Patriarchy in Disguise: The Role and Status of Women of Meitei society in Manipur
- Part 2 -

Thokchom Linthoingambi Chanu *

A Maibi Annual ritual of Kounu Lairembi at Senjam Chirang, Konsa Khul village on 20th Feb 2015
A Maibi at the Annual ritual of Kounu Lairembi at Senjam Chirang, Konsa Khul village on 20th Feb 2015 :: Pix Credit - Deepak Oinam

Shamanism in the Meitei society also has an important role in the establishment of women's autonomy and independence. It is such a cultural space where the woman achieves a status outside the expected norms of the society. Her immunity from the obligations of being a women in a patriarchal society allows her to enjoy much freedom.

The maibis are the priestess who are considered to be chosen by gods to act as an intermediator between the divine world and earthly beings. They are given much more importance and considered to be much more powerful than the "maibas" (male priest). "The maibis play a more important role in religious ceremonies than the maibas because the maibis are god-gifted (spirit possession) while the maibas are made and trained through their labour and research" (Singh 1988: 172).

"It was also seen that not only they were women who believed to have the power to communicate with spirits and supernatural beings, but women were so central that when a priest performed the rituals of Lai haraoba the priest usually dressed himself as priestess"(Devi 2013: 61). So we can see a reversal in the dress code where culture brings the male to done women's clothes to please the deities during Umang Lai Haraoba (pleasing the forest dieties), which is actually the celebration of life and its continuance through procreation.

When it is normally considered a taboo to speak about sexuality and sexual intercourse between male and female openly in the society, during the Lai Haraoba, the priestess through her oracular utterances and dance, showcases and celebrates the very seed of life. So the woman as a priestess obtains certain power which is otherwise denied to an ordinary women.

The priestess is addressed as Ima Maibi (mother priestess) as a kind of respect and based on her power of prophecy, her status is raised. She enjoys an extent of religious authority but this does not mean that the she completely renounces patriarchal order. She is also a wife, a mother in her domestic world and she is expected to conform to those roles.

"The professional world of a maibi is indeed based on professional competence and, competition for status within the hierarchy, which cannot be achieved through the primary sex role of a woman in Meitei society. The society makes an adjustment by according ritual status to these women in an institutionalized way. Women's spiritual superiority is thus accepted in an institutionalized manner and men do not have to lose their superior standing in the patrilineal social system" (Chaki-Sircar, 1984: 213-218). Giving a women a total authority becomes problematic for the society where the gender hierarchy is at stake. So the society searches for mediums to stabilize the status –quo.

"The Meitei proverb which says 'Stubborn women are destined to become maibis' " (Kshetrimayum 2009: 30) gives a woman only the religious option of becoming a Maibi and no other option is available to her. This religious aspect of priestess in the society also demonstrates two contrasting roles of women. "On the one hand, there is the model of the 'ideal woman '-the woman as daughter, wife and mother. On the other there is 'stubborn woman's' alternative: the role of the maibi.

Each of the 'stubborn' women somehow rebelled against the family and the existing social order and found her way into a maibi's life, a life which promised her immense freedom in the extra-domestic domain, considerable social status, and the prospect of good livelihood. However, a maibi is never called a 'proper' or 'woman'. Nor do people accept her role comfortably; it is accepted as the destiny of particular women. People are afraid to ignore her, and often have an awed and ambivalent attitude toward her" (Chaki-Sarkar, 1984: 213-214). So the traditional religious aspect seems to provide a space for power and autonomy to women.

The Meitei women enjoy the liberty of choosing their own life partner. Even if the parents of either or both side do not agree to this marriage they have the option of elopement (Nupi chenba) which is socially accepted. It is a traditional culture of Meitei society where the girl elopes with the boy and spends a night with him. The next morning the elders of the boy goes to the house of the girl to fix a marriage date.

Although outwardly, this seems to give a women the autonomy but the underlying politics that goes with Nupi chenba is highly patriarchal. The parents of the girl who were denying her marriage according to her choice earlier, now they have no option but to agree because the girl is now regarded to be impure. Virginity is a high priced possession in this society. As she is no longer regarded to be chaste, she will not be taken by other men.

So it is such a social deprivation where outwardly, the tradition seems to provide the women with power but at the same times deprives her of that power. However the women tend to manipulate this notion that once she loses her chastity, she will be unfit for marriage to another man other than the one to whom she gives her virginity. So the women utilize this little liberty that tradition has provided to them, even if it helps in regulating patriarchal notion.

But this also leads to the increased case of kidnapping ( Nupi Faba) for marriage where girls are kidnapped, kept overnight and even raped so that the victimizer become the owner of the chastity of the girl. The fear of losing their high prized chastity restricts the mobility of the unmarried girls. The Meitei society is such a society where the parents emphasize on educating their daughters but they need to return home before dusk if they are staying at home. If they fail to do so, they are suspected to have eloped and their purity is at stake or questioned.

"In a Meitei society, women take the back seat in every public functions like marriage, feast at home or even in death ceremonies. There is a concept called 'ahalna phamen phamgadabani' (elderly will take the main front seat for any functions) unfortunately, this ahal (elderly) does not include the elderly women" (Devi 2013: 62).When in Lai haraoba the men usually done female dress, in normal life a men is not supposed to touch or collect the women's phanek (the traditional wrapper worn by women on daily basis) from the drying clothing line.

It is thought to be degrading and below status for a male to touch the women's clothes which reflect the male chauvinistic attitudes of the society. The women may be economically liberated but she is equally chained by traditional patriarchal notions and customs. "When a woman is suppressed by the custom, the act is being prejudiced and the reason put forward is mostly on the man's fate" (Devi 2013: 63).

There is a popular proverb in Manipuri "khangba kanba Meitei chanu" (The Meitei maiden who has high tolerating power). Though the Meitei women are seen not able to tolerate any sociological evils, they are supposed to tolerate and remain silent about the one evil, female oppression and exploitation by the patriarchal society. The women themselves tend to remain silent and let herself be bounded by this fetters. They may be politically, economically religiously liberated but there is always the patriarchy in disguise in this liberations to maintain the male-female hierarchy.


Because of the various roles of women in economic, social and religious aspects of the society, the Meitei women seem to enjoy much visibility and mobility, but the fact is that their gained autonomy is within patriarchy. They collude with patriarchy to retain their power. They are the ones who carefully regulate the patriarchal notions to be within the society so that they are not excluded and marginalized from it.

Though they have the freedom to regulate their power, it is not a total freedom as compared to men. Thus the Meitei women, despite of their economic independence, they are not emancipated and empowered in the real sense. The identity of the women is interwoven collectively, but their singular identity is denied to them. "Women folk in this society have yet a long way of struggle to go to achieve the desired goal of upliftment and empowerment. Moreover when we deeply look at the status of Meitei women we feel that though liberated and omnipotent, they still need social security and more human treatments at the hands of male partners"(M.Gangte 2008: 337).

Works Cited

o Chaki-Sircar, Manjusri. (1984). Feminism in a Traditional Society: Women of Manipur Valley. New Delhi: Shakti Books
o Chanam, Urmila (2012) Available at: . Accessed on 25-03-2015

o Devi, M. Tineshwori (2013). Meitei women and Culture of Manipur. Blue Ocean Research Journals. Journal of Business Management & Social Sciences Research (JBM&SSR), Volume 2, No.1, ISSN NO: 2319-5614.
o Kshetrimayum, Otojit. (2009). Women and Shamanism in Manipur and Korea: A Comparative Study. Indian Anthropologist Association, Vol. 39, No. ½, pp. 17-34. Available at: Accessed on 24-03-2015
o M. Gangte, Priyadarshini (2008). Customary Laws of Meitei and Mizo Societies. New Delhi: Akansha Publishing House
o Misra, Tilottoma. , &Bhattacharya, Malini. (1986). Review: Feminism in a Traditional Society?: Women of Manipur Valley by Manjusri Chaki-sircar. Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 21, No. 43, pp.WS54-WS58. Available at: . Accessed on 23-03-2015
o Singh, M. Kirti. (1988). Religion and Culture of Manipur. Delhi: Manas Publication.
o Yambem, Sanamani. (Feb. 21, 1976). Nupi Lan: Manipur Womens Agitation, 1939. Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 11, No. 8, pp. 325-327+329-331. Available at: . Accessed on24-03-2015


* 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 22, 2015 and later re-published on August 30 2015.

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