• December 15, 2015

Photographing in the Kingdom of Girls

Jeremy Berlin

In the lush jungles of northeastern India, hard against the Bangladesh border, is a tiny village with an unconventional social order. Mawlynnong is where about 500 members of the indigenous Khasi tribe still follow ancient matrilineal traditions. Where succession, money, property, and power pass from mother to daughter. Where girls—literally—rule their roosts.

A girl from the Khasi tribe in India
To make Khasi tradition visible, photographer Karolin Klüppel “created portraits as a reference or allusion to the girls’ surroundings and culture.” That means a fish-drying device could be a necklace for Grace Tangsong, seven.

Karolin Klüppel wanted to see this inverted world for herself. So for nine months spanning two years, the Berlin-based photographer lived with different Khasi families in the “unbelievably clean, calm, and peaceful” village. What she found was a culture in which youngest daughters (called khadduh) inherit wealth and property, husbands move into their wives’ homes, and children take their mother’s surname.

A girl from the Khasi tribe in India
Anisha Nongrum, seven, wears a headdress of areca seeds, used in a chew called kwai.

Girls go to school in the village until they’re teens, though some move to the state capital at 11 or 12 for further education. After that they attend college or
return to Mawlynnong, where they care for their parents. They may marry whomever they choose; there is no stigma attached to divorce or opting to stay single.

A girl from the Khasi tribe in India
Ibapyntngen Khongjee, eight, hides in a mosquito net. Klüppel says these “powerful, self-assured” girls must often act responsibly. But “in their free time, they’re children who jump in rivers, catch fish, run, scream, and get dirty.”

But not having daughters can cause despair. Only girls can ensure continuity, so families without them are called ïap-duh, or “extinct,” says North-Eastern Hill University anthropologist Valentina Pakyntein.

A girl from the Khasi tribe in India
The eldest of three siblings, Phida Nongrum, nine, plays with a balloon in her bedroom. One day her sister Anisha will be head of their household.

Such customs, she adds, have existed “for time immemorial.” They may go back to when Khasis had multiple partners, which made it hard to determine paternity. Or to when male ancestors, off fighting wars, couldn’t care for their clans or families.

A girl from the Khasi tribe in India
Beslinda Khongdup, 12, reaches down to grasp cow legs, which Khasis sometimes use in soup. Most Indians are Hindu, but the villagers in Mawlynnong are Christians and therefore may eat beef.

Today men lead Mawlynnong’s village council, but they rarely own property. Klüppel says some, upset by their second-class status, are calling for gender equality. But mostly she was struck by “the respect that Khasi men have for women,” which is at the heart of this photo series. “I want everyone to know about cultures that are different from the patriarchal world we live in—and I want people to question that system.”

View more of Karolin Klüppel’s work from this project, called “Mädchenland,” on her website.

There are 14 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Rebecca Lien
    May 3, 2016

    I think this is a remarkable find. It make me wonder what if matriarchal society’ were more common in todays’ world. I wish the patriarchal society will not influence this culture but learn from it. I fear it too late to hold those wishes.

  2. Leina
    February 10, 2016

    “They may marry whomever they choose; there is no stigma attached to divorce or opting to stay single.” I wish this would apply to the rest of the world.

  3. Jungshi
    January 5, 2016

    @Melvin I am from one of the states in North East India, and as far as what i have heard from my friends who are Kasi’s born in Meghalaya, matrilineage is practiced in some form or the another. Go for self and live there, i can assure you there’s quiet a strong presence of women folks out there. It certainly is a different society.

    Refer to @Meban Nongsiej’s comment. Meban is an original Khasi name

  4. Tim Holmes
    December 30, 2015

    It is great to see femininity on its own terms! I would love to see how a matrilineal society matures in this era. I bet we would see some remarkable political ideas! Thank you for this story. Please keep your eyes out for more such cultures!

  5. b
    December 27, 2015

    Matriarchy or some variation of it was the norm in large parts of South India, and among many tribal communities. Polyandry too was popular in various parts. However under the British, this was outlawed as unnatural and British laws were brought in. Having a son now became essential to retaining and passing on family inheritance, especially land. The British refused to recognize traditional female queens, warriors, Stree dhan (female owned property), adoptions, etc. They began to deal with the uncles and brothers,rather than the women owners.

  6. An interested reader
    December 25, 2015

    “Unbelievably clean, calm, and peaceful”

    Well, that’s not surprising, given men are responsible for the vast majority of violence crime in the world. Check out the FBI’s crime statistics, sorted by the sex of the perpetrator. It’s damning.

  7. Meban Nongsiej
    December 21, 2015

    Proud to see my beautiful Hill state of Meghalaya at the world map. Our practice are very ancient but changes have been seen in our system due to many reasons. It’s not only the mawlynnong people who practice it but the khasi and jaintia tribe still practice it till date.

  8. Melissa C
    December 20, 2015

    Wonderful insight into a fascinating culture. I would be interested to know how men are treated by women in Mawlynnong. As a humanist and a Buddhist I strongly feel that no-one should be “2nd class”. 🙂

  9. tee
    December 20, 2015

    Too bad NG fired most their fact checkers. Hard to feel confident about this news.

  10. Karen
    December 17, 2015

    As much as you want it to be true, this society is not a matriarchy in the sense it’s the opposite of a patriarchy. Men are still in control of the politics. Many eastern/south eastern indigenous people of North America had a matrilineal system. The Father will never belong to his wife’s clan, so the wife’s brother (uncle) would be an important figure to the children.

  11. Melvin
    December 17, 2015

    Your intro states ‘Where succession, money, property, and power pass from mother to daughter. Where girls—literally—rule their roosts.’ That would, however, be a matriarchy, not a matrilineage. I don’t believe the Khasi, nor any peoples for that matter, have a matriarchal system though.

  12. Joan Churton
    December 17, 2015

    Thank you for presenting this inverted society. It is refreshing to know there is a place where women can live more equally. I appreciate you.

  13. Rafyle Snabi
    December 16, 2015

    Is the article about Mawlynnong or about the Khasi Matrilineal society coz either way it gives an incomplete picture which is puzzling.

  14. Freya Greaves
    December 15, 2015

    The total opposite from most of the wold!!

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