The Madonna in a Matrilineal society

Growing up, I was sandwiched between the Protestant beliefs of my mother and the Catholic beliefs of the convent school I attended. My father is a non-practising Catholic. As a child, I absorbed the often contradictory and sometimes (though rarely) complementing doctrines and principles of these two Christian denominations. However, the one contradiction I always found particularly confusing as a child was how each viewed the Virgin Mary. The Sunday School I attended at my mum’s church rarely mentioned her except in passing when talking of the story of Christmas or the first miracle at the wedding in Cana. As opposed to this, the Catholics have an entire month dedicated to the Virgin Mary where her role in the life of Jesus Christ was not only remembered but celebrated. This month, the month of May, being the Month of Mary; I thought I would reflect on these two diverging views on the woman whose name is so closely associated with the figure of the Christ, as I have seen and experienced in the tiny town of Shillong.

Shillong is a place of many contradictions. Its population demographic is predominantly tribal, with the Khasi tribe being the most populous at 51% of the population (according to the 2011 census). The rest is comprised of other tribals from Meghalaya and other Northeastern States, and a non-tribal population from other parts of the country. The local tribal people are predominantly Christian whilst the rest follow the indigenous religions called Niam Khasi and Niam-tre. There is much syncretisation of local customs and Christian beliefs. For example, the funeral of a Christian Khasi man involves burial of the body in line with Christianity; but before that, a wake of 3 days and 2 nights is held where the body of the deceased is placed in his home, where streams of mourners and people offering condolences arrive to pay their last respects, as per traditional Khasi custom. However, not every belief can be so beautifully syncretised. Besides there being a passive-aggressive (and on the rare occasion, an actually physically aggressive) ideological war between the Khasis and the non-tribals, there is also the war between the Catholics and the Protestants. A strange rivalry that is more reminescent of 16th century Tudor England than the modern world where both denominations co-exist quite peacefully.

The Khasis, being a matrilineal tribe that passes not only lineage but property along the female line, have ultimately clashed with the patriarchal customs of Christianity. And nowhere is this seen more prominently than in the figure of the Virgin Mary. From the time I was old enough to attend Protestant Sunday School, I was living in this limbo between Catholic doctrine and Protestant doctrine mixed in with some local doctrines as well. There was much scoffing done at the expense of “those Catholics who worship a woman like she was at par with the Saviour of mankind.” This reflected on the deep-seated sexist and misogynistic tendencies of the Protestant churches. How dare a woman be made equal to a man? That too, not just any man but Christ himself. It was a regular indoctrination in the understanding that a woman’s role in a story is only to aid or serve the role of the protagonist, who is always a man. This was extended beyond stories in the Bible into every day life itself.

Every month of May, we would sing songs of praise for the Virgin Mary in my Catholic school. And every month of May, I would hear the barely contained whispers of outrage over this aggrandisement of a mere woman. The Virgin Mary was reduced to a mere vessel whose role ceased to be important the moment her precious cargo was born. Forget the fact that she had enough faith and courage to announce her pregnancy to her fiancé before them being married, forget that she travelled to a far off land in her condition for the taking of the census, where she eventually ended up giving birth in a manger, not even a human dwelling.  All this strength of character, this endless courage and the unflinching faith that she had in what she had been told by the angel Gabriel, was erased for being a woman.

I remember being taught of Jesus’ first miracle where his mother coaxed him into turning water into wine. In Catholic school, we were made to see how the Virgin Mary held an influence over her son. Even if he was the promised Saviour, he still listened to his mother. She was special. In Protestant Sunday School, we were only taught of how Jesus turned water into wine, the greatness of the man promised as a Saviour. Catholicism still embraces this secondary albeit important role of a woman in the story of the Saviour but the Protestants denied it altogether. All this praise and adulation over a woman was seen as foolish and, believe it or not, as blasphemous. The main evidence for the blasphemy charge being the statues of the Virgin Mary that were placed in Catholic churches. This was, according to the Protestants, a direct disobeying of the second commandment which states that, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them.” – Exodus 20:4. To disobey this commandment, that too, because of a woman, was unjustifiable and complete blasphemy.

Christianity can be considered a misogynistic religion especially when you take into account the teachings of Saint Paul who is remembered by literary critics as one of the most outspoken and zealous misogynists the world has witnessed. “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.” – 1 Corinthians 14:34. This is one of the many passages that speaks of Saint Paul’s misogyny. However, if you were to take into account the context in which it was written, he was probably not saying anything too shocking. Back in his day, women were expected to play a domestic role instead of delving into the more “manly” matters of government and religion. The problem lies when we look back at these passages 19 centuries later, and still interpret them quite literally and that too, outside of their context. The world has come very far from where it was back then, and to forget that we have a different context will bring dangerous results. Besides the Church of England, no other Christian denomination allows for women to be priests or pastors. No woman is allowed to take a leading role in the interpretation of the Bible. When it is only men who hold a monopoly over Church doctrine, it is bound to be skewed against women.

There is, thus, an uneasy truce between the tribal matrilineal customs of the Khasis and the male dominated ideology of the Christian churches. I personally believe that all Christian churches in Shillong – Catholic and the myriad Protestant ones – promote some form of chastising and/or dominating of women. However, the Catholic Church, in its very structure, is more comfortable with the idea of women playing an active role in the mission of the church – be it as school administrators, or as sisters of mercy who run orphanages and old-age homes. This may be a far cry from allowing women to become priests, but it is still one step forward.

Christianity is inherently sexist and misogynistic but the Protestant churches take this one step further in refusing to acknowledge the importance of the one woman whose presence in the story of the Christ is of such central value. This is especially tragic in Shillong as the Khasis are a people who pride themselves on being matrilineal in a country where gender justice is a far off reality for most women.


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Laetitia Warjri Written by:

Laetitia is currently pursuing a B.A. L.L.B. from Delhi University’s Faculty of Law (Campus Law Centre). Before pursuing law, she graduated from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University with a B.A. (Hons.) in English.


  1. Donna
    May 24, 2016

    Well written … by Laetitia Warjri on THE MADONNA IN A MATRILINEAL SOCIETY published on 24 May 2016

  2. Elyon Blah
    May 25, 2016

    While this does bring an interesting topic to the intellectual space, it is at it’s heart a very biased and slightly resentful piece. There are no sources cited when pointing out apparent inconsistencies with how protestant churches view Mary or women in general. It might as well be just a opinion piece. However that would be a disservice to the years of debate and conversation that has gone into this subject. When you don’t cite sources, quotes and other materials as references you are depriving the reader a chance to make a well informed and personal decision on the subject. They are expected to read this and be persuaded by your argument. Unfortunately, for those who pay more than a cursory glance at the article, we’ll have to do all of the research ourselves and that takes away the possibility of having an intelligent, productive and rational discussion.

    May 31, 2016

    Laetitia, I very much appreciate what you have written. I think it is good to have your own opinion on all things and not just depend on your pastors, priests or whoever. But what I want to know is your view about the Bible. As a Protestant, I believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God and all doctrines should be based on the Bible. So I would suggest you to look into the matter from the Bible’s perspective and not from other sources (like one’s feelings etc).

    Firstly, I know that you love your mother and obviously you will address her as mother (Mei, Mom or whatever) and you will not address her as ‘woman’ because that will be very disrespectful to her. But do you know how Jesus addressed his mother? He addressed her as ‘woman’ (John 2:4, John 19:26). Now why did he called her like that? It is not because he hated her but because Jesus knew that she is just a vessel for him to be born in this world. He needs to be born of a woman…so he can choose any woman and for this he chooses Mary. She is the mother of his ‘Human self’ only and not of his ‘God self’. So in a way, she is not the ‘Mother of God’ but a mother of his human form only. But is she a Blessed woman? Well, of course she is. God chooses her, so if God chooses any of the ladies here to bear him as a child, won’t they be blessed? (Humanly Speaking)…But let us see how our Lord Jesus thinks about that? When he was giving a sermon, a woman came from the crowd and called him blessed is your mother (Luke 11:27). We would all think that our Lord would replied back as ‘YES’ but he didn’t. Instead, he said blessed are those rather who does the will of God (Luke 11:28), So in a way, he was saying that you are not blessed by being his mother in the flesh but you will be blessed If you do his will. So, we can also be blessed by following him and not by being his mother.

    There was also a time when somebody in the crowd called out to him as he was giving a sermon and told him that his mother and brethren are coming to speak to him, but our Lord replied “Who is my mother? and who are my brethren?” (Mathew 12:48-50, Luke 8:20-21, Mark 3:32-35) He stretched forth his hand towards his disciples and said that they are his mother and his brothers (i.e those who does the will of his father, which is in heaven are his mother and brothers) and not Mary, being his mother in the flesh. If you read all these passages, you will find that Jesus already knew when he was on earth that Christians later on will take Mary, his earthly mother (being just one of the women) and put her in the same pedestal as him. That is why he rebuked her every time. Actually, you will find that he preferred other women than even Mary his mother. He appeared first to Mary Magdalene when he rose from the dead and not to his mother. He asked everyone to speak in remembrance to the woman who anoints his head with an expensive ointment whenever the Gospel was preached (Mark 14:8-9) and don’t asked anyone to speak in remembrance of Mary, his mother. In fact the greatest one that ever born according to Jesus is not Mary, his mother but John, the Baptist (Mathew 11:11, Luke 7:28).

    There is also a very interesting passage in the Bible where Jesus on the cross before he died called Mary, his mother as well as one of his disciples who was there and told her that that disciple will be her son from then on and also told him that Mary will be his mother instead (John 19:26-27). Now, why did he do so? It is because he wanted to make an end to this ‘Mary, mother of God stuff’ and that from then on, we should not think of Mary as his mother…and when we think of her, we should take her as that disciple’s mother and no longer his. Jesus did not hate his mother, but being God, he already knew what will happen later on…that people will take her to be the Queen of heaven…which she is not so and he is not misogynistic either, in many passages you will find that Jesus preferred women over men. Now as far as Protestant being misogynistic is concerned, I disagree. They are just following the Bible, both men and women have different roles to play in the field of evangelism…and in fact I think that what I mentioned above ought to be taught in all churches (Catholic and Protestant alike) to be completely fair to Mary, his mother.

  4. Laetitia Warjri
    June 2, 2016

    Hey everyone, so to be clear, this is an opinion piece. Not a piece meant for an English honours assignment in class, which is precisely why I have stated my personal opinion rather than that of literary critics. I’ve done enough of that in college. That being said, let’s clear up a few issues since I’ve clearly ruffled a few Protestant feathers (which I had expected anyway.)

    With regard to how Jesus addresses his mother, I am completely aware that he did call her just “woman” before he turned water into wine at the wedding at Cana. However, she turned to the servants at the wedding and ordered them, “Do as he tells you.” And Jesus performs his first miracle. Address her as he may, he did as she asked. Giving importance to what he called her is like saying that a child who calls his mother “Mei” but is a school dropout and extorts money from his “Mei” is a child that respects his mother.

    Now, by stating that Jesus “seems” to prefer women over men sometimes in the Bible (Example: Mary Magdelene) is like a Hindu/Christian etc. bigot saying, “I don’t hate Muslims. One of my closest friends is a Muslim.” That token Muslim friend or female friend isn’t going to diminish anyone’s bigotry. Jesus was a renegade preacher going against the established religion of the time, he needed all the help he could get – women included. That doesn’t change the fact that ALL 12 disciples are male. Or the fact that the Bible and Christianity itself is misogynistic. Please note that I never said the Catholic Church is the best form of Christianity. They don’t allow for women priests. Only the Church of England allows that. However, they do have female nuns who run schools, orphananges, old age homes, Christian bookstores etc. Women are definitely more actively involved.

    Take this as blasphemy, you are entitled to your opinion but Jesus himself wasn’t such a nice guy. The Pharisees are shown to be corrupt people but do they deserve name calling? “Snakes! Sons of vipers! How will you escape the judgment of hell.” Matthew 23:33. Is that not inconsistent with his merciful image? Put yourself in their place. A man appears from nowhere and challenges their authority claiming to be the Son of God. Imagine if this happened right now in the Middle East. Would our priests and pastors not be skeptical? In hindsight, it is easy to say you believe.

    Lastly, when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, he addressed in the original Latin as “Ave Maria. Gratia Aplena” – The one with grace, the one blessed with grace. She is not just a vessel for a male child. She is a PERSON blessed with grace.

    All this being said, the Bible we have today is a heavily edited version. It used to be in Latin, a language no common person knew and was manipulated by the priests who did understand Latin. Lots of ommissions and additions have been made over 2 millenia. It is a great book in terms of literary value but to see it as untouched and infallible is impossible because of the years of manipulation it was under.

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