Women have played an important role in the preservation and safeguarding of knowledge systems in different communities and tribes in Mizoram. Although their contributions are not given enough attention and recognition, there is no denying that women can be seen as keepers of knowledge. Here, I hope to highlight their contributions to society through their writings spread over many decades.
A well-known Mizo saying holds that, “The wisdom of a woman does not/cannot cross the community water hole” (“Hmeichhe finin tuikhur ral a kai lo”). Despite the fact that this is how Mizo society sees its women and their wisdom, readings and recordings from folktales show that women contributed to the knowledge system of the Mizos in numerous ways. They handed down stories from one generation to the next, and they were keepers of traditional knowledge on weaving, cooking, agriculture, harvesting and preserving. With the arrival of Christianity, women also played the role of the keepers of cultural knowledge. In order to trace these histories, I draw from Mizo folktales, Agape editions, and monographs written by J Shakespear and AG McCall.
In his introduction to his collection of Mizo folktales Mizo Songs and Folk Tales, Laltluangliana Khiangte mentions that many of the folktales included in the book had been passed down from his mother and grandmother to him. In Mizo Literature (Mizo Thu leh Hla) B Lalthangliana also mentions the contribution of the women in his life to the growing collection of folktales that he knew about. Although J Shakespear and AG McCall do not specifically mention the contribution of women in the section on folktales in their monographs The Lushei Kuki Clans and Lushai Chrysalis, there are instances where women’s contributions are mentioned in other parts of their books. In Chapter II (Domestic Life), Shakespear mentions the amount of work the women have to do within the house and around it.
Pi Nuchhungi is an example of a woman whose contribution as a keeper of stories is invaluable. Her collection of folktales in Mizo language Serkawn Graded Readers (1940) was used for a long time in Mizo-medium schools. It consisted of a Primer and three volumes meant for Classes I, II, and III. They were used to teach the Mizo language and at the same time, they introduced young Mizo students to the folktales of their ancestors, thus creating a link between their present and their past. Students were able to recognise the lessons that were embedded in the stories of their ancestors. They were also able to learn about the customs and traditions as well as the belief systems of the past. The folktales also demonstrated to Mizo students that they had a history that could not be denied and which they ought to be proud of.
In The Lushei Kuki Clans, Shakespear wrote, ‘The women folk fetch the wood and water, cook the food and do the greatest part of the weeding and harvesting; they also make all the clothing for the whole household from cotton grown in the jhums, which they themselves gather, clean, spin, and weave into strong cloth.” This monograph was written in the early part of the 20th century, by an administrator who had lived in the Lushai Hills. He had observed the lives of the people of the land and recorded his observations. In the introduction to his monograph, he wrote, “I have purposely avoided enunciating any theories and making deductions, considering it wiser to limit myself to as accurate a description as possible of the people, their habits, customs and beliefs.” The monograph was commissioned by the government he served, yet it is full of information which has not been kept in written record.
Shakespear recognises the immense contribution of the women of the land towards the maintenance of the household. Besides maintaining the family’s cooking duties, the women work in the field and take care of the children. They also contribute to the production of cloth by taking care of spinning, weaving, and dyeing. The women are the keepers of these traditional practices and pass on their knowledge to the next generation. In Lushai Chrysalis (1949) by AG McCall, the writer remarks at the immense workload carried by women. He mentions how women are an integral part of cotton harvesting, which ends in the production of cloth and other products. The women take care of the different steps of cotton harvesting. These include ginning, teasing, spinning, and making skeins.
Besides cotton harvesting, the women were also skilled in the different elements of cultivation such as sowing, weeding and harvesting. Men and women worked in the field, and yet traditionally, the field was often seen as the terrain of Mizo men. It was a well-known rule that the women would follow the lead of the men, but this does not take away from the fact that women did their part and contributed immensely to the cultivation of their land. Weaving is another area of traditional knowledge that women have passed on from generation to generation.
Today, the puan industry in Mizoram is flourishing with young entrepreneurs finding innovative ways to market and sell their products. Women have always had considerable deep knowledge of the household as well as the fields and this knowledge has helped in the development and advancement of the community and the family. By making use of the traditional practices and knowledge, Mizo women had and continue to have an impact on society.
With the arrival of JH Lorrain and FW Savidge in the Lushai Hills in 1894, Christianity began to make its presence felt among the Mizos. These men transformed the oral language into a Roman script and thus began a new era for the language. Christianity had an impact on the lives of a people who had always followed their traditional belief systems. The new religion offered new opportunities for men and women. Under the Presbyterian Church, Kohhran Hmeichhia, the women’s fellowship was started in 1904 and it is through this fellowship that the sharing of knowledge among women continues. This is not to say that there was no sharing of knowledge among women earlier, rather that certain elements contributed to its acceleration.
The arrival of Christianity also brought with it other changes. The magazine Agape, which was started in 1986, helped contribute to the spread of knowledge among women within the church/congregation. The content of the magazine, over the years, reflected social change in Mizo society. “Hriselna Huang”, the health section, is a regular feature which gives information about health risks for women and how to maintain and improve one’s health. The magazine also carries sermons as well as regular articles on a range of subjects.
It is interesting that a monthly magazine funded by a church plays such an important part in the distribution of “knowledge”. Readers are able to access this information from the comfort of their homes. The editorial committee for Agape is made up of women, who choose and edit the content of the magazine. There is a regular section titled “Kristian Chhungkua” which can be translated as “Christian Family”, which features encouragement and advice on how to handle situations in the family. Sometimes, examples from the Bible are given, on other occasions, women themselves provide examples that can help to explain things. Another section, “Ei Siam Dan” focuses on cooking. Women share recipes, some are simple and some elaborate, and in this way women are also able to share knowledge.
Agape has been an important part of the Kohhran Hmeichhia because of its large readership. The magazine reaches all corners of Mizoram where women members of the church subscribe to it. The idea of sharing and exchange of knowledge through this medium becomes an important part of the history of Mizo women because there is a certain agency in the dissemination of ideas within the boundary of the church. There are other Christian denominations besides the Presbyterian Church of Mizoram, who have monthly publications, but here I focus only on Agape.
Thus Mizo women have made contributions in the field of different kinds of knowledge. They have shared their ideas, advice, and experiments. And yet, it is unfortunate that they have not been given the recognition they deserve. They are truly the keepers of knowledge, yet are often overlooked. It is time for this to change.
Excerpted with permission from “Mizo Women as Keepers of Knowledge” by Laldinpuii, from The Keepers of Knowledge: Writings from Mizoram, edited by Hmingthanzuali and Mary Vanlalthanpuii, Zubaan Books.