Manipuri women have something to tell everyone.
The North-east is still a neglected region of the country – it is because of this ignorance, there are some who still believe that it does not belong to the country. The community has to face verbal abuse on a daily basis.
Manipur is a small state, oblivious to a large population of the country, and it has a lot to teach us, especially in terms of women’s rights.
Take any protests against Manipur, be it the forced labour laws of the British in the 20th century or the present draconian AFSPA, Manipuri women have always been spearheading them. You will never find men overtaking them as the face of any rebellion.
Now, the participation of Manipuri women is not only limited to the geo-political conditions of the state. They have asserted their rights in the arena of economics through trade as well. How did they do it? They threw out men from their spaces.
Ima Keithel (Mother’s Market) is an unusual place. Men are allowed only to shop, not to become shopkeepers. The vendors are women. No man is allowed to conduct any trade there because it is an area reserved for women to participate in an activity from which they have been long denied.
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Mother’s Market sells everything from fish, clothes, paddy, vegetables, and fruits to metal works.
Added to that, it might amaze one that this market is not a recent creation. Ima Keithel was established in the 16th century, at a time when men controlled all the trades. As the century was closing, Manipuri kingdom witnessed wars with southeast Asia, India, and China. When men went out on wars and trade of the region declined, women decided to take up this profession.
Women enjoyed their independence sans men, and Ima Keithel soon became a region where only women began dealing in the trade.
Is exclusivity the right way to go about it?
I know. That is the most basic question – why are we practicing gender exclusivity when we are striving for gender integration?
I’d say Mother’s Market closely resembles a women-only educational institution. There is a need for educational institutions that are women-specific to exist because we have to look at thousands of years of denial to women’s education. This Manipuri market in Imphal operates the same way.
Also, the reason why there are so many men-exclusive professions is not only because women are forbidden or are considered too demure to handle demands. Rather, the moment they step in these professions, they are ridiculed for being women. Take a cue from the close-to-non-existent population of truck drivers who are women.
So, you support segregation?
Saudi Arabia practices gender segregation but that is not done in order to attain gender equality. The intention is very polar – to separate women from places that belong to men. This is not empowerment, this is a social isolation of the sex. The market in Manipur practices positive discrimination, which essentially means that one has to discriminate at certain places if it helps in doling out freedom to the underprivileged in the long run.
You cannot equate what Saudi is doing to what these Manipuri women have done. It is wrong to homogenize everything and give a face to it, because things don’t work that way.
Mother’s Market is a shining example of how women are trying to assert their rights to a nation which believes that a woman is only meant for the household.
Many gender myths are shattered and recreated.
It serves as a slap in the face of those who believe that women are not meant for trade because they can’t manage accounts. Darling, these Manipuri women don’t need your mansplaining.
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