Jo Piazza is the author of the new book How To Be Married in which she crowdsourced marriage advice from around the world in an effort to figure out how to have a successful partnership. This is an excerpt from her travel memoir. 

I would have missed out on one of the most interesting models for marriage and partnership in India if I hadn’t started talking marriage with this tuk-tuk driver outside the Kamakhya temple in Guwahati, India.

“You can’t leave without going to Meghalaya,” he insisted. At this point I was used to being told I couldn’t leave India without seeing at least one thing, be it the Taj Mahal or the new Taco Bell in Delhi.

“What’s special in Meghalaya?”

“It’s the place where the women are in charge. They’re the heads of the family,” he explained. It was all he had to say. I changed my plans.

That’s how I ended up in Shillong, the capital of the northeastern state of Meghalaya, so close to the border with Bangladesh that the two cultures spill into each other.

Author Jo Piazza crowdsourced marriage advice in India. (Jo Piazza)

The Khasi and Jaintia hill tribes of Meghalaya are matrilineal. Property and assets are passed down through the youngest daughter in a family. All of the children take the mother’s name instead of the father’s. The husband moves into his wife’s home, often bringing with him just a single suitcase of his things—a few changes of clothes, maybe his guitar or his cricket bat. It’s the women who run the households and are largely in control of the finances and the major financial decisions. The men work, but they often hand their money over to their wives.

Meghalayan tribes have been matrilineal as long as anyone who lives there remembers, since long before the British came, back when all of what we now call India was just a medley of tribes linked by geography. No one could tell me for certain where the matrilineal tradition originated. It’s as old as the oldest stories they talk about.

I’d traveled to more than thirty countries in the past two years and never been anywhere, including the States, where women were institutionally favored above men.

The way the women in Meghalaya control the money and the property made me think of my own marriage and the dynamic between money and power. When Nick and I first met, I earned the higher salary, which made me feel like I had the right to manage our finances and make major decisions.

I drove into the bustling capital, where I was supposed to meet up with a translator named Sukher, a petite, soft-spoken, and meek man in his twenties. His shoulders curled into his body in a way that made him take up even less space.

“Of course the men just accept that the women have power here. That’s just the way it is,” he told me very matter-of-factly in a voice as low as a whisper. “It’s important to listen to my wife. She makes good decisions.” His wife is the second daughter in the family, but not the youngest. This means that she doesn’t stand to inherit any of the family’s property. I kept asking why it was the youngest and not the eldest daughter who inherited. The answer makes a lot of sense. The youngest daughter will be around the longest, so she’ll be able to use the family property and money to take care of her parents and then the older siblings as they age.

Sukher had recently moved into his wife’s ancestral home in a neighboring village called Mawlynnong and he commuted into Shillong each day to work as a translator and tour guide. He and his wife had been arguing because Sukher wanted to move closer to the city to make his commute for work easier, but his wife was adamant about not leaving their village. In the end, she won.

Sukher dutifully led me into Shillong’s Khasi market, which was tucked down a dank, narrow alleyway, past a series of winding side streets, dark tea shops, and counters for placing bets on professional archery. They love professional archery in Shillong, and skilled archers are the equivalent of NFL football players in the United States or soccer stars in Europe. The Khasi market is a series of never-ending stalls where the women sell everything from betel nuts and banana leaves to tobacco and fancy dresses for less than five American dollars. Elsewhere in India the men control the markets, but here the women do the buying and the selling. The only men I saw sat quietly in the backs of the shops, sometimes making change, feeding a baby, or running an errand for their female boss.

The women of Meghalaya in India control the money and property. (Jo Piazza)

I struck up a conversation with a young woman from the Jaintia tribe named Daphi, the proprietor of a small dress shop. The shop had been passed down through the women of her family for three generations. A photograph of her deceased mother hung above the counter, gazing down at her daughter with pride. Her mother’s younger sister owned the dress shop across the way, and they teased one another about which stall had the prettier dresses and better deals.

“My mother made all of the decisions for our family herself,” Daphi told me. “When I get married, I will be the one to make the big decisions. This is just the way our culture is.” Daphi was the youngest daughter in a family of two girls, which meant that ownership of the store went to her when her mother passed. “It’s a lot of responsibility,” she explained. “But I hope to find a husband to share it with me.”

“To share it with me” was an interesting choice of words. I asked Daphi if she thought that being the owner of her shop would present problems in her future relationship.

“I don’t think so. I think that I will always consult 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. Why wouldn’t we?”

I thanked Daphi for being so honest and bought two colorful Indian nightgowns from her and one fancy child’s dress from her aunt across the street.

Down the alleyway I ran into a woman named Diana standing barefoot in front of tall bins of betel nuts, wearing the traditional Khasi checked kyrshah, or apron. Her hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail revealing a high, regal forehead.

She told me she was forty-two years old and that she’d been married for more than twenty years. She and her husband had three boys. She’d love to have a girl who could inherit, but she was too tired to keep trying. Instead, her sons would be the heirs when she and her husband passed away.

Diana laughed when I asked about the merits of living in a matrilineal society.

“This is the best place in the world to live. In other places it is hard to be a woman,” she told me, her positive pride in her culture evident in her thrown-back shoulders and expanded chest.

“We are a very special people, you know.” Her eyes danced with mischief. “Obviously it’s the women who have the power. Doesn’t that make sense?” she said and smiled, flecks of betel nut caught in her teeth. “I never do anything at home. My husband does the cooking, the cleaning, everything. But he does that because he likes to do that. You have to have an understanding in marriage. Marriage is a compromise. If he needs help, then I help him.” She leaned in close to me. “You have to give the men some understanding. You work hard to understand each other, but the men, they need it more.”

The Khasi and Jaintia women control the money and the property, and yet every woman I met talked about understanding and compromise. They told me it wasn’t their place to force their husband to do things. They stressed that no matter who controls a family’s wealth, the most important thing in a marriage is an understanding of equality between the two partners, compromise.