Page 16: The position of Mizo women.
Mizo women carried the heaviest loads, rose earliest in the morning, and if they had any opinions those were never regarded as important by the men. They were certainly free to move about and never kept in purdah, as were the women on the Plains, nevertheless their lives were strictly circumscribed.
The change in faith gave women greater liberty. They also benefitted greatly from the fact that wars had disappeared. The internecine strife imprisoned women even more than it did the menfolk. No doubt most Mizo women never left their villages except when the time came for the chief to move the whole village to a new area. In their homes wives were rarely consulted and knew little of their husband’s affairs.
Pasena, many years ago, wrote of the changes he saw in the relationship between men and women in a Christian home. In pre-Christian times the husband felt that since he had paid for his wife with the Bride-Price he could treat her as he thought fit. If he had come off the worse in a fight with another man he would vent his spleen on his wife. In Pre-Christian times a conversation between man and wife was a very rare event. Non-Christians jeered at Christian husbands because they were easy-going with their wives. Gradually husbands gave help in the home, something which never used to happen. Easy divorce became a thing of the past among Christians. They became cleaner in their persons and in their homes.
In the average village there might well be a woman who was believed to have the ‘Evil Eye’. She might be attractive but no one would marry her. Her relatives shunned her and dared not even to lend her a cloth. Often she would be punished. Sometimes such a woman would be put to death. Pasena affirms that ‘now a number of these ‘suspected’ women are wives of Church workers and they are none the worse!’
A Mizo woman called Pi Hmuaki was remembered as one of the earliest Mizo poets and her verses were part of the oral tradition. Women played an early part in the growth of the church and were generally present at the very earliest meetings held by evangelists and missionaries, except when they were held in a zawlbûk. Women were among the earliest converts. A woman was among the first four to be baptised in the South and it is significant that three of the four delegates to the 1906 Mairang Assembly were women.
The leader of the Mizo delegates was a Khasi woman called Siniboni who had acted as a Bible-woman in Aizawl for several years before. The presence of Siniboni and other capable Khasi women (who came from a rigidly matriarchal society) (1) in the young church at Aizawl may have helped to emancipate their Mizo sisters whose background was so different.
Sometimes women came along to meetings with their husbands and a wife would join her husband in accepting the Gospel. Others would nag, mock, and try to hinder her husband’s faith. Vangchhunga, one of the earliest evangelists, found home life very difficult before his wife was converted. She objected to grace before meals. He would sometimes pray over his plateful of rice at some length only to find that his rice had disappeared by the time he re-opened his eyes.
When a Mizo woman became pregnant she was not expected to be sick but to work as usual. By Mizo tradition maternity was in no sense an ailment. At times, when weeding and other work in the ‘jhums’ was heavy, all available village labour had to turn out. Mothers, especially those expecting their first child, were young and active and they could not be excused. As a result a young mother might give birth to her baby on the side of the path, or on the rice field itself. It was said only half the number of such babies were born alive.
The period 1906 to 1908.
In the spring of 1907, after nine and half years in Mizoram, Jones ‘Zosaphluia’ and his wife went on furlough. They were away for nearly two years.
Towards the end of 1907 Rowlands ‘Sapthara’ was called back to England to meet the Board of Directors in Liverpool for a disciplinary hearing. The charges, based on rumours, centred on a young Mizo girl from a family he had helped, with whom he had been observed to be overly friendly. Presumably there was enough evidence to mount a prima facie case against him (2).
Since no real Mizo leadership had yet emerged within the church the absence of Jones ‘Zosaphluia’ and Rowlands ‘Sapthara’ in 1907 caused serious problems. It would take three more years for Mizo elders to be ordained, and six years for a Mizo pastor to emerge. It was decided to release a missionary from the Khasi Church to care for the Mizo Christian Community. Robert Evans, the missionary who had welcomed the Mizo delegates to the Mairang Assembly the previous year, was chosen. He had to do most of his work through translators. He was a man of great faith and was also interested in music. He helped to produce a useful book on solfa, its notation and practice, and stayed until autumn 1908.
Between 1907 and 1909 the faith of many Christians was tested to the limits. Jones ‘Zosaphluia’ was still in Wales, Rowlands ‘Sapthara’ was still under a cloud, and the chiefs were combining and proving their strength.
An unfortunate new phenomenon suddenly appeared in the form of a very popular anti-Christian song. It was at first called ‘Puma Zai’, or ‘The Song of Puma’. It came from Ratu, a big northern village. A simpleton named Puma made up a little lullaby. Men had always sung around the ‘zu’ pot, but the songs were slow and dirge-like. ‘Puma Zai’ was catchy. It was sung in the open-air, and verses were added to it as young people beat the drum and danced to it. It echoed everywhere. Its name was then changed to ‘Tlanglan Zai’, or ‘The Communal Dance’. According to Saiaithanga it was the greatest single obstacle the Christians in those days faced. ‘The song spread like blazing bits of cotton’. It’s popularity waned at times only to flare up again with redoubled intensity. According to some it was only the great famine of 1911 that defused its popularity.
The first church building in Aizawl was dual-purpose. On Sundays it was a place of worship and it became a schoolroom during the week. Not until 1907 did the Mizos build their first church, or ‘Biakin’. A longing for a place set apart solely for worship must have grown gradually over the years.
To the east of Aizawl was a parallel ridge running north to south. On its highest mountainous shoulder stood the village of Zokhawsang. This had more than the average number of Christians as it had given refuge to many who, under pressure of persecution, had fled their own villages. The Christians were allowed to build a ‘Biakin’ there. It was not only a symbol of their faith but also of their new found freedom in Zokhawsang village, even though it was built on the village outskirts.
The name ‘Biakin’ soon became universally adopted for this new kind of building. ‘In’ means house and ‘Biak’ is almost untranslatable. It means to speak, or address, or interview someone with a purpose, but it carried religious overtones. It was the old Mizo word for worshipping through sacrifice. I was not the word for prayer, praise, or preaching, but it can include aspects of all three. It is a good instance of the Mizo genius for inventing or adapting words.
Nothing could be plainer than the average early village chapel. It was built largely of bamboo, including the doors and windows. The walls too were of split bamboo, sometimes in the diamond pattern often found in the chief’s house. Unlike the average house it was built on levelled ground. The pulpit was low and liable to collapse if the preacher got too excited. The seating consisted of wood planks set on short posts, and these backless benches were ideal for the women who brought their babies to church, as most of them did. Not even chiefs had chairs in their houses so the rough seating caused no hardship. Though the ‘Biakin’ was as rough as Jacob’s pillow yet it was a House of God and a Gate of Heaven.
Churches in the early period sprang up in places where the spirits were once worshipped. This indicated the triumph of the Gospel and spiritual continuity with the past. In Aizawl both Mission Veng and Thakthing churches are examples of this, having been erected on ancient ‘bawlhmun’ sites. When the Mission Veng Church was being rebuilt the site was completely re-dug in 1957-8, a stone axehead was found which might have been used for sacrificial purposes.
Later, Lewis Mendus ‘Pu Mena’ was to marvel at the Mizo ability to start a church where none existed, or ever had. They knew precisely how to do it, how to organize it, set it going, maintain discipline and have a regular pulpit supply.
(1). Khasi Social Structure. The Khasis have a matrilineal and matrilocal society. Descent is traced through the mother, children taking their mother's surname, with maternal uncles traditionally playing a major role in the family, while the father keeps an important role in the household. According to Khasi laws, a woman cannot be forced into marriage. She owns the children and properties. In Khasi tradition, the youngest daughter, the ‘khaduh’, will also inherit the property as custodian for her lineage. A woman may end a marriage at her will with no objection from her husband.
See: Khasi People in Wikipedia.
(2). The case was delayed and Rowlands returned to Mizoram in February 1908, working his passage as an ordinary seaman. When he arrived back in Aizawl he was met by a dismissal notice from Liverpool. He left for Lunglei hoping his friends Lorrain and Savidge could find work for him in the area. As a Presbyterian he was unable to be taken on in the Baptist area and moved to work among the hill people of the Indo-Burmese border. Later he became the headmaster of the High School for Chinese boys in Rangoon. While working there he mastered the language of the Khumi people, an untouched tribe just over the border from Mizoram in Burma. He translated some Scripture into Khumi, and composed some hymns. He died in Rangoon on 6th August 1939.