Women in our society have stood up for Manipur: for those lost sons and husbands in the wake of militarization. They have stood up to save their men-folk from drugs, alcohol and other substances. They still do. But now they have begun to stand up for themselves. Now they want to talk about themselves. The ears which are accustomed to hear the wails and grievances of women who deal with political dimensions of public must now acquire the taste of hearing women taking of her own body and sexuality. But not many are going to accept it easily. There will be indifferences, opposition, and sometimes pure hatred. But they must come to a point of negotiation where the people of Manipur shall not any longer ignore or do away with women’s narratives and her stories, whether you like it or not. We are celebrating Yaoshang. When a pitchkari squirts water colour on a woman, it symbolizes the male phallus squirting inside women’s vagina. Sexuality is a vital dimension of life without which human life will not only end but will have no meaning. But there must be a distinction between experiences of the sexual act. Is there consent in the act or is it against one’s free will?
Recently many eruptions of discourses have happened starting from the time an imminent public speaker spoke of women’s body and most recently a public figure resorting to an act that a young girl has pointed out is improper. Both men represent the patriarchs in the domestic and private space. Talking about women and mentioning women and her body part is not a problem. The problem starts when you ridicule, disrespect, despise and misrepresent her body. We encourage public figures regardless of gender affiliations to bring up women and her sexuality as often as possible to bring a general awareness of her feelings, desires and to equip them to transcend discomfort and shame. We women in fact want to talk about sex to reclaim it for what it is: a natural biological need which can be celebrated in art and literature. But all of this cannot be done at the cost of infringing on the dignity and agency that a woman has.
I still remember my first experience of sexual harassment. I was returning from school. The bus was congested. I was standing in between the rows of the bus seats. I felt something rubbing on my back. It was sloppy like a rubber ball. I could not realize what it was at that moment. I turned to see that a man smelling of alcohol looming over me. It was stale and suffocating. I could not move despite the fact that I felt an inner revulsion. I broke into a cold sweat. Soon I got down from the bus in shock and was unable to reconcile or understand what had happened. I could not speak about it to anyone. For I felt a sense of shame and that I should not talk about it. Over the years, I got over this shame but only with the realization that what happened was not my fault. But I can still recall the feelings at that moment vividly. It was a mixture of fear, shame and revulsion. I didn’t know what to say and how to articulate it at that time. Now I know it and I am speaking up for no one should have to go through such harassment and the resulting shame as if it was their fault.
Sexual harassment in any form must be condemned. It cannot be justified on the basis of the perpetrator’s class, race, gender or social position. The debate does not end in men’s sexual harassment of women. Apart from men, women and trans men and trans women may commit sexual harassment on children, women or on other men (men and younger boys are also raped and sexually harassed). In our sex/gender system though, male dominance is prevalent. That is why sexual harassment by men is probably more frequent. But sexual harassment and violence in any form by anyone is wrong and not justifiable. If someone is not comfortable with other’s gaze, touch or words the person who is at the receiving end of such behavior should have the room to say it so. But if instead of being given this agency, the person who has been at the receiving end is told that she has misconstrued the behavior, and in doing this, becomes complicit in denying and or by silence, encouraging the act that should not have happened in the first place.
Male domination works at all three levels of power. First: who makes the decision in public as well as private matter? Who sets the agenda for future policies and program of society? And finally who set the thought process of belief and ideological system? It is men. The sex-gender system we live in sets the rules of the game played among different gendered beings. Meitei society began with the exogamous relation of marriage where it is a taboo to marry a person of the same clan. In this clan alliance, women remain the chief gift of exchange. Exchange of women makes the clans stronger and bonded. Today the power of clan solidarity is no longer needed for the state to survive. Earlier, women in the kinship web wasan important gift to be exchanged and Men controlled women’s sexuality in terms of their sex and procreation. The kinship rationale is gone with the rise of modern nation state but the archaic rule of sex-gender system is still entrenched in the mindsets of a feudalistic order. The conflict comes into play with the realization among women today that they no longer need to be an object of any form of use, that she is claiming agency over her mind and body. The conflict gets more aggravated because the men refuse to see that their control is being questioned and dismantled, aided partly by women who believe in the old feudal order.
No structure must be built on gender inequality or for that matter racial, class or caste inequality. We want scholars, thinkers, journalists, social scientists, doctors and lawyers to discuss this inequity. A lawyer blames a woman that her husband wants divorce because she put too much salt in the curry. A mother-in-law steps on the feet of the bride when she arrives for the first time at her husband’s home. Sorry I will be back. At this moment I am interrupted by my son’s call for his bottom to be cleaned after his “no. 2.” ….now I am back. Let me finish this writing. This is how we women live: shuttling between home and the world. A gynecologist probes a women’s vaginal tract harshly saying you feel pain now but you did not feel pain when your man fucked you? A female judge humiliates a woman in the dispute of a divorce saying “oh…you are lucky! in spite of everything your husband still fucks you” These are not fiction. I am telling you from the narrative of so many women I have met through my journey in life. Many times I have been told by my close female relatives that I am ‘manly, that I walk like a man, too fast on my feet. Many a times I am told to put more make up. And keep my hair tamed. I cook for my husband and my family when I menstruate. My blood is not impure, my phanek is not a symbol of ill-omen. It is a self declaration that needs no affirmation. And I know many women have self declared themselves on many issues. We are asking for a dignified discussion and debate. Our womb, our breast, our vagina and the qualities and feelings associated with each of our sexual parts could be discussed. How does it feel to be pregnant. How to treat an unmarried pregnant woman with respect?. We can evoke discussions on the issue of genital pleasure and genital mutilation with equal dignity.
Our feminism must not only be informed by western discourses. We must revisit our folklore, our sexological text like the Yumballon and other treatises, the lore and legends of Moirang Thoibi and Panthoibi. They took sexuality in their own hands long before the western feminist discourses came to our shores. Our idealis not Sita or Savitri of Savitri-Seityaban who relied on ‘patibrata’ and ‘stree dharma’ that kept a husband’s desires and whims at the center of their lives. Our ideal is Panthoibi, who left an arranged marriage for the man of her choice. We must reclaim that choice. Panthoibi was the first Shaman who laid down the codes of our Lai Haraoba. There was never a mention of her being married to her lover Nongpok Ningthou or ever having children. But she was and is, still worshipped as a Goddess. She is our foremother. She was a woman who made love in the open tracts of the valley of Manipur with the man of her choice, she was a free woman. And we women of today must reclaim that freedom.
The old feudal order within the patriarchal system is being challenged as evident from the way in which women are questioning and challenging old narratives, in the ways in which trans women are making their presence and voices being heard. It will take time but the beginning of an egalitarian alliance is in the making. Women from all walks of life must gather their solidarity. We must assert our power to change the status quo which is based on male dominance which enslaves all genders. Which women would not want a world where our menfolk would collect phaneks from polangkhok when it rains without being chained by any patriarchal shackle? Which woman would not root for every gender to have equity? The eruptions now and then are the clarion calls for women to assert her mind and reclaim her body long lost in the in the matrix of conflict, militarization and nationalism. Women of Manipur (read world) must unite for we have nothing to lose but the patriarchal chains!
The writer is a college lecturer