Meitei Women in Collectives: Gender, Roles and Potentials
- Part 1 -

Ningthoujam Irina Devi *

Women Market (Ima Keithel).
Women Market (Ima Keithel).
Warning: These images CANNOT be reproduced in any form or size without written permission from the RKCS Gallery


The solidarity based on informal relationship supported by traditional institutions have tremendous potentials to not only initiate reforms but also show alternative ways of achieving gender sensitive power sharing and governance. These potentials based on solidarity have been at play throughout modern Manipur's history. Manipuri women have been playing significant roles in resisting oppressive regimes that have affected the society.

However, the assumptions over their roots and "role playing" ends with the spatial display of "power to resist" and rarely culminate with "power to share" the space with their male counterparts. This is even more apparent in the formal political negotiation and decision-making. This form of solidarity remains just a force that has not necessarily familiarised, equipped or co-terminus with the principles, rights and responsibilities that revolve around a gender sensitized modern democratic vision.

This power to resist oppressive regimes does not necessarily translate into the notion of empowerment as understood in the contemporary democratic discourse due to various factors. To bring about gender equality, there is the need for a creative fusion between the "power to resist" and "the discourse on empowerment" vis--vis decision-making. This paper is not an attempt at providing solutions but to understand the issues raised above by delving into the current discourse on social capital, development and women's movements and networks in the context of Imphal valley in Manipur. While doing so, I shall briefly foreground the some debates on gender, governance and social capital.

Gender, Governance and Social Capital

The late 20th century showed a shift towards a more people oriented bottom-up approach towards development. Gender entered the discourse of development in the last few decades of the 20th century. The understanding was that economic development is necessary but, not at the cost of the human development. The critics of the top-down conception of governance say that formal institutions have not looked at the vast potential of the traditional and informal institutions. The consistent criticisms of the top-down approach have been largely responsible for the attempts to eliminate sources of oppression, exploitation, and inequality, particularly for women. What has often been termed "people's participation" does not necessarily mean women's participation in the public sphere.

Therefore, to empower women and allow their participation in the political sphere vis--vis decision making, there is a need to probe into the foundation of the traditional as well as the informal institutions that influence the exercise of power and governance. This becomes all the more important in contemporary times when the definition of governance has been broadened to include the informal institutions, both traditional as well as modern. Social scientists have defined socio-political forms of governing as 'forms in which public or private actors do not separately but in conjunction, together, in combination' tackle social problems, through 'co-arrangements'.

This school views governance as a form of multiorganizationalaction rather than involving only state institutions. This is also the position taken by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), 1997. Thus, one cannot study governance just from the realm of state's hold on its laws and institutions. Here, what have been considered the public domain has to be understood along with the traditional conception of the individual's and the community's world views that shapes various mechanisms of governance.

Socio-cultural norms determine women's sphere of life and the same norms too have an impact on their power of 'functionality' in the public realm. This power makes a difference in their community and highlights their experience of being agents of social transformation. According to Ralph Linton, the 'culture of a society is a way of life of its members, the collection of ideas and habits which they learn, share and transmit from one generation to generation'.

The development of culture is a social activity and over the years, it gets institutionalized. This process of institutionalization of the collective capacity or social capital among the Meitei women promotes civic actions and social reforms. They have unique traditions and norms which get reproduced as public goods. By social capital, I refer "the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of durable network of more or less institutionalised relationship of mutual acquaintances or recognition".

Along with other global experiences on women's collective groups in politics, there has also been a significant space for women's collective actions existing in the state of Manipur too. Tradition based group solidarity has an appealing form of self-expression and is potentially an attractive and effective strategy. Traditional institutions operate through co-operative behavioural norms and values thereby, promoting trust among individuals. This underlines the self-development and voluntary societal problems solving mechanism.

According to Bourdieu, relationships and memberships in formal and informal groupings (i.e. family, friends and peer groups, other community organizations) plus the kinds and quality of interactions and social identities constituted through such memberships (e.g. duty-based or voluntary or institutional) add up to potential or real support and access to valued resources (e.g. a safe place to live, a job).

Roots, Roles and Traditional Network

To look at the historical past of the women is the key to understand the present. The Meitei community, which constitutes two-third of the state's population, are settled in the Manipur valley area. Whenever the society has been in trouble or under any threat, the Meitei women have risen to the occasion. They have resisted oppressive political regimes and have organized themselves to launch unprecedented movements. Their political activism have been influenced by "by the dynamics of gender, race, ethnicity, class, and political culture that can only be understood through an embedded analysis that foregrounds local practices and individual perspectives."

It is interesting to have a look at how women have been socially and spatially placed in the Meitei society. While dealing with the spatial placements, I shall also try to explain their social significance. Meitei women's life generally revolves around three spatial demarcations, namely, Keithel (Market), Leikai (residential locality) and Yum (home/domestic sphere) and their networks.

British colonial writers like T.C. Hodson comments that Hinduism exist in Manipur solely in its esoteric form without its subtle metaphysical doctrine. Sati death, dowry harassment or domestic violence is rare to find in the state history. Traditional norms and other cultural institutionalized structures in Meitei community have given these spaces among the Meitei women.

Ethel Grimwood, one of the first British women who had visited Manipur observed that "the Manipuris do not shut up their women, as is the custom in most parts of India, and they are much more enlightened and intelligent in consequence". Apart from these observations, one aspect of Meitei women's activity has been their contributions to the economy of the state. In Manipur, '"omen have a major role in agriculture, animal husbandry, collection of fuel, fetching potable water, managing business, weaving and so on".

According to Rizvi and Mukherjee, Meitei women contribute about 50 to 80 per cent towards maintaining their respective families. The most noticeable indicator of this is the activities of the women at the Ima Kethel (mothers/women's market). It is here that the "management of internal trade and exchange of the produce of villages" is exclusively done by women. Different women traders sell their products in this market. The market is said to have been founded in 1580AD. In 1886, E.W. Dun referred to the type of freedom enjoyed by the women of Manipur. He observed "all the marketing is done by the women, all the work of buying and selling in public, carrying to and fro of articles to be sold, whilst at home, they are busy employed in weaving and spinning".

The Meitei community is closely knit within its own kinship structure along with an ideal collective life. A village/town consists of many leikai (residential localities). A leikai's territory, though more or less defined, is not determined by strict adherence to legal territorial demarcation. The space of a leikai has a structural and behavioural value that can be understood through the Meitei's system of kinship, social norms, ritual and residential pattern.

Another aspect of the leikai space is the kind of solidarity extended to a physical space for a pseudo kinship structure. All the residents of a leikai may not be blood relations yet their relations are governed by the greater kinship norms. Within a leikaipeople live in group of families of same surname or different surnames.

Women in these spaces share a collective spirit, reciprocity, and respect among the various age groups. Married women living in the same compound take their turn at domestic chores like phouu suba (weeding/winnowing of rice) as Khutlang (repayment of help or labour exchange). Women work and sing together, forming a repertoire of Khulang Ishei (Ishei means songs)in their collective agricultural works. Besides, these women go in group for Eapal lokpa (fishing team) in nearby ponds, wetland water bodies and lakes.

To be continued,.....

* Ningthoujam Irina Devi wrote this article for Imphal Times
This article was webcasted on September 29, 2016.

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