, despite more freedom in terms of travel and income-earning, women were still largely in charge of the home. I left the session mulling this over, having a follow-up conversation with Rekha and Chen.
We stood outside for a few minutes discussing ideas for the next sessions with this specific group. I asked them, “If you two were married, and Chen, a man, stayed home all-day cooking and cleaning while Rekha, a woman, went out and worked, what would the neighbors say?” Without missing a beat, Chen scrunched up his face and said, “They’d call me a ‘house husband,’” A house husband, as I’d quickly learn, is a derogatory term for a guy who doesn’t earn. I continued to ask people during my trip to define house husbands for me and the best response I got was someone who is “eating his wife’s earnings.” Even though things appear more equal in these matrilineal villages, men have a difficult time staying at home while still getting respect from the community. And perhaps this is why women were working outside the home and doing the housework.
I realized that our facilitators, while amazing at what they do, aren’t 100% comfortable with breaking gender norms either. Chen’s nose scrunching up at the thought of him being a house husband said it all. And Rekha seemed to face what many of the women in matrilineal societies did: responsibility for earning outside the house and taking care inside the house. In her home, the gender stereotypes seem more nuanced. She cleans in addition to working outside because she’s better at it, or she notices something needs to be done earlier than others in her home. But in the end, this means she still didn’t have an even division of responsibilities with her brother.
I could see that Rekha and Chen had a tall task in front of them. They had to somehow convince a group of teenagers that men and women splitting household and income-earning duties was beneficial to both genders. And they had to start practicing it in their own lives. These two were capable of this and much more — they are tremendous young adults making change in their communities.