Matriarchal Hegemony in Easterine Iralu’s “A Terrible Matriarchy” : Prof.AJ Sebastian sdb

Matriarchal Hegemony  in  Easterine Iralu’s A Terrible Matriarchy : Prof. AJ Sebastian sdb


Gender  inequality has led to affirming femininity as a cultural construct inscribing  the society’s views about women through conventions and inhibit woman’s individuality. The statement ‘one is not born a woman, but one becomes one’ (Beauvoir 295) calls attention to the issue under consideration. The term ‘feminine’ stands for woman herself and everything concerning  her womanhood. It is body, passion and nature  that define a woman’s feminine traits,  focussing on her  mental and physical nature of mothering and  nurturing life. A proper understanding of the issue  presented by feminists is essential for a better debate as ‘..They argue that feminism should work to liberate women from a system of male-centred values and beliefs, and should empower them to discover their own uniquely female identity’ (Tolan 323).   It is often found that though the experience of motherhood is  a unique experience of woman, yet the ‘institution of motherhood is controlled by man and this physical quality conditions her entire life’ (Rich 35).


Matriarchal hegemony  portrayed in Easterine Iralu’s A Terrible Matriarchy comes as  a challenge to  the widespread belief  that  such inequality    exists  only  in a male  dominated society in Nagaland*.   The fictionist draws our attention to  a particular form of matriarchal control in her society that perpetrates gender inequality.  She asserts   that  women   have their due share in committing violence against  the girl child.

The foundations of  Matriarchy are maternal authority and women’s Superiority Complex. From the moment of birth, men are taught to defer to maternal authority.  Men who marry usually find their wives expecting the mantle of maternal authority to be simply handed over to them by and from the man’s mother without missing a beat. It sometimes takes many battles for a man to make the point to a new wife that she is his spouse and equal, not his mother. Women who stubbornly insist on being slow learners on this issue set up oppositional and adversarial positions which often will poison the marriage over time. Women expect to be able to make the rules and simply expect men to obey them.  When feminists realized that they were about to overthrow women’s own matriarchal power base with their initial anti-marriage and anti-motherhood stances, they did an abrupt about-face and embraced motherhood even more fervently than they had rejected it just a few years before. Matriarchy depends on shadow power. It must deny its power and function from the shadows. All matriarchal power stems from the maternal role and maternal authority, and the power to grant or deny sex  (“Confronting Matriarchy.”

          The novelist  has  very realistically portrayed  matriarchal hegemony.  She has  acknowledged that “the little girl is a combination of many little girls. Some girl readers have told me, ‘I am that little girl, I was mistreated because I was a girl-child’  Some girl-children have suffered more abuse than this one in the story” (Easterine.  e-mail. 14 January 2010).

Some of her personal experiences have also surfaced in the story as she acknowledges: “I put together my experiences of school and growing up to piece Lieno’s experience into a typical childhood experience. I was bullied at school as the youngest in my class, she is bullied at school… Dielieno actually means, errand girl, so it is a name that designates what the status of a girl-child is, she is considered good for running errands and looking after the house. Nothing very wrong with that but grandmother’s way of raising her harshly and preferring the male-children I felt was wrong and I have seen that in many families”  (Easterine.  e-mail. 14 January 2010).

Easterine’s  use  of the narrative  through the innocent eyes  of    Lieno is similar to that of Jhumpa Lahiri in her narrating the story of  Hema and Kaushik  in “Once in a Lifetime” with Hema’s  first person  narration   through  her ‘innocent eyes.’ As she addresses Kaushik, Hema leads the readers through her past memories of events in their lives.  Likewise, Lieno takes  the readers through her life, stage by stage through her innocent eyes.

In the novel the fictionist looks into the various aspects of matriarchal assertion in manifold ways, challenging the commonly held feminist point of view. The story  surrounds  the five year old   Dielieno,  only girl child and youngest of  the five  children.   Sometimes she felt  unwanted and  took for granted that she was an after thought since her parents often made her wear the leftover clothing of her brothers.   Though growing up as the darling  of her family, at the tender age of  four and a half, she  knew that her grandmother didn’t like her when she   refused  to give  her a  much desired chicken leg. She was told, “That portion is always for boys. Girls must eat the other portions” (ATM 1).

Lieno  also noticed her mother giving meat pieces from her own plate to her brothers. She  noticed how  her mother lived a very unhappy life, living in utter dread of the granny who never  appreciated  anything  she did.  When Lieno’s mother sent her elder son to fetch water, she was told by grandma to send the girl  instead,  as she held the view that no man is   to carry water.  Grandmother always boasted off how she began to  work when  barely  four  and insisted that “The girl must be made to work at home. Don’t  let her run about with her  brothers any more. That is not the way to bring up girl-children” (4).

Easterine’s views are similar to that of  social activist  Rosemary Dzüvichü  who writes in  her poem “Womanhood”  focusing on  gender inequality in her society. The  poet is very pointed in her queries with its didactic purpose. Her social criticism   through a series of  questions  put into the mouth of a young girl are  thought provoking. The poem aims to bring about a change in the mind-set of people.


my brothers don’t carry water

from the distant  pond


men sit and drink

from morn till dusk

as their women sweat



women  only cry (PFN 111-12).

Lieno was always  referred to as “the girl” by   her granny, denying her any individual identity. When  she asks her mother why she is never called by   name, her mother  shrugs off saying  that   she is  someone special to grandma. But when she is called so even after two years,  she picks up courage to speak up: “Grandmother, my name is Dielieno, remember you gave me my name? Why won’t you call me by my name?” (ATM 4).  With a stick in hand, she got  a grim remark from the granny warning her not to be cheeky.  The grandmother literally treated her  like an “errand girl” as her given name Dielieno meant – a name  granny herself had given, implying her to be a non-entity in the midst of her  brothers.

Once, when Lieno visited grandmother along with her   brother Leto,  she made him sit on her lap  showering  tender affection to the embarrassment of the thirteen year old boy. Unconcerned about  the little girl’s presence, she ordered her to fetch firewood and went to give Leto a lump of jaggery.

Lieno had great fun  sitting in the lap of   Uncle Atu when he came to visit grandma.  When she started climbing on his shoulders, she was caned by grandmother saying, “Girl, what do you think you are? A monkey?… I’ve never seen such a badly behaved girl” (5). When uncle defended her being only a little child, grandma retorted that no decent girl climbs up a man’s shoulder. Being hurt, Lieno kept away the whole day and expressed her hatred of grandma to  her father showing her bruised calf.  Though angry, her father  only said, “It is for your own  good, your grandmother would never do anything to you that is not for your welfare… She only wants to raise you to be a good woman” (6). But she wasn’t convinced as it got ingrained in her soul that grandma hated seeing her enjoying herself and wished that the old woman died. Lieno’s mother  became pale  on hearing her pathetic  story and asked  if granny  ever mentioned “bad blood.”   When she nodded,  mother made her  promise never to mention it to anyone.

One  day Lieno  overheard her  parents discuss  their plan to send her to live with the grandmother who lived a lonely life. Though  mother remonstrated with her father,  he had his way saying, “Mother was right. You are not raising her properly. She will leave  tomorrow for mother’s house” (10). Shocked by the decision, Lieno went to bed  dreaming  of  holding her grandfather’s hand. Suddenly the face changed  to be grandmother’s, who   shook off her hand with a stern look as Lieno woke up with the fear of the inevitable.

When  she reached grandmother’s home to stay, Lieno  was told to keep away from her as she  might have brought germs from her home. She ordered Bano to bathe the girl in  icy cold water. Hardly she had put on some clothes to warm herself up  in the bitter cold, she was directed by the old woman to fetch water. At the water point  she  met  two women  who kept taunting her for being a descendent of the wretched old woman. Bano told her to  ignore the comment and never to speak about it to granny, lest she would invite her fury and hatred. Though very young, she also began to understand how much  people hated the old granny.

At the house,  Lieno was given various tasks such as fetching water, stacking firewood, making grandma’s bed,  gathering the chickens  at sunset and counting them. When Leto came to visit  grandma after three days, Lieno clung to him, but granny sent her to bring sweet potatoes for her brother. Granny  showed her usual affection for the boy, however he felt embarrassed and excused himself to go and cut firewood. However, she made him promise to visit again and she would cook  many dishes for him. The young girl recalls: “It amused me the way my brother had to extricate himself from grandmother’s clutches. With some revulsion I recollected that she  was going  on like a young  girl with him, vying for his attention and bribing him with  good food. The meat that hung on the spiked bamboo was not for us. It was for Leto and all my brothers” (18).

Lieno’s fear of granny grew day by day as she picked on her with silly things like making bed in the wrong way, repeated counting  of  chickens in the evening and chasing out the neighbour’s dog that carried away two chickens.

When her parents visited after six months, Lieno was delighted to sit in her mother’s lap as long as she could, but was chased by the grandma to bring tapioca. As mother introduced the topic of sending  Lieno to school,  grandmother  spoke of her days when girls didn’t go to school but stayed at home to learn household duties and went to the field. Her father put in his opinion for the first time ever in front of his mother: “Mother…You mustn’t think we don’t respect  your views on the subject. We took this decision for Lieno because she is  a bright girl…Of course, she will continue living with you and helping you in your house. And of course, we want to listen to what your decision  is on this” (23). They couldn’t do anything with out her  final decision on the fate of Lieno. However, from the following day she could go to school with her best friend Vimenuo. But grandmother didn’t like Vimenuo’s folks, considering them descending from   bad blood.

Lieno loved going to school, but it meant many sacrifices as grandmother made her  get up  an hour earlier to do all the chores. grandma was never happy about her schooling and kept telling Lieno’s mother, “I really don’t know what it is your generation sees in school. Your children are not being taught the skills of life because they are too busy studying. I was doing such a good job of teaching the girl to work…It was   difficult enough. She has a stubborn streak to her.  Now you come with all these plans  for school. She will completely forget all I have taught her now” (37). When  the father spoke of the poor performance of his sons, grandma  began defending them saying that  they would be alright as they are to be taught to be manly:

In my father’s day, boys never did any work because they had to look after  the village and engage enemy warriors in warfare. The household that did not have a male  heir was considered barren. They were always in constant danger if there was a war. The women would only have one man to protect them. That is why we love our male children so much and we give them the best  of food. And we should (37).

Little wonder why grandma picked on Lieno when she returned late from school after special tuition to learn how  to read and write.  Feeling  frustrated at the  beatings and scoldings heaped on her, she  wanted to know from Bano why granny   hated her so much. Bano had the usual litany: “She doesn’t hate you…she wants you to be a good girl. It’s her way of bringing you up to be a good woman” (39).

When granny’s brother,  Sizo, came  home and offered Lino a chocolate, she  sought permission from grandma to take it.  That day she came to learn  that  Bano was  Sizo’s daughter, though she  called   her mother. Grandmother continue to show  her anger on Lieno and  never liked any one praise her. She recalls: “She didn’t think I had anything good in me” (46).

At Christmas time she was allowed to visit her parents for a week. Lieno recollects  with nostalgia, the time she spent  with her mother – cooking  food and making cake. She had a wonderful time  playing hide and seek with her brothers Bulie, Pete and Leto. Mother knit a new sweater for her which she wore with great zest. It was very exciting  when mother woke her up on Christmas day  with a packet containing a  lovely little doll. But the joy of Christmas was  abruptly stopped when Bano came to call her  back to grandmother’s home. Fear loomed large and she recollects: “I dreaded going  back…It was not so much the amount of work to be done but the  way grandmother made us feel  as though we were constantly being watched” (69). From the time she reached grandma’s home, she felt lonely, missing  her parents and brothers. When Bano expressed her joy in having her come back, Lieno felt sorry for her who was   never allowed to go  to her father’s  home at Christmas since he had another wife and children.

Lieno’s teacher  Miss Sobu became pregnant with the Drawing  Teacher’s child which made grandmother  very cynical and  angry,  because such teachers teach bad things to children.  Grandmother found only  two kinds of people in the world as Bano recounts: “In the first group are those who are upright and go to church regularly and come to all the community gatherings. The others are those who do not go to church regularly and are fond  of drinking and whose daughters sometimes get pregnant before they can get married. She is convinced that only those in the first group will get to heaven and the rest  will all go to hell” (81). As a matter of fact grandma disliked pretty girls presuming them to go  wrong sooner or later.   Hence Lieno could never  hanker for  pretty dresses  as long as she  lived there. She began to understand why her   mother though pretty, never wore any good looking  dress.

When Lieno  was nearly eleven years, grandmother began to stare at her for something she didn’t like. She enquired from  Bano, “Has she got the curse yet?” (130). At bedtime, Bano explained what the curse meant when girls reached their puberty. grandmother’s fear was that   girls would become pregnant if they mingled with boys.  The young Lieno discussed the matter with her friend Vimeno and became scared of the curse and  was prepared to eat most bitter gourds to prevent the bleeding.

Finally, on her thirteenth birthday she got the curse, bringing along with it her embarrassment and fear of being found out by schoolmates.   Easterine Iralu probes into questions of being a woman in one of her poems.  Having her mother as a role-model ‘… a  girl’s core gender identity is positive and built upon sameness, continuity, and identification with the mother’  (Showalter  320). The girl as she matures to adolescence and adulthood, is embarrassed by her sudden physical growth. She finds herself very different  from  the boys of her age    making her  afraid and ashamed of her womanhood.

Tell me mother,

What is like to be a woman?



Awkward with my limbs

Ashamed of my menstruation

Afraid of my womanhood? (Kire   32).

The child sees  herself  identical to her mother. She longs to  determine her personal identity without any mirror image of the other.  She presents her ‘Matrophobia’ which is the fear   of becoming one’s mother. Though she hates to be her mother’s replica  there is  an  underlying mysterious pull towards the mother   (Rich  62).

Shashi Deshpande in her  novel The Dark Holds No Terrors, portrays a similar situation  in the relationship between Sarita and her mother. The mother  is guilty of gender discrimination as she tries to bring up Sarita the way she wants, ignoring her female identity. When Sarita  started her menstruation, her mother makes her ashamed of herself telling her: “ ‘You’re growing up’ she would say. And there was something unpleasant in the way she looked at me, so that I longed to run away, to hide whatever part of me she was  staring at… A kind of shame that engulfed me, making me want to rage, to scream against the face that put me in the same class as my mother (Deshpande 62).

Lieno was delighted to pass the Matriculation examinations with a second division.  Being the smartest  for studies in the family, Leto  volunteered to sponsor her college education. When her father  referred the matter to grandmother, she  pointed out very  religiously that, “…  a woman’s role is to marry and bear  children…That is her most important  role. Men don’t like to marry  educated wives. Then, if you find no one to marry you, you will be alone in your old age and have no one to bury you…See what a terrible thing it is not to have children to bury one?” (ATM 206). So saying she wanted them to reconsider their plan of  college education for the girl. But the tide turned to Lieno’s favour and she could pursue her dream.

The happiest news came when she came to learn that Vimenuo would be married to her brother Leto. But, when  grandma heard of it she  roared with anger for  making such a demonic alliance with a family of bad blood.  She hated Vimenuo for being the daughter of a   drunk, hailing from a  scandalous family. She  didn’t want  to be part of the unholy alliance by refusing to attend their wedding. It was her staunch belief that “When there is bad blood in a family, it always repeats itself. That is why we always consider the background of a girl’s family when we want our sons  to marry well…marriage…is a mixing of blood” (213-14). And she  awaited the day when the alliance would break up or something terrible  happened.

Lieno’s brother Vini’s marriage  proposal with Nisano, a girl from a good family, was approved by grandmother with delight. She wanted it to be celebrated  with great  fanfare at her expenses. Though  the boy had been an alcoholic,  she  was full of praises for him considering him to live a wealthy and good life. She  also went to the extend of  giving away all her fields to Vini   since he married a girl of  good blood of her choice. But Vini succumbed to his addiction,  leaving  a baby boy Vinilhoulie.  A grief stricken grandmother willed that her house  would go to the little boy after her death.  However, granny dictated what Nisano should do and  forced her to spend all the money on the child’s cloths and toys. She  ejaculated  her adage that, “a male child is to be brought  up very carefully. He will shelter all of us in turn when he is grown” (260).

Lieno kept wondering  how her father and her folks kept  slavishly  respecting grandmother’s rigid views. Even Nisano had established her  loyalty to her. “I had myself never learnt to feel anything of the sort and always wondered how father and his siblings  could be so devoted to her. They tried to fulfil her every wish. They quoted  her constantly and it irked me that they would expect their spouses to be awed  by her wisdom and her philosophy of life and try to abide by it” (271). Little wonder how she continued to  be more  domineering  than ever in advanced age. Lieno kept to her personal opinion as a young educated girl of twenty one, though her mother tried to tell her to be less harsh in her opinion of grandmother saying, “I know  you were unhappy in her house but she was trying to teach you to become a good woman. Men don’t like women who are aggressive and outspoken. They like their wives to be good workers. You are a good worker, Lieno, but you must try to be more docile” (271-2). But when Lieno  began to let out her suppressed bitterness at the way she was treated as a child being bathed in icy cold water at her bidding, counting repeatedly chickens in the   dark etc, mother was shocked. She merely argued that all these granny  did to Lieno because she was a girl not a boy. However, she always felt being punished for being born a girl and wished she was not  a girl.

To calm down the girl her mother sat beside to explain the crux of the matter:

Your grandmother was the eldest  of the children. She grew up in the village and moved to the town only when she was married. When  she was young she lived through a very hard time. In the village, widows without sons lost their husband’s property to other male  relatives. So she understood that it was  very important for a married woman to produce as many male offspring as she could… But people were unkind and mocked  those who could not produce male children… I think your grandmother looks at her sons and grandsons as a kind of insurance and she is inclined to take a very conservative attitude towards your brothers by pampering them as she saw other boys being pampered in her childhood  (272-3).

Mother further pointed out  that grandmother’s attachment to  boys is due to her  need to be looked after in  old age. Grandma always thought that women had to depend on men as they were weak. Mother advised Lieno  to  be sympathetic to a week  old widow who sought to secure the  loyalty of her sons and grandsons. Grandma grew up in a society where women pushed their men to go to war as they would be  safe under such good warriors.  Instead of hating her,  Lieno is  prompted to  understand grandma’s predicament and forgive her.  In her sober moments, Lieno realised that  if she refused to forgive grandma, she would herself end up being   embittered. Slowly  she  began to understand how  a deep sense of insecurity led grandma to hold on to her  views and convictions. From then on, Lieno’s fear transformed  into pity as she understood grandma trying to buy love. She resolved to be kind to the old woman. Meanwhile Bano brought news that grandmother was bedridden and immobile.  When Lieno and her mother were   by her bed-side,  Lieno uttered, “Grandmother, it’s me, Lieno, I want to say that it is okay, I forgive you for being harsh with me” (280). The soothing  words of forgiveness made grandma’s immobile face beam with  a hiss and tears welled up in her eyes. Grandmother cried her tears, displaying her grief,  before she passed away that night.

Three days after her death it was believed that grandmother made her appearance  several times. Lieno saw her sitting in her chair as usual.  She continued to wield her influence on the family even after death. When Lieno turned twenty three,  she was married off to Bulie’s friend. The story  had  come to its full circle after her marriage. But will she continue to perpetuate the tradition of her grandmother, or break free from the shackles of the past?

         Foundations of Female Power has been grandma’s strength and stay throughout the novel. It is  built on  a) Maternal Authority  through  Moral Power, b) Control of the Education/Socialization system  through  Indoctrination Power;  c) The Rescue Reflex  through  Victim Power, d) Emotional Terrorism and Violence – through Intimidation Power (“Confronting Matriarchy.”

It is  relevant  to reflect on the statement of Luce Irigari: “It is also necessary for us to discover and assert that we are always mothers once we are women. We bring something other than children into the world, we  engender…love, desire, language, art, the social, the political, the religious… and we must  re-appropriate the   maternal dimension that belongs to us as women” (Irigary  420-1).

         Lieno’s bitterness is transformed into forgiveness for her grandmother, understanding her social dilemma during a period of Naga history when a male  was deemed to be the warrior protector of the family. Such  convictions of the older generation are to be understood in the backdrop of the socio-cultural  growth of a society in transition.   A Terrible Matriarchy pauses  probing questions to all and sundry to  care for children,  irrespective of their gender identities, acknowledging their preciousness as gifts of God. The novel is a clarion call to men and women to play  their   unique role in  ushering in social transformation, doing away with all forms of gender discrimination.


Works Cited:


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Abbreviated  PFN.

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