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Feminist Movement in Manipur so Far Can be Characterised Only as Shadow Boxing But Outlook Certainly is Shifting Say Activists

As the subject of contemporary Manipuri feminism is less taken up or is given only superficial treatment, due to social or other factors, the FPSJ decided to get the views of a leading role model for women, Santa Khurai, who is a Meitei indigenous nupi maanbi, writer, activist and artist and also Secretary of the All Manipur Nupi Maanbi Association (AMANA), and Chingya Luithui who works on rights issues and is associated with the Naga Peoples Movement for Human Rights. They speak on how Manipuri women, with the help of their male counterparts, could transcend the failure of the workplace and home to look to their needs.

FPSJ: There’s no dress code now in Manipur for women except maybe at social ceremonies. Is it a myth that men decide what women should wear? Has the way young women dressing in what they want to in Manipur led men to consider women’s rights in a new light?

Santa Khurai

Santa Khurai: The dress code is not a myth. It’s a reality. The sense of dressing is gendered here. There has been no change. If young women are beyond decency in wearing their clothes they are still told why they don’t wear a phanek which carries grace and looks better on them. In the case of the nupi maanbis who are an extension to feminine subjectivity and expression it’s sad to find a gendered reaction at the Lai Haraoba where the Umang Lai Kanba Lup came out against wearing of female clothes by them. Can’t name it but a militant group gave a threat on nupi maanbis dressing the way they do, which is scary to say the least.

About a changing outlook I might say there are misogynists in every section – men, women or nupi maanbi. And those among each sex, some hate the other too. I would say there is no feminism in Manipur. If asked whether there has been change I would say firstly there is no gender rights at all in Manipur. There’s a movement for nationalism and nativism though. Many say male chauvinism is predominant among the intellectual elites.

Chingya Luithui

Chingya Luithui: If I am not wrong, isn’t there still a requirement for girls/women students in educational institutions to wear phanek? And if we look at the organizations and groups that came out with such requirements, they are mostly men-led organizations with no women representatives in decision making roles.

While wearing phanek as a uniform is necessarily not an issue, when that requirement is loaded with the burden for girls to be the forerunners and reflection of social morality, there is something essentially problematic.

Beyond schools, I feel that there is still a lot of pressure on women to conform, to be presentable even though it may not be as manifest as before. Even if there may be no expressed “dress code” there certainly are unstated ones!

The way I understand, the question of men deciding what women should wear is actually symptomatic of the larger issue of how men still wield a lot of control in directing how women should behave.

There certainly seems to be a shift in how men are engaging on issues of women’s rights in Manipur, but it would be fundamentally flawed to link such engagements with the way women dress now. I think it is more to do with being more sensitive, being more conscious of the inequalities that are present; it is more to do with being aware of women’s rights as human rights.


FPSJ: How can the workplace be conducive to the well-being of women?


Santa Khurai: Men shouldn’t have the prerogative to women’s narrative in addressing women’s issues. For instance women’s journalism is accorded only a second best role. And look at the ladies toilet at the Manipur Press Club; no woman could use it. It impinges on dignity and mental health.

Then period leaves are being discussed. It can be facilitated with advocacy in private institutions and policies in government ones. More than anything this is an issue related to health. The matter of equity is expected to go on for a long time. Women have domestic burdens on them and should be even allowed shorter office hours with same pay parity with men who have lesser duties at home. What decisions women take in office should be treated to be as vital as those men take. Professional representation should be equal.


Chingya Luithui: I think the first essential step is to assume and admit accountability for change in the workplace. Once that is done, in the context of Manipur, one can think of flexible working hours that takes into consideration special needs of women; appropriate maternity leave; efficient complaint redressal mechanisms for workplace harassment; childcare facilities where needed, or at least to facilitate childcare; safe transportation etc. In places where there is a large workforce, separate clean toilet facilities. And equal remuneration for equal work.


FPSJ: Is women’s suffering glamorized in media, films and literature without giving them any decision making or agency?


Santa Khurai: As I said earlier instead of glamorizing their suffering women should have their own expression in all arts and literature. But at the same time there’s only limited resources with any group of men, women or communities in Manipur. It’s an oppressed community. And more than that, opportunities for women are appropriated by men and educated class. The elite are championing the women’s cause and the outcome is anybody’s guess. The women suffering at the Ima Keithel to make ends meet for the day are unceremoniously left unaccounted. They are taken advantage of. They are only bullet proof shields in the forefront of any upheavals against the establishment in the land.


Chingya Luithui: Yes, however things seem to be changing.


FPSJ: Men talk a lot about gender equality especially in Manipur but many times back off at the last moment. Do you feel that ‘standing up for women’ is easier to portray on social media and other platforms as opposed to real life sometimes? What can be done to include men in a supportive role?


Santa Khurai: The Kangla naked protest incident is well known but what did the women gain from that protest. The pictures are still used today but they didn’t address the women’s perspective to that protest. Women had a major role in the Kangla eviction but ironically the responsibilities were entrusted to Ibobi; we can ask why the keys were not handed to his wife Randhoni. That would have been a symbolic precedence.

Regarding ‘supportive role’ I would say even men are victims of patriarchy. They are not supposed to show their emotions and are compared to the imagery of lions and tigers. They can’t come out of this. I completely oppose male feminism as much as toxic masculinity of drunkards and wife beaters. Men taking up the cause of women – I don’t really have a very accurate answer for that question or any suggestions to give.


Chingya Luithui: Certainly it is easier to talk about gender equality on social media because there is no accountability for follow through. While social media can be a useful tool in dissemination of information, it is limited in terms of how it can influence personal change vis-à-vis personal interactions.

Instead of grand changes and demands, small things like encouraging men to share domestic chores such as doing laundry, washing dishes, cooking etc. goes a long way in facilitating men to change; these things may seem small and irrelevant but when weighed against the patriarchal notions of gender-based labor divisions, they become significant.


FPSJ: Has propaganda regarding how women should behave and dress (from armed groups, other organizations calling for curbs and moral codes on women) affected the mental makeup of women in Manipur?


Santa Khurai: There’s the custom of consulting the girl child’s horoscope at birth to see if she would have a favorable marriage when grown up. Then there’s struggle and difficulty for women of marriageable age because of how society looks at them.

In common lingo we say ‘yam khatle’ for women which means ill-behaved or of questionable character whereas men are ‘ngaojeine’ which depicts nothing nasty, but innocence even in moral transgress.

There are hardly any women in politics also. Manipur means warring, self-determination – gender has been appropriated by these. Women’s mental health is deeply affected though we might not know. What do you expect when so many restrictions are put on their lives?


Chingya Luithui: I do not know what is meant here when you say “mental makeup”. Assuming it is the idea of self and of equal opportunities, it certainly has. I have encountered women who proactively support such imposition of curbs and restrictions without questioning it at all indicating how much we have ingrained such things into our psyche. On the other hand, there are a growing number of women who are raising their voices and questioning such practices, and linking these up to greater issues of women’s autonomy, rights, and agency.

Both are indications of how such curbs affect the mental makeup of women.


FPSJ: Are your aspirations challenged by women competing against you? How do you look at women demanding there due in a male dominated society? What are the challenges?


Santa Khurai: I can speak for the women. Women decision makers should be included in all spheres, like for instance in politics. Women’s contribution in the economy should also be counted in the land’s economy. The earnings of the mothers at Ima Keithel are spent on their families and they cannot even get new clothes for themselves. We need empowerment and reinterpretation of women’s role in the state’s economy. Independent womanhood however does not mean ability to open a shop and do big business. A review of data on grassroots women is required which is omitted in the narrative on women by the intellectuals and elites. Decision making is better when inclusive, from family till the institution.

We can’t challenge men to achieve historical parity with them. There’s a scientific difference. But it goes without saying that we can’t be contradictory, like in politics, by offering piecemeal democracy to women. For economic liberty women should have a right over their purse. Many times in a shared purse in the household the women end up spending for all the extra expenses from their side. Women should be lent financial strength. If they are unburdened the children and husband will also feel like putting effort instead of waiting for the woman in the family to provide all their needs.


Chingya Luithui: No, I find it inspiring that women are becoming more vocal about inequalities in our society.

The biggest challenge is how entrenched patriarchal attitudes are in our society; it is not just men but also women, who actively advocate such ideas. Inherently linked with this is the absence of equitable equal opportunities for women be it in education, access to healthcare, employment opportunities etc.

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