In modern times, Manipuri society in general but in particular that of the valley dwellers, the Meiteis, is showing disturbing signs of a cultural and economic dissonance in their abject inability to adapt, internalise and harmonise with newer waves of Westernisation defined by a modernisation standard set by the European Industrial Age. This is unfortunate, for the state, once a small kingdom at the cusp of South Asia and South East Asia, and boasting a rich tradition of civilisational values, sure has the potential to do much better. The plight of women in this society especially needs sharper scrutiny. But first a brief sketch of its ancient past so as to make the contrast with present predicament even more distinct.
Manipuri has an ancient history and the trajectory of this history and the ideas surrounding the theories of how this society evolved is far vast and wide. Manipur as a small kingdom of the east, brought into the fold of the union of India in the mid-20th century, enjoys a unique fame owing to its scenic beauty and rich cultural heritage. Indeed, a Nat Sankirtan, a devotional performing art envisioned by one of its great kings, Bheigyachandra also known as Chingthangkhomba and also as Jai Singh, has earned recognition as a UNESCO intangible heritage. Its pristine landscape made British writers of the colonial era described this tiny state as the Scotland of the East.
It is also significant that traditionally, women played a significant role in shaping the economic and political destiny of this society. In history, women of this society were reputed for their physical prowess, skill, artistic sensibility, and devotion to their motherland. Without doubt, they formed the bedrock on which the society once stood and bloomed.
So hard working and laborious that they have been noted by one Britisher writer as “Manipuri Women looked older than their age; their skill in weaving and applique work is commendable. Besides engaging themselves in the performance of household chores, they took a keen interest in dance festivals being frolicsome by nature. Their valour and courage at the time of adversity are absolutely commendable”. History of Manipur stands witness. Such is the panoramic view of the status of Manipuri women of the yesteryears.
Now, consequently with the modernization with its standards and mores defined by the European Industrial Age creeping in by degrees in such a land-locked border hill state, modernization in outlook, living pattern, aping the West in fashion, frolicking in the vast new wilderness of consumerism and consumeristic behaviours, which were once considered to be anathema have become normalised today.
Hence, showcasing of luxury items at home has become a status symbol ignoring the value and tenets closely associated with yesteryears. With the localities essentially becoming part of concrete jungle, homes are increasingly dehumanised leaving aside the sweetness associated with home life. Judging against this backdrop, we are to look at the kind of atmosphere wherein the working women of the state have been struggling for existence. For this purpose, one is required to make a critical assessment of the status and the role of the woman today. With all the festivities and ceremonies performed in a pompous manner involving considerably a huge amount, one is apt to think that Manipuris have little worries about the existential crisis normally experienced today by the federating units of this subcontinent. However, intelligentsia and stakeholders on the issues involving body politic have been active in their search for a better future of the polyglot state of the East.
It is worrisome to look at the plight of the street vendors and commoners struggling for their livelihood with little hope for their own future leave aside preparing their children to be fit to meet the challenges ahead in their lives. They constantly are reminded of the need to keep the kitchen hearth burning, but at the same time are staring at the inhumanity of the vast and heartless market, commercialized hospitals, corrupt public offices, injudicious jails, and other grossly unfair social public spheres to deal with.
With the kind of new wave social lifestyles should be allowed to blend with the rich cultural heritages so as to toughen the society and its sinews of bondages so that the society’s new cultural standards complement the process of state making, is a challenge everybody needs not only to be conscious of but equally concerned about. In this endeavour, the society cannot remain contented with the brand of modernism showered upon it by the outside world. To reiterate the point, the fuel for modernism has to be inborn and innate for the modernism to be organic to the society.
Here comes the notion of the test of democracy. In the word of a French writer, “Happiness of the people is the test for democracy”. Are we now happy with the outward appearance visibly set in sight? We do not project a gloomy picture of the society which is struggling for a better future in the process of which women in particular have been playing a significant role.
Emboldened by the spirit ingrained in the Women Empowerment Schemes put into action in full swing, women in the society today have tightened their girdles and got down to the task matching their prowess. The rise of female office employees, self-help schemes, and NGOs put into practise with a gigantic speed in the state, point to the reason for the rise of a vibrant atmosphere akin to the spirit of democracy.
Young women in particular have dispelled the notion of male domination in the field believed to be predetermined for males requiring their male-biased norms to be followed unquestionably. They now consider these are redundant and meant to be archived in the past and not put to practice in the present. Their association in public life, and political process and enrolment in the defence force requiring robust performance would help promote the swiftness of life essentially associated with state as an institution.
Nevertheless, in the conflict-ridden world, competition of all sorts in strengthening the sinews of the nation could well be the motto of our nation. Dwelling upon the issue, the role of the Manipuri women today is of immense value, however small it is or often disregarded and undervalued as when in comparison with Manipuri men. Gender distinction in matter of profession has been on the wane in the process of which Manipuri women too have always played a significant role. A new wave Atma Nirvarta reaching nook and corner of the entire country is nothing short of a revolutionary spirit that would help place the nation at a higher pedestal of human glory – a magnificent feature of ancient India that still captures the imagination of the people of the civilized west. A substantial change in the spirit of the constitution, a revolutionary trend without bloodshed is in the process of which Manipuri young women too are the stakeholders.
To accentuate the issue of the situation of the Manipuri women, they are in an undoubtedly unique situation that is vastly different from most of the other societies of the world as well. Ever since the pre-historic days, the position of women throughout the world has always been unfavourable in comparison to their male counterparts. Though variations are discernible in different parts of the world, the changes have always been rooted in the patriarchal favour. Though modern political institutions in most countries have been attempting to bring some favourable changes for centuries, countries like India whose history and society have been long rooted and strongly based on religious and traditional social mores, such moves at modernizing feminist political and social changes have almost always been violently opposed by a conservative patriarchal order which wield vast influence and power in such societies even now. These social institutions always played a major role and the exposure of the womenfolk to social public life faced enormous hurdles, therefore took several centuries to actualise, and Manipur was no exception.
This being so, till the 19th century, the position of Manipuri women was less than ideal, however with the coming of the British colonial administration in the region, women’s social position also changed irrefutably. It was not so much the modern laws of the state introduced which brought about this change, but the establishment of Western liberal education, embracing women of Manipur as equal stakeholders, which came to be the springboards from which the modern Manipur society where women of today are coming out of the closets to assert themselves on practically every public fora.
The presence of the Manipuri women folk is immense in the public economic spheres unlike in other societies where the women are often relegated and conditioned to the domestic realm of the household and kitchen strictly. Given the history and the flow of the Manipuri society, womenfolk played a major commendable role in the maintenance and growth of the economy of the place, as well as in erecting the building blocks of the society itself. The most visible manifestation of this immense gender contribution is the emergence and establishment of the Khwairamband Bazar or Ima Keithel. This unique marketplace exclusively run by womenfolk of all ages came into existence around the 16th century as the prevailing social and economic conditions of the period permitted women to become the breadwinners of their family. It began as a small collection of women vendors but in the decades that followed, developed into a bustling hub of socio-economic centre for trade and commerce.
Manipur also witnessed the two unique historical revolts known as the Nupi-lan against the British in 1904 and 1939. What put these uprisings above others is that they were waged by women, demonstrating once again beyond the pale, the depth of influence the collective strength that Manipuri women commands in society. This warrior quality combined with their role as social vigilantes, earned them the revered nomenclature of Meira Paibis or women torch-bearers during the British Colonial Period. Even in the postcolonial era they continue to fight and advocate against several social evils and have become a major oppositional voice to the injustices of the State as well.
As the wheels of time turns, Manipuri society has also transformed far and wide. This is becoming more evident with each cycle of new young generations during the late 20th and 21st century. In a span of just few decades, thanks to the Western education system, and with it the gradual marginalisation of hegemonic influences of various oppressive patriarchal institutions, a majority of young educated women, especially in the urban spaces are motivate and inspired to pursue higher education and advance further in work spaces, increasing freeing themselves from the dreary traditional shackles of domestic obligations. There have been increases in the size women workforce in areas which have always been considered to be exclusive male domain. Hence today corporate jobs, high government positions, internationally competitive sports, to name a few, are no longer taboo for today’s Manipuri women.
However, despite financial and livelihood independence, contemporary Manipuri women are still somehow subjected to the strict scrutiny of social patriarchal lenses with varying social expectations and obligations which they have to confront every day. In a way it can be argued that while modern society and Western education have opened new ways and means that have immensely helped uplifting the conditions of Manipuri women, it has also to be added there are still many overarching problems women are left to face. The socio-political feminist front and women rights groups have been relentless running gender rights advocacy campaigns but are often met with disdain from the deeply rooted patriarchal mindset of the society. Nevertheless, the resilient spirit of Manipuri women rages on, undeterred by these attempts to marginalise and dehumanize them, and if history is any witness, there can be little doubt they will again emerge winners in this long and arduous battlefront too.
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Arambam, Sophia, 2021/03/30, Women’s Empowerment in Manipur. VL – 4,10.31014/aior.1991.04.01.247,Journal of Social and Political Sciences
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Pallapothu, Vaishnavi. “ The Nupi Lan”, THe Gender Security Project, 19th Oct, 2020.
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The writer holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Arts And Humanities from Bangalore City University and is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in English Literature at Mount Carmel College, Bangalore. Her wide range of interests include drama, artistic works, writing, among others.