Patriarchy in Disguise: The Role and Status of Women of Meitei society in Manipur
- Part 1 -

Thokchom Linthoingambi Chanu *

A Meira Paibi rally :: Torch bearers, literally and figuratively speaking :: A November Night 2013
A Meira Paibi rally :: Torch bearers, literally and figuratively speaking :: A November Night 2013 - Pix Credit - Huieyen Lanpao


The Meitei society in Manipur, a Brahamanical Hindu society, royally patronized is unique with instances of female independence and power. To a certain extent the women of Manipur enjoyed a degree of freedom as in case of choosing their life partner, the absence of dowry and honor killings but the women are still not free from being the victims of exploitation of a patriarchal setup.

The women do have a highly productive role in the socio-economic realm of the society as well as in the household but they still do not occupy an equal status with the men. They still do not have much say in making decisions. The purpose of this essay is to discuss how the role played by the Meitei women is very different to the status they occupy in the society.

Feminism may be understood in the modern context as a movement organized and carried by women against the oppression they face in the society and they advocate social equality with men. There has never been feminist movements so far as to be recognized in Manipur. "Manjusri Chaki Sircar, however gives a different definition to the kind of feminism she has observed in the Meitei society.

"Here feminism does not entail a subculture or anti-male attitude but exist as a moral support to the male, an integral part of the social system" (Misra & Bhattacharya 1986: WS54). The movements, whichever happened, have been for the welfare of the common masses and it were mostly led by women. Though the Manipuri society is patrilineal, women do hold certain powers in dictating the course of the society.

"The basis of this female power is studied in the political, economic, social and religious contexts" (Misra & Bhattacharya 1986: WS 54). Politically, the power of these women are evidenced by the two Nupi laan (Women's Agitation) movements, first in 1904 and the second in 1939. Economically, they are the traders, weavers, buyers and seller who mostly dominate the markets. In the religious context, the Maibi (Priestess) possess an indomitable autonomy. But we need to analyze if this liberties and autonomies are really outside the patriarchy or within the patriarchy.

The "women in Manipur have carried the economic responsibility of trade and commerce for centuries, endured political and military upheavals, maintained the indigenous way of life, and remained economic pillars of their families and community"(Chanam 2012).

The economic liberty of the Meitei women symbolizes women's empowerment. "The economic independence of the Meitei women and the strong bond of mutual support and solidarity that exists among them have been identified by Chaki sircar as the basis of feminism" (Misra & Bhattacharya 1986: WS54). They do not sit back, instead they do all the selling and buying in the market. They sell all kinds of things as vegetable, staple foods, handicrafts, herbs, fish, tobaccos.

The example of this economic empowerment is the Ema Keithel (Mother Market) also known as Khwairamband Bazaar in Imphal, which is a market solely managed by women. But it is not only about the Ema Keithel but every Keithel (Market) or small local evening markets in Manipur is dominated by women (all the selling is done by women). "Their strength comes from an economic setup which is a remnant of an ancient tradition when men used to be engaged in hunting and martial affairs and women in agriculture, trade and commerce."(Misra & Bhattacharya 1986: WS54)

It is very unlikely for a man to enter this markets to do the buying and selling. The market is regarded as the feminine space. The men do not feel comfortable to enter this markets for buying stuffs as they are ashamed of doing the "feminine" task. They have been brought up in a society that has indoctrinated the belief, of men being above the feminine aspects. It is thought to be the job of women to do all the buying in the market.

Though conditions have changed lately, but, still if any man enter this space they are thought to be not masculine enough and they are laughed off even by the women. So it is the gender politics even working in the economic aspects of the society, though it is the base of female power and solidarity. Their active participation in the commerce of the society leads to the economic uplift but the problem arises as there is not much clarity on how much control a women has over her own earning when she retreats from the public space to private domestic space.

Their role as traders does not exempt them from domestic duties of doing the household chores. So their work load is double than the male. Men hold political power through competition and rigid hierarchy while women attain their power which is unassigned to them in an informal manner rather than in an egalitarian base.

The Khwairamband bazaar is not only the symbol of women's economic empowerment and feminine space. "Apart from the economic activities, the market is also an important venue of social and political interaction. It was this aspect of the Khwairamband Bazar which played a crucial role in the outbreak of the Nupi Lan in 1939" (Yambem 1976: 325). Nupi Laan also known as Women Agitation "which started as an agitation by Manipuri women against the economic policies of the Maharaja and the Marwari monopolists, later on changed its character to become a movement for constitutional and administrative reform in Manipur.

The importance of the Nupi Lan lies in the fact that it prepared the ground for the leading role played by the women of Manipur in the emergence of a new Manipur after the end of the Second War" ( Yambem 1976: 325). The women were the ones who fought with the oppressive forces while most of the men sat back leisurely.

This movements also lead to the establishment of Meirapaibi (women torch bearers) who are the protectors of human rights. To this day too, they are mostly women who hold meetings, rallies, protest against sociological evils. Even though this movements are majorly lead by women, they are none for their equality/status or against patriarchy. The movements have never been against the exploitation of women by the patriarchal society. Their demands have never been for an equal status with men, but for the welfare of common masses. Their autonomy works hand in hand with patriarchy.

Even though the Meitei women took an active participation in the economy and politics of the state, though they were the vanguards of change, their position is not enviable. Their economic empowerment and liberty does not entail them an equal status with men. They need a social sanction to exist in the society, which is marriage through which her identity will be recognized.

It is ironical that though empowered economically, they depend upon men for social security. The women force is a very powerful force in the society against the face of all sociological evils, a force to be reckoned with but a very problematic issue is that they are denied individualism. As an individual they are weak, powerless, vulnerable dominated by the male of the family.

The women instead have internalized the patriarchal notions of women being an object, a possession.

To be continued..

* Thokchom Linthoingambi Chanu wrote this article to
The writer is M.A English Previous at University of Delhi and can be contacted at lin(dot)chanu7(at)gmail(dot)com
This article was posted on April 17, 2015 and later re-published on August 25 2015.

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