There's a Place on Earth Where Girls Run Everything

Photographer Karolin Klüppel returns from India with dramatic, dreamy images of a society where girls run their family clans.

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For a total of 10 months, German photographer Karolin Klüppel took pictures of women living in a region of India known as Meghalaya, literally "the abode of the clouds." It's a beautiful and strange name, perfect for a place whose social structure in many ways sets it apart from the larger Indian political system.

"Women in the villages earn only half as much as the men, and they don't question that." —Karolin Klüppel

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From 2013 to 2015, Klüppel stayed in a Khasi village, where women control every aspect of family life. In this matrilineal society, girls and girls alone traditionally have the right to inheritance and property; mothers manage their families' finances, granting their husbands an allowance; and daughters carry and pass along the names of their clans.

Below, Klüppel shares images from her new book, Kingdom of Girls, offering a glimpse into the daily life of a culture at the threshold between modernity and custom.

'Ibapyntngen Playing With Mosquito Net.'
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How did you first get connected to this community?

I was very interested in matriarchies and matrilineal societies. When I finished my studies, I decided to do a project on matrilineal culture, and got a scholarship for a residency in India. After that, I traveled to Meghalaya to meet the Khasi. Originally, I wanted to just stay with the Khasi for two or three weeks and go to China afterward, but I stayed for six months and canceled the China trip. I returned two other times.

"I was allowed to enter nearly every house." —Klüppel

I lived in a very small village (Mawlynnong) with one of the Khasi families, and everyone knew me. The son of my host family introduced me to many villagers, and I was allowed to enter nearly every house. They were very open-minded.

'Prosperity's Dream.' 'The river is where the girls spend their afternoons in the summertime. They wash their laundry there, and swim and play,' Klüppel says.
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In the introduction to your book, you mention that the girls often directed you when you were shooting them.

Often, they wanted me to shoot video when they were singing or dancing, so they could watch themselves afterwards. That's like usual children's stuff. But they were also very eager to get their picture taken, and they visited me in my room and wanted to spend time with me.

'Anisha With Kwai.' 'In the staged portraits, I wanted to include things that surround the children, that are connected to their culture. Those orange fruits, those are kwai, a betel nut. It's a welcome gesture to offer it, and many Khasi also live from t
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I think because village life was not so exciting, I was kind of an attraction and a distraction. It was often the case that I was just spending time with them, and I had my camera with me. I didn't know if I would take a photo or not; most of the time I was just waiting for something to happen.

Do you have a sense of whether most of these girls will spend most of their lives in this village?

Most of them will move away, because nowadays they have better opportunities to go to college. It's usually the youngest daughter who stays in the parents' house, and then she will have to take a job as a teacher or something that could also be done in the village. But usually there are no good jobs in the villages, only farming jobs.

'Beslinda With Hoofs.' 'Most Khasi are Christian, not Hindu, so they eat beef,' Klüppel explains. 'The butchers from the next village sell every part of the cow. Sometimes the Khasis cook soup out of the hooves because it's a very cheap meal.'

You said you'd studied matrilineal societies, but what about living in the Khasi society did you find especially surprising?

I was surprised that the family life was so conservative. Women in the villages earn only half as much as the men, and they don't question that. I was always saying, "OK, but that's not fair, you should all earn the same because you do the same work." And they would say, "But women cannot do as much as men." Fathers of children who leave the family don't pay anything in the way of child support. Because the men don't own the house, and they don't trace the family name, they don't feel responsible for the family.

'Ibapyntngen With Beetles.' 'I think this was in the month of September, when there are many beetles like this,
'Yasmin Holding a Rooster.' Klüppel says, 'Yasmin was my neighbor's child, and she would often catch the hens and roosters at night and put them into baskets.'
'Steam.' 'It's very rural, this life,' Klüppel notes. 'When they want to have warm water for baths, they heat it on the fire in their homes, and it often steams a lot. It's not a convenient life, especially for mothers who have a lot of children. It's ver
'The Necklace.' 'They often dry fish because in the winter season, there are no fish in the water. They put them on sticks and put them in the sun to dry.'
'Yasmin Balancing a Water Pot.' Klüppel says, 'Yasmin was always in this corner of the house playing. She could even climb up to the top of the wall, so I decided she had to do a picture there. She looks like a ballet dancer.'
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