Women, Commons and Gender Justice

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(from Vocabulary of Commons, article 31)

by Anungla Aier

Women and commons
Engaging with gender justice

Commons are not simply resources we share—conceptualising the commons involves three things at the same time. First, all commons involve some sort of common pool of resources, understood as non-commodified means of fulfilling peoples’ needs. Second, the commons are necessarily created and sustained by communities—this of course is a very problematic term and topic, but nonetheless we have to think about it. Communities are sets of commoners who share these resources and who define for themselves the rules according to which they are accessed and used. They also need not be understood as ‘homogeneous’ in their cultural and material features. In addition to these two elements—the pool of resources and the set of communities—the third and most important element in terms of conceptualising the commons is the verb ‘to common’—the social process that creates and reproduces the commons.[1] In general, the concept of a ‘commons’ is often defined and understood to denote having a ‘shared ownership’ and responsibility over the said resources, be it natural resources such as land, human resources and knowledge, social capital and cultural wealth of a community.

In being drawn to the idea of ‘common and shared ownership and responsibility’, it is important to remind ourselves that the ‘sharing of the commons’ takes place within the social and cultural confines of a community. Therefore, the cultural denomination ascribed to key social groups such as gender categories and their strategic positions in the social hierarchy of the community is critical since it often determines the access and control over the resources. Among the indigenous ethnic communities of the hill states of northeast India, common land based resources, has been the tradition over the generations. This is gradually changing primarily due to change in lifestyles and a moving away from the rural to urban setting.

A community is not homogenous in the real sense, as it essentially consists of and is structured along gendered categories. It is therefore critical to look beyond the ‘community concept’ and gain insight on how the ‘commons’ of the group is projected, its usage regulated and the how the intuitions are structured. This chapter revisits some of its aspects from a gender perspective to identify the existing issues of exclusion and discrimination that hinders the purpose of the commons. The discussions focus on issues of land rights, power and decision making, and knowledge.

Drawing on examples from several tribal communities who are indigenous inhabitants of Nagaland state, this is a gendered critique of the underlying values and practice of the various commons among the indigenous communities. It takes a stand that the traditional framework has been working against the interest of women even in the post-development scenario and have perpetuated the continued discrimination of women, displacing them within their own community.

Land rights and women

As Fernandes stated,[2] ‘to understand the role of land and of other natural resources in people’s lives and the thinking behind their use and management, one has first to study the difference of stakeholders’. Making a distinction between the urban middle class and the indigenous communities as two categories of major stakeholders in the discourse on land, culture and modernisation in India, he further commented and rightly so, that whereas the urban middle class view land and the natural resources either as a commodity to be protected or exploited; the indigenous communities view land as the centre of their identity, economy and social systems.

Though the instances in this chapter are drawn primarily from the Naga communities, many of the basic conceptual principles of land holding systems are roughly similar among all shifting cultivators of the Northeast. The specific procedures that characterise the operation of particular systems may vary considerably from tribe to tribe and even within the same tribe. There exist local variations between different villages. But in general they all follow similar patriarchal principles. The basis for decision making regarding landholding, usage, management and inheritance of land is closely linked not only with the social and kinship structure but also with the history of the groups, which in effect take the strength of civil law under the aegis of the customary laws of the particular community.

Among the indigenous communities of the Northeast, land and its management is intricately linked to the organisation of the society and the use of land underlie the fundamental premise of various cultural practices. In general, land is classified into two types of landholding based on the nature of use to which it is put: (a) jhum or fallow lands which are used for cultivation; extraction of minerals and forest products, and (b) residential or non-jhum lands. Both types of land are recognised under three forms of landownership, i.e., village land which is owned and managed by the village council or chief on behalf of the community; clan land, owned and managed by particular clan(s); and individual land owned and managed by the individual(s). Whereas privately owned lands are individually acquired and passed down from father to son, it also has more chances of changing ownership over the generation whereas ownership of village and clan lands do not change easily as its ownership is tied up with traditions of migration of the first settlers and eventual establishment of the village (Aier & Changkija 1997).

In this context, mention is made here that though the history of a people is a common, among the Naga communities it is quite commonplace to find that women are not featured in the oral history and traditions of origin, migration and the first settling of the village. Almost always, each village has been established only by men (women’s names are customarily deleted from such accounts). It is therefore not surprising to also find that important landmarks, boundaries, water bodies and all other stories connected to the land are also associated with heroes who are men and are even called by their names thereby immortalising their claim of ownership and control over it. It is not possible to divorce such oral tradition from the management of land resources among the indigenous people. The cultural practices such as rules of inheritance, land rights as well as any form of contestations such as ownership and boundary issues are grounded and decided on the basis of such traditions. From a patriarchal and patrilineal vantage, the arrangement may seem logical but from a gender perspective it permanently wipes out any possibility for women to find a space in the overall arrangement of power sharing structures of the society or control over the land as a common necessity for their livelihood and survival.

In reality, women are the ‘true managers’ of the resources—they are the tillers, gatherers, seeders and harvesters of the land. Yet they have no right to own, sell and inherit any portion of the land they tend. The Naga dustomary law makes unambiguous statements pertaining to customary laws of inheritance and women’s rights to land and property. A few instances are given below (Aier & P.Khuvung 2009):

  1. Daughters and wives are not allowed to inherit land (land also includes house). If there are no sons, in the event of death the closest male relative on the paternal side will be the legal heir. Daughters may be gifted land at the time of marriage if the father is wealthy and possess several plots of land. This practice is not the norm but depends on individual circumstances and it is completely at the disposal of the father to give such gifts. In most communities, such gifted land is re-claimed by the father or his family in the event of her death. But in some communities such as among the Pochury, the gift is permanent (Pochury Public Forum 2006).
  2. Unmarried women and spinsters are allowed to live in the parental house and sustain on the land that belongs to her father and brothers for as long as she lives. But she can neither sell nor claim ownership over it.
  3. Divorced women lose all rights of access to her husband’s land and resources. If the divorce had occurred due to the husband’s infidelity, she can claim certain portions of moveable properties such as grains, livestock, cash but not the land. In some communities, she can claim the right to continue living in the house if they have children and she is given the custody. Whether widowed or divorced, if a woman who has been granted rights over the house wants to remarry, she must relinquish all rights over the house as well as custodial rights over the children and go to the new husband’s house.
  4. If a man dies leaving only daughters, customarily the deceased man’s father, brothers, and other male members of his family and clan inherits the house as well as any other plots of land. The wife and daughters stand to face eviction from their homes just for being women.

The various customary laws regarding land rights and women clearly marginalise women as they have no control over the resources. Their rights to access land is also through the men in their lives—father, brother, husband or sons.

Globally, it is recognised that land rights is critical for improving women’s social security, livelihoods and their social status. It is estimated that globally, ‘though women constitute the majority of the agricultural workforce (70 to 80% in some regions) their access to and control over land is globally estimated at 5%, although there are variations in regions. Most rural families in Sub-Saharan Africa live under customary regimes—access to land is determined by customary practices, with land use and the proceeds from land owned by male kin. Women’s relationship with land is therefore through husbands, fathers, brothers or sons.[1]

Information such as this emerging out of communities from across the continents reinforces the understanding that across the cultures, patriarchal values depends on the marginalisation of women. For rural and indigenous communities, whether in Africa, India or elsewhere, land is a crucial economic resource and source of livelihood and the communities have always viewed land as the fundamental element of their economic well-being as well as part of their social and cultural identity.[2] Reasoning such as this coalescing with conflict situations, at least in the context of the Nagas, may have contributed to the land ownership and control in the men’s domain who were also considered as the protectors of the community. The resultant gender impact of such traditional negotiations with conflict, land rights, natural resources and livelihood however resulted in the creation of unequal gendered stratification where women occupied a much lower rung in the social strata. Though indigenous societies, particularly the Naga society, have been projected as an egalitarian society in colonial writing (eg Mills 1922, 1926, Hutton 1921), there is a strong gender inequality which is nowhere more distinct than in the control and management of land resources.

In the case of the indigenous communities, particularly the indigenous communities of Northeast India, starting from the mid 20th century the entire gamut of the social process have been experiencing drastic changes. The religious, economic, political, education system have been transformed from the traditional base to a newer system of belief and mode of operation. Transition of the society from a rural based agrarian economy to urban based monetised economy took place introducing multiple economic options such as trade and education that opens avenues for jobs in the public as well as private sectors. The new priority and agenda of the various institutional structures underwent a paradigm shift where the focus was on development and the changing lifestyles. In this emerging paradigm of change and development, the issues of traditional land rights became all the more crucial from a gender perspective. Whereas the conditions remained more or less unchanged in the rural areas, particularly in the more remote and inaccessible regions, the issues of land rights in the urban and semi urban areas become critical due to the interface of traditions and modernity.

In the new settings, modern legal systems and constitutional provisions and regulations of land acquisition are becoming an inherent part of lives side by side with the traditional system. For instance, land in the villages are traditionally acquired which as mentioned is based on the kinship structure as well as on the historical background of the community. However, in the urban context, people who have moved out of villages and resettled in the towns were acquiring land by purchasing. In many such cases, both men and women contribute according to their earning. Nonetheless, where ownership and control of the land is concerned, the customary laws prevail. Despite the changes, women finds themselves fighting the same battle of getting access to these lands as it continues to be controlled by men only.

In the case of the Nagas, the special constitutional provision recognising the traditional customary practices and traditional control over the land vide Article 371(A) further strengthens the inherent discriminations that already exist. Many see the legal option of deeding the land in favour of daughters and wives by writing a will. But there are instances where, despite the existence of legal documents, women and daughters are denied control of such land by citing the customary laws and the constitutional recognition of the customary laws.

Power and decision making

That woman mainly gain access to land through marriage, although they have access to use land as daughters or sisters is already highlighted in the foregoing discussion. This brings us to the decision making processes and gendered power equations that control not only the use of resources but also secure the social well being of the community as a commons. Traditionally, the position of the village chief or the council of village elders is occupied by men only since appointment to all such positions are customarily made on the basis of kinship and clan representations and also on the tradition of village establishment.

For instance, among the Sumi Nagas only the son or direct descendant of the founder of the village can become the chief. Under no circumstances a woman is allowed to become the chief. With regard to appointment as clan representatives in the council of elders, women are not permitted to represent the clan in any official capacity. The bar on accepting women as representative of the clan disfranchises them from exercising their civil rights as citizens of the community on equal terms with men.

The consequences of such customary practices effectively disempowered women in participating in all decision making processes of the community (Aier 2008: 91). Thus all powers of decision making were vested on men only. Naga men through the operation of such mechanisms select and allot plot for jhum fields. A woman has no active part in the selection of land for cultivation or for that matter in any discussions relating to land. She may, however, let her opinion be known to her husband and if she is not satisfied with the choice of land she may also try to convince other clansmen. The final decision however is taken by men though she plays the major role in working the land (Aier 2008: 123).

Despite the major contribution of women to agricultural production in rural areas (women contribute 60 to 80% of the labour used to produce food both for household consumption and for sale) women’s access and control over their source of livelihood remains only through men. Gender relations is one of the most important detrimental factors that contributes to the disparities between men and women. Women’s access to and control over the commons in this respect is therefore dependent on negotiating these usually unequal power relationships, rather than as a general entitlement as is in the case for men.

Apart from the traditional institutions, even in the modern state institutions the social processes that creates and sustains the concept of commons remains very traditional which create a gender disparity in the proportion of gender representation. Once again, the Naga experience is very revealing in this regard. The state of Nagaland came into existence in 1963 and in the entire 47 years of its existence, not a single women has ever been elected to the state assembly. As recently as 2007, the ‘community’ protested against reservation of seats for women in the municipalities despite strong protest from women. Women were not permitted to file nomination papers and the election was kept on hold. Till today the issue is not resolved. The justification given against the entry of women to occupy seat of power and decision making in the society are based on the oral tradition and customary practices in which women were never accredited with such positions (Aier 2008: 92).


This section focuses on the biodiversity based traditional knowledge as a common and women. Until relatively recently, the conceptions of knowledge was bound by the philosophy and methods of western sciences. Few outside recognised that there are myriad ‘sciences’ embedded in the culture of indigenous peoples and civilisations throughout the world. Today, there is an increasing recognition of the importance of various local or culture-based knowledge systems, generally referred as ‘Indigenous Knowledge’ (IK) in addressing the problems of development and the environment. Knowledge is a fundamental component of culture, and must be considered and understood in terms of both its sacred and secular dimensions. To indigenous peoples, knowledge is not considered independently from its products and expressions, or from actions. These all form part of a closely integrated cultural system where the physical products and expressions of indigenous cultures are intimately connected to the knowledge from which they derive, or with which they are associated. Protecting all such systems of knowledge, and their products and expressions are vital to benefit environmental conservation and sustainable management efforts and to ensure equitable development of the community (Aier 2005: 60–61).

In indigenous communities, traditional knowledge about the management of crops, forests, land and the application of these knowledge have always been held as a common resource. Such knowledge is unwritten and remains mostly at the practice level. Biodiversity and natural resource based traditional knowledge permeates every aspect of the indigenous people’s lives. They depend on such knowledge for meeting their need for food and food supplements, traditional healing purposes, artworks and crafts as well as for various daily practical needs. As an inherent part of such knowledge, there exist a host of prescriptions instructions regarding the usage of the materials and objects involved. It also contains information on the system and the order of things in their environs.

An important element of such knowledge systems is that it is essentially treated as a heritage to be used for the good of all and not as commodity for economic benefit. Perhaps, elements of traditional knowledge such as this qualify it as a common in the true sense. For the indigenous people, knowledge such as these are a part of their history and cultural heritage. The knowledge is who they are, a part of their identity. Therefore such knowledge normally resides in the realm of the collective community.

Having said this, it must be mentioned here that gender roles being culturally determined, the field of activities, nature of work and responsibility of men and women differ and at times takes place in different social spaces. Consequently, their knowledge base and experiences also differ.

In general, knowledge is a common to both men and women but considering their different field of expertise in managing the resources as well as responsibilities within their homes and society, there are different areas of the knowledge which are gender specific.

Among the Nagas the women are not only responsible for tending the crops but also for selecting and preserving seeds for the next season. As women frequent the fields more often, they know the standing crops much better than men and therefore are more knowledgeable to select the plants for future seeds. There is no formal training but the knowledge of seed selection, treatment, storage and preservation is normally passed down from mother to daughter while they work alongside in the field and at home. The knowledge is thus passed down from one generation of women to the next, orally and practically. Sons normally do not take part in this process (Aier 2008: 128). They engage in other activities alongside the father and a similar process takes place there between father and son. Thus, knowledge in spite of it being a common, due to the social processes that creates and sustain it, tends to have a gendered quality.

The international discourse about the need to protect biodiversity based traditional knowledge is enshrined in a host of international conventions and treaties most notably Article 8(j) of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The overarching discourse at the international level has been to recognise the importance of traditional knowledge systems and the contribution made by traditional/indigenous people. The importance of women’s role in the conservation of biodiversity is highlighted in the preamble to the CBD. However at the regional and local level, the discourse has been of a very paternalistic acknowledgement of the importance of women’s traditional knowledge in the field of biodiversity management. The emerging formal legal structures have not tended to take into consideration the complex linkages between the transmission of oral knowledge and the specialised role played by women in this regard. The discourse in terms of non-formal systems of law and knowledge has always been hegemonistically patriarchal. The acknowledgement of the roles played by women as custodians of knowledge has only been acknowledged in passing and do not get the recognition and the protective benefits it justly deserves. In the process, much of the knowledge repository which lies with women gets lost.

The invisibility of women

The invisibility of women in the oral tradition is only a reflection of the tenuous right over the commons. Men control the resource but women manage production. But all rights flow only through the male. The norms of a society are always dynamic and changing to adapt to the changing external world. However, when it comes to the inclusion of women, even in the newly emerging spaces, they are prevented by invoking ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’. However, for opportunities and power relations to the advantage of men, the discourse is in terms of ‘politics’ and ‘rights’. The former invokes ‘permanence’ and discourages change while the latter invokes ‘justice’ and encourages change. When these are codified into law, those who do the codification are men and they codify tradition to the detriment of women, carefully stripping away and erasing those traditions advantageous to women.

Though in tradition there were no problems of access or management, the changes in social structuring have thrown up new challenges. One of the most important challenge is to retain the relatively egalitarian access in the face of misuse of these practices by others. Those not of the clan often marry women from the clan and then claim the right to alienate the commons. They use the language of gender justice against the very existence of the commons. In certain parts of Central India, there is a practice of calculated marrying of widows by non-tribals so that the tribal land can be acquired. Since the land is immovable, this is a challenge for patri-local societies. One way in which the communities are facing this challenge is to allow non-ancestral land to be owned by women. Changing the vocabulary is only the first step. Unless power relations are addressed, gender justice cannot be attained.


The purpose of this chapter was to explore the notions of commons from a gender perspective as experienced among the indigenous community. Although almost all the instances have been drawn from among the Nagas, the issues that has been discussed are relevant to all other similarly placed indigenous communities, especially in the Northeast of India. Within the understanding of commons as common pool resources that can be accessed by one and all, what is seen here is that the processes that create, sustain, maintain and regulate the usage of the commons depends on the community. The community in turn consists of men and women, who are positioned socially unequal terms. Therefore, the social and cultural mechanisms that operates the channel of access to the commons also favours one against the other where women finds themselves at a disadvantage and discriminated. Further, in changing situations induced by development and modernisation or globalisation processes, when the contents of customary regimes are subjected to new negotiations under new institutional arenas, usually men fare better because the scale is already tilted in their favour. It is therefore crucial that the discourse on the commons engage with issues of gender justice.


Aier Anungla, 2008. “Folklore, Folk Ideas and gender among the Nagas” in Eastern Quarterly, vol.5, Issue II & III pp87–93.

—, 2008. “Agricultural Cycle, Associated Rituals and the Role of Women” in Richard Kunz Vibha Joshi (Eds), Naga—A Forgotten Mountain Region Rediscovered, Musum der kulturen, Basel, Christoph Merian Verlag, Switzerland.

—, 2005. “The Intangible Cultural Heritage of the North-East of India: Emerging Issues and Problems” in Interpreting the Heritage of the Northeast. INTACH, New Delhi.

Aier. A & P.Khuvung, 2009. Status of Naga women with reference to customary Laws. Women Study Centre, Unpublished Research Report.

Aier & Changkija, 1993. The Anthropology of North-East India: A Textbook.

Anon. A Gender perspective on Land Rights; Source: http://www.fao.org/docrep/X0250E/x0250e03.htm

— Land Policy in Africa: A framework to Strengthen Land Rights, Enhance Productivity and Secure Livelihoods. Framework and Guidelines on Land Policy in Africa, May 2009. AU, AfDB, and UNECA. Source: www.fao.org

Yngstrom I. 2002. “Women, Wives and Land Rights in Africa: Situating Gender Beyond The Household” in the Debate over Land Policy and Changing Tenure Systems. Oxford Development Studies, Vol 30 No.1, Carfax Publishing. Source: www.uneca.org

Pochury Public Forum, 2006. Pochury Customary Laws & Traditional Practices (Codified References of Unwritten Laws), Pub by Author, Dimapur, Nagaland.

Fernandes, Walter. Land, Cultures, Modernization and Conflicts in India.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Massimo De Angelis, Professor of Political Economy at the University of East London in conversation with Stavros Stavrides; source: http://www.e-flux.com/journal/17/67351/on-the-commons-a-public-interview-with-massimo-de-angelis-and-stavros-stavrides/ Accessed January 2017
  2. 2.0 2.1 Land, Cultures, Modernisation and Conflicts in India.