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How technology is disrupting an Indian state where women control the money

Bobbi Rebell
Bobbi Rebell

Newlywed Jo Piazza thought she had found modern marriage nirvana. Traveling the world while writing her book “How to be Married,” she found herself in the matrilineal state of Meghalaya — in India near the border of Bangladesh. It was a cultural curiosity.

In the tribal communities of Meghalaya, the women control the money, along with basically everything else that matters. Money is traditionally passed down to the youngest daughter because that child will be around longest to take care of the rest of the family. For the most part, the men are treated as second-class citizens when it comes to financial matters. Many men in the state leave school early to work in the fields.

Traditionally, the men have also handed over their incomes to their wives and do the housework, according to the BBC. The women say the men like it that way, and the women have plenty of reason to like it: They get to advance in their careers and control the purse strings. It looks like a feminist fantasy come to life.

“The men I did speak with tended to be very soft-spoken and submissive to their wives, nervous to reveal too much about their marriage, as if it weren’t their place to talk about it,” Piazza says.

Digital disruption hits the homeland

But a spoiler has arrived in the form of the internet and satellite television, and the clock may be ticking on this matrilineal motherland.

“I was told that the men are starting to leave,” Piazza says. “They don’t want to be second-class citizens. They don’t want to be in a society where women have more power.”

Piazza says the men have developed a cultural awareness from the internet and television that the world is different in other places and that men are treated differently in other cultures.

“The men have stopped sticking around. They say they feel like they are just breeding bulls with no claim on their own children and it makes it easier for them to leave,” Patricia Mukhim, an editor at the daily newspaper there, the Shillong Times is quoted as saying in Piazza’s book.

For the most part the, women Piazza met were taking the men’s increasing awareness of their lower status in stride. The women seem to recognize that a change is afoot and the culture is likely going to have to evolve so that boy and girl children split inheritances. Some of the women insist they are making an effort to include the men more when it comes to financial decisions. But that is far from letting them be in charge, and it does not mean they are considered equals.

One woman Piazza asked about the changes in Meghalaya, a dress shop proprietor, put it simply: “When I get married I will be the one to make the big decisions. That is just the way our culture is.” But she added: “I think that I will always consult with my husband and we will have discussions about all of our decisions. I saw my mother do that and my female relatives do that. We involve the men.”

That doesn’t mean the change won’t be painful and resisted by the women used to being in charge. 

Financial therapist Amanda Clayman compares the situation to a trade agreement and what it can do to wages, once a country opens its borders: “Technology is about access. We compare ourselves with other cultures. This may have been such a wonderful and stable culture but as soon as it is compared to the outside world it changes the way it is being evaluated.”

Clayman says if the women want to keep the men interested in sticking around, they need to make some serious adjustments.

The grass isn’t always greener

But relationship expert and professional matchmaker Samantha Daniels isn’t so sure the big exodus is a done deal.

“A fair number of men could come back because of culture shock,” she said. “The grass always seems greener on the other side. But they may not be used to being in charge or even equals.”

With power comes responsibility, and men may not be able to live up to that, she says. “They have never been in charge,” Daniels says. “It may not be so easy to go from zero to 60 in a new place. It will be survival of the fittest.”

Daniels compares the departure of the men to the allure of life in the big city to young people from small towns. They come with big dreams but while some of them are very successful, quite a few end up missing what is familiar to them, and head home to be with the family they left behind.

Bobbi Rebell is the author of “How to be a Financial Grownup.”