ABSTRACT: The study analyses three selected Mizo folktales such as Thailungi, Mauruangi and Kungawrhi, in an attempt to situate the female characters in a traditional patriarchal society and highlight the roles and position of women as seen in these tales. Thailungi, Mauruangi and Kungawrhi are the central protagonists whose lives are chronicled in the selected tales. Marriage is a theme that is predominant in these tales where the protagonists are seen as passive victims of the patriarchal system. The study focuses on women and an attempt is made to highlight their experiences in society. Folktales and women’s studies are deeply interlinked and correlated to each other as they are both relevant to either maintain or question certain conditions prevailing within a community or society and are convenient means to convey an understanding of dominant norms, values, concepts and power structures. They can also be used to challenge and question the authority of predominant ideas and notions. The status of women and their traditional roles are seen in a number of Mizo folktales. The pre-colonial Mizo society was patriarchal in nature and therefore the oral narratives that originate from that era depict how society was structured and the power struggle that existed at the time. These tales play pivotal roles in depicting the social, economic and mental state of a nation. By analysing the roles that these women play, this paper highlights the position of women as seen in the select tales.
Keywords: folktales, traditional, patriarchal, marriage, women’s studies
Folklore is a significant aspect of human communication, knowledge and learning as it is intimately connected with culture and tradition. It helps in rediscovering one’s past, roots and ethnic identities, as well as ethical and moral values. Since the mid-nineteenth century, the term ‘Folklore’ has been used as the collective name applied to sayings, verbal compositions, and social rituals that have been handed down from generation to generation primarily by word of mouth and examples rather than in written form. In other words, it originates in oral tradition predating the written form. Folklore can be said to be dynamic and it continues to evolve. It also continues to thrive among literate and educated populations in different forms such as stories, oral jokes and wordplays (Abrams 135). In the context of the Mizo, Folklore may include agricultural folk songs such as “Kan Sawmfang” (Our Magnificent Paddy Field), “Turnipui Kan Dodai” (Beating the scorching Sun), superstitions, riddles, tales and even rhymes for children. Mizo folktales, for instance, have garnered interest in recent years in academia both within and outside the Mizo community. Within the paradigm of folklore, a folktale is a short narrative in prose of unknown authorship which has been transmitted orally. Due to this, their origins can only be left to speculation. Many of these tales eventually achieved written form after contact with the West, and more so after the introduction of the formal Mizo language, a simple Roman script based on the Hunterian system of writing. The term however is often extended to include stories written by known authors. They have been picked up and repeatedly narrated orally as well as in written form. Folktales are part of cultural narratives in different parts of the world. They tell stories of people whether they may be a warrior, a hero, a damsel, a witch etc. Each and every story has a true, strange, hidden fact in it which can be found only when looked closely and eventually transforms ways of thinking and perceptions. Stories allow readers to explore beautiful ideas where they themselves determine their own future as everyone benefitted from seeing one’s own image represented in the stories they love.
Folklore and women’s studies are deeply interlinked and correlated to each other as they are both relevant to either maintain or question certain conditions prevailing within a community or society and are convenient means to convey an understanding of dominant norms, values, concepts and power structures. They can also be used to challenge and argue the authority of predominant ideas and notions. The status of women and their traditional roles can be seen in a variety of folklores, including Mizo folktales. The pre-colonial Mizo society was patriarchal in nature and therefore the oral narratives that originate from that era depict how society was structured and the power struggle that existed at the time. These tales play pivotal roles in depicting the social, economic and mental state of a nation. By analysing the roles that women play, this paper highlights the position of women as seen in the select tales.
Feminist theory focuses on gender as a subject of analysis when reading cultural practices and as a platform to ask, moreover to demand for equality, rights and justice. The key tenet of feminism is the pre-determination of gender roles and the ways in which a woman fits into these roles. It argues that the representation of women as weak, passive, sweet, seductive irrational and sentimental is rooted in and further influences actual social conditions, where a woman does not have much power. Cultural texts naturalize the oppression of women through their stereotypical representation of women as weak and vulnerable, seductress, obstacles, sexual objects or merely mediums for procreation. The inequalities that exist between men and women are not natural but social, not pre-ordained but created by men in an attempt to retain power. Family, religion, education, and systems of knowledge are all social and cultural ‘structures’ that enable the perpetual reinforcement of this inequality. Feminist cultural theory analyses prevalent gender roles as they are represented in cultural forms like literature, cinema, and advertisements, an approach that focuses on how such representations of women reflect, and are connected to actual life and social conditions. Toril Moi, a renowned feminist is of the opinion that feminist criticism is a political project: She opines that feminist criticism “…is a specific kind of political discourse, a critical and theoretical practice committed to the struggle against patriarchy and sexism.” (Nayar 84) Postcolonial feminists suggest that the category ‘women’ is itself a dominating ideology because it sees only white women and their lives as standards. Postcolonial feminism gives importance to location and cultural differences among women. It shows how spirituality, language and experiences of age, sexuality or motherhood are context-specific. Postcolonial critics have argued that all women are not similar. For example, the experiences of women in the Mizo community cannot be compared to that of a white woman in Western societies. During the late 1960s, ‘Women’s studies’ as a discipline began in the USA and was later spread to other First World nations in the 1970s where they emphasized three main specific areas such as – feminist critiques of knowledge, recovery of women’s texts and a shift from liberal feminist views to more radical views of gender roles and culture. (Nayar 84) However, the focal point of these three basic principles is that of the Western culture. In post-colonial nations like India, women’s studies have taken a huge leap with publications of works like Manushi, the Indian Journal of Gender Studies and later Samyukta, which encourage and facilitate interdisciplinary work in gender studies. These works address issues concerning women’s health, legal rights, domestic abuse, wage legislation, and the rights of tribal and Dalit women. From the perspectives of women’s history and gender history, earlier history was written and interpreted by the narrow accounts of upper-class or educated men overlooking the roles of women and other subaltern groups. So, by the turn of the 20th century, feminist historians began to question traditional modes of writing history, especially when it comes to folklore or folktales of a specific culture.
Putting the aforementioned ideas into perspective, three Mizo folktales are selected for analysis. These are: Thailungi, Mauruangi and Kungawrhi. This paper looks into the manner in which these female protagonists are represented in these tales in an attempt to understand and highlight their status in traditional society.
Thailungi tells the story of a girl whose stepmother wanted to sell her to the traders from the Pawih community in exchange for some scrap iron.
I would really want to buy some [iron], but I do not have money. However, I have a daughter who is strong enough to carry at least two pails of water and I can offer her as payment for the scrap iron.” (Handpicked Tales 15)
This was an age where the labour of men was privileged over that of women and women were fixed or put into a category of an object for their male counterparts and not as a subject of their own self, desires and identity. The tale also highlights the ill-treatment that was carried out by the stepmother of Thailungi and the latter’s inability to protest, (15) depicting her submissiveness. In the story of Thailungi, the stepmother hopes that the sudden disappearance of her stepdaughter will go unnoticed until her young son finds out that his sister has gone missing and eventually sets out on a quest to save her which he succeeded in the end. In Mizo oral narratives, often similar to that of the Western folktales where the prince charming saves the princess, there are various instances where a woman needs to be saved by a man. This idea of a man saving a woman reflects the social structures of gender and the inferiority of women to men in a community which is deep-rooted. While the stepmother is seen as the antagonist who brings about Thailungi’s downfall, the latter’s male sibling is presented as the hero who ultimately saves her from her predicament.
Virginia Woolf, one of the first writers to develop a woman-centric notion of reading and education, rejected the notion of the superiority of sexes and supported the combination of the man and the woman or the ‘man-womanly’ or the ‘womanly-manly’. She states –”…in each of us two powers preside, one male, one female; and in the man’s brain the man predominates over the woman, and in the woman’s brain, the woman predominates over the man. The normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two live in harmony together, spiritually cooperating…” (Nayar 87) The representation of stepmothers in Mizo folktales was quite cynical where they would be subjects of self-interests and selfishness and would perform any task to meet their needs and wants which would in turn obviously cause some harm to their surroundings such as their stepdaughters. This “evil stepmother” stereotype is also seen in one of the most popular Mizo folktales, Mauruangi.
In the story of Mauruangi, the main character Mauruangi had to endure endless hardships through the ill treatment she received from her stepmother, stepsister and a very negligent father. Mauruangi’s story takes the form of a kind of a fairytale where she would be fed by her mother who had turned into a catfish and a phunchawng tree suffering the consequences of the ignorance of her husband. Though Mauruangi was never given food by her stepmother, she grew into a lovely maiden because her mother fed her abundantly. Here, some essence of a woman as a mother where motherhood becomes a symbol of a true ‘female’ is discernible. The central role of a woman is to nurture her child and a woman is in a way seen as incomplete unless she bears a child. In this respect, women are traditionally defined by roles including marriage and motherhood. But, feminists such as Simone De Beauvoir and Gayle Rubin argue that none of these traits are biological. They are simply social values attributed to biological acts meaning that a woman’s biological values are evaluated and determined by the social values attributed to them. This concept of motherhood can also be applied to the stepmother of Mauruangi, who did everything in her capacity to relegate Mauruangi and showed partiality to her own indolent and arrogant daughter Bingtaii. Though the steps she had taken to show her favouritism towards Bingtaii can be seen as excessive, the fact that she became the infamous antagonist ‘evil’ is mainly because of her love for her own daughter which is undeniable but in the end turned out to be quite destructive for them. However, the beloved Mizo folktale heroine Mauruangi became an embodiment of an ideal Mizo woman who possessed all the necessary traits such as – kindness, humility, hospitality, skill and hard work. As opposed to the character Bingtaii, who whiled away her precious time instead of working, Mizo women were traditionally known for their industrious and productive lifestyles. They were mainly responsible for managing their household needs such as fetching wood and water for their livelihood, spinning weave and performing their domestic chores all the while entertaining their guests, mostly men who were courting them. Therefore, the greatest achievement for women in the traditional society as portrayed in Mizo folktales was to be a righteous and hardworking woman so that they might find a suitable husband. This is clearly reflected in the story of Mauruangi. The protagonist Mauruangi being an ideal woman, is able to overcome all the miseries inflicted upon her by her stepmother and stepsister where in the end she lives happily with her husband, the Vailal. Another intriguing figure in the story of Mauruangi was Mauruangi’s unnamed father. Although he is not a major character in the narrative, his thoughtlessness, negligence and selfishness led to two tragic incidents for Mauruangi. The first incident is the unnecessary death of her mother who was pushed off a frail bridge by her father. Second is his remarriage to Bingtaii’s mother. While the sudden death of her mother made her an orphan, her father’s remarriage proved to be the genesis of her oppression. The situation that leads to his second marriage further proves his incompetence and irresponsibility. He had also been involved in the ill-treatment of her own daughter when he agreed to kill the catfish and to cut down the phunchawng tree where her late wife’s soul resides. His lack of affection and care towards his own daughter can also be seen as society’s disregard for women in general. In her research article titled “Mizo Women in Myth and Culture”, Vanlaveni Pachuau states– “Sons were prized in the Mizo community. Women were necessary to beget sons who would ultimately help to protect their lands.” The French feminist philosopher Simone De Beauvoir also argued in her feminist treatise The Second Sex that men are able to mystify women (Nayar 88). This mystification and stereotyping were instrumental in creating patriarchy which was also relevant in the Mizo community. She further stated that women, in turn, accepted this stereotype, and were thus instruments of their own oppression. She believed that women were always the negative of the men, where man was the ideal, the norm, and the woman the deviant or the other. Women are measured by the standard of men and are often found ‘inferior’.
Kungawrhi tells a brief tale that incorporates elements of fantasy. The tale introduces a bamboo cutter who suffered a wound on his thumb while splitting a bamboo. “…one fine day, from out of the wound, there grew a lovely young baby girl…He named her ‘Kungawrhi’.” (Folklore 91) The sole characteristic of Kungawrhi that is seen in the tale is her beauty, for which she became a victim and object of Keimi’s sexual desire. It is learned that the Keimi casts a spell on her and she becomes sick upon which her father says, “Whoever can cure my daughter from her illness shall be given her hand in marriage, bereft of the bride price.” (91) This is indicative of her subordinate position. Shulamith Firestone believes that women’s oppression begins in the family (74) as is seen in the tale of Kungawrhi where her destiny is dictated by her father.
While the tale is named after the “protagonist” Kungawrhi, the story is told from an outsider’s perspective where Kungawrhi is seen as a marginalized character. Upon taking a closer look at this story now, one can assume that a daughter has very little or in some cases no say at all in her marriage during this period. After Kungawrhi’s father learnt the unfortunate turn of events about the identity of the man who married his daughter, he again made a public statement saying that whoever rescues his daughter from the clutches of the Keimicommunity shall be given her hand in marriage. Kungawrhi’s father’s ways of resolving issues indicate the lack of voice and power that Kungawrhi has in her personal life. The tradition of stereotyping women as an object, a trophy to be won and goods and commodities to be traded with (Vanlalveni 5) is also seen in the story of Tualvungi where Zawlpala and Tualvungi were devoted lovers until one-day Zawlpala decided to gamble with their love to see what lengths that a rajah named Phuntiha was willing to go to so as to marry Tualvungi which later led to their tragedy.
The roles that women have played in human history were, and must not only be confined to serving men, their children and households. According to renowned Chicano writer and feminist activist Cherrie Moraga, “If women’s bodies and those of men and women who transgress their gender roles have been historically regarded as territories to be conquered, they are also territories to be liberated. Feminism has taught us this.” (Nayar 105) The study of women’s culture, and the meanings and values contained within it, can be sought from folklore in many ways. Apart from the didactic aspects where most of these tales tend to have moral implications, a critical study of folklore gives a historical and cultural understanding of the sensibilities of traditional societies. Since many of the Mizo tales are concerned with traditional truth, reality and knowledge, the selected tales distinctly highlight the position of women and their subordination. In the selected tales, women characters are seen as victimized characters and their tales chronicle their own marginalization. They are far from being represented as real protagonists in these eponymous tales. Submissiveness or subservience, loyalty, faithfulness and hard work are qualities that allow them to be seen as “heroines.” On the other hand, women who lack these qualities are labelled “evil” and seen as antagonists. The central protagonists in these tales are women who are best remembered for their conformity to traditional women’s ideals such as passivity, submissiveness, faithfulness and so on. In these tales, marriage is showcased as the ultimate purpose of a woman. They do not have the authority to choose who or when to marry but rather, decided by others. Marriage is seen as an escape from their domestic problems, where their male counterparts are presented as heroes who save them from their plights. Their lack of participation or absence from dialogues shows their lack of “voice” in matters concerning their own present or future. The study thus highlights women’s inferior position, lack of power and status, in traditional society through analysis of the selected tales.
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- Abrams M.H, and Geoffrey, Galt Harpham. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Cengage Learning India Private Limited, 2012.
- Firestone, Shulamith. The Dialectic of Sex: A Case for Feminist Revolution. Bantam Book. 1970.
- Pachuau, Margaret L. Handpicked Tales from Mizoram. Writers Workshop. 2008
- Pachuau, Margaret L. Folklore from Mizoram. Writers Workshop. 2013
- Pachuau, Vanlalveni. “Mizo Women in Myth and Reality”. Journal of Miels. May 2014.
Cite the original source:
Lalawmpuii, T and Lalnunpuii, C. “Situating Women in Select Mizo Folktales.” Mizo Studies, X, no. 3, Sept. 2021, pp. 408–417.