The Mighty Mystic Manipuri Women

Bibinaz Thokchom *

Nupilan Ningshing Numit : Nupi Lan Observation :: 12th December 2012
Nupilan Ningshing Numit : Nupi Lan Observation on 12th December 2012 :: Pix - Jinendra Maibam

** From a speech given at 'Nupilan Day Observation at Delhi in December 2016 **

I play 'chak thongbi, keithel kabi' as a little girl
I sing 'thambal koubi leinungsi' Khamba thoibi anina' as nursery rhymes
I read 'Manipuri Nupi' with passion in my lower primary class
I hear 'ho leishabi macha' on my way to school
I want to grow more beautiful faster
I learn how to cook and clean well
I suppress my anger and treat others well
I keep my opinions to myself
I remain silent when elders and men speak
I maintain the status quo of being a girl
I preserve chastity and culture
I allow my guy to take control of me
I think i have a protective husband
I tolerate all household chores
I try to be economically self sufficient and supportive too
I pacify drunk fits of my husband sometimes
I bear abusive languages and jokes
I take some more offenses
I boil my negative emotions within
I weep in the corner
I idolise 'lingjel kanbi Linthoingambi'
I sit in 'Nisha bandi' to curb drug abusers
I become 'Meira Paibi to influence political leaders
I see somebody else instructing my husband and kids
I fiercely protect them
I strive to satisfy their demands and needs
I empower them to be men enough
I guard their prowess but never interfere in their decisions
I aspire but underneath the glass ceiling
I am a good daughter
I am a good sister
I am a good wife
I am a good daughter-in-law
I am a good mother
I am a good woman
I am Mighty Mystic Manipuri Woman

It is indeed astonishing to acknowledge the courage shown by Manipuri women against British oppression in 1904 & 1939. However, in today's time it's increasingly complicated to decipher the meaning and significance of their 'mightiness' as we attempt to identify ourselves as their descendents.

I wonder what triggered those historically unique forms of women's strong resistance against colonial subjugation in Manipur that gave rise to Nupi Lal, war by women only! What is the relevance of this ceremony in today's time? What is the purpose of having this observance in Delhi?

Who in today's generation are aware of the real issues of Nupi Lal other than simply a 'War fought by women of Manipur'? Is this to revive the resentments of colonial period? Are we still feeling colonised? By whom, why and how? Is the ceremony organised just in praise and remembrance of those proactive women? Or is it a question of present communal identity, the Mighty Manipuri women? Are we being able to live the legacy of these collective legendary efforts made by 'Emas'?

This Manipuri women's historic movement was 'unique' as women went beyond the socially predefined practices as ' just homemakers' and fought against political conspiracy that marked a change in the political regime during British colonial period. No doubt Manipuri women are mighty, but are we guiding this virtue in compassionate ways in present time?

Have there been real empowerments of women in Manipur since then, as we often claim to hold higher status than the rest of India? Well, crimes against women in Manipur have been accounted as increasing in the last ten years in local newspapers, online articles and even in National Crimes Record Beauro. And how many of such cases escape being reported?

On the contrary, It is also often recognised that Manipuri women's contribution in economic sphere is commendable and unlike any other parts of the country. Dr. Monisha Behal, chairperson, North East Network (2004) writes in an article based on research done in collaboration with NGOs and activists on women's rights in the region,
'The Ima Keithal or Mother's market also referred to as Keithal Nupi or Women's Market of Manipur is especially famous. It is one of the largest markets of the country managed exclusively by women. Stalls in this market place are handed down to a daughter or daughter-in-law and women from all strata of society manage these stalls. Wives of well to do engineers and doctors sit in the Keithal. Forums of these kind in the region have given women space for interactions and have facilitated dialogue and collective decision-making on crucial issues'

She continues however,
'While markets like the The Ima Keithel provide them an opportunity of earning, they have very little support to enhance their position as traders. No legal status is provided to these women who sell commodities in the market and they have little economic security. Thus, early this year, one of the market areas was pulled down by the police to make way for the construction of a high rise building. The women protested vehemently but they received no support from the administration as they had no official permission or legal status to run their business for the marketplace'

NEN (North East Network) study found that strong women's groups like the Meira Paibis are very much at the fore front of civil rights campaigns or agitations. However despite their strong social presence, such organizations are excluded from decision-making bodies.

According to UNICEF, Manipur has the second highest rate of domestic violence in the country. Mostly cases of domestic violence against women are not reported. Ms. Valley Rose, Editor, Aza Daily, said according to her own experience that "husbands and wives relationship must give more importance", as decision making processes starts from family itself. She explained that women must feel responsible to help other women who are the victims of violence.

As Arun Elangbam writes in his article, Between the lines: Stereotypes and prejudices,
'Since time immemorial, the life of a Manipuri woman was circumscribed by the social taboos and prejudices of a patriarchal society. The concept of an ideal woman in Manipuri mythology, itself speaks volumes. According to the deity Imoinu, an ideal woman is one who is faithful to her husband, who regards her husband as divine and worships him, who obeys orders and is submissive to the husband, who eats only when her husband has eaten and so on'.

He opens his article by saying,
'We often lose sight of the real status of Manipuri women, as we are first confronted with the legacy of Women's War, the Meira Paibi movement and women's active participation in trade and commerce and other economic activities'.

Well, on introspection, women in Manipur are neither lagging behind in making changes at time of social crisis, nor escape complicated abuses including emotional, verbal, and psychological abuses besides the more obvious physical abuses.

These lived contradictions between victimhood and mighty women raise an important question now, What happen to the sacrifices made by historical Emas that we proudly grasp once a year? If the number of women participation in decision is not sufficient, what is stopping them? Can we do something more than just hoisting monuments and yearly observance of Nupi Lal?

To me, holding such event is significant only if our society as a whole make some effort to open up to the aspirations of women without befitting them in the stereotypical bigoted conception of women as 'good homemakers' and free advices of how good women should be. On the other hand, women themselves need to understand their 'learned helplessness'(Martin Seligman's term) state of mind due to generations of fine-tuned conditioning of being a Manipuri woman. It's time to make attempts to move forward.

Moving ahead from 'learned helplessness' state doesn't necessarily connote violating your cultural values which is often seen as a threat to our vulnerable civilization, but it only adds wider spectrum of experiences and self empowerment. Some might respond, how these questions would matter for this is how the patriarchy world works across the globe. And I say, this justification is where 'the mighty' women entitlement becomes just mystic token and hypocritical construction.

Many research and non research articles have been written on the same concerned being raised here but our popular 'culture of silence' over intimate issues continues to haunt us in raising voices for women in many aspects of life. The emphasis here is given on the 'Mystical Might' of women who are swept under the rugs of domestic violence yet boldly fight against human rights violation against state oppressors.

To elucidate the dynamics of 'culture of silence', I like to highlight a very simple yet insightful social psychology lab experiment conducted on human normative conformity by an American psychologist Solomon Asch at Stanford University in 1951. This experiment required the participants to report accurate visual/perceptual judgements of 3 simple straight lines in comparison to a standard line.

Using line judgment task, experimenter put a naive participant in a room with seven confederates who had agreed in advance what their responses would be when the lines were presented. The naive participant has no knowledge that he is the only real participant in the experimental room. Each person had to state aloud which comparison line (A, B or C) was most like the standard line.

The correct answer was always obvious. However, confederates altogether deliberately gave wrong answers in 12 critical trials out of 18 trials in total. The real participant sat at the end of the row and gave his or her answer last. And this was repeated with 50 real participants. Experimenter was interested to see if the real participants would conform to the majority view even when they knew the majority view was wrong.

Experiment also had a control condition where there were no confederates, only a "real participant". Despite some experimental flaws, the results did illustrate the psychological (imagined) impact of pressure from others felt in having one's correct responses while majority disagree and found that 75% conformed under the imagined pressure of others on their judgements.

This further reminds me of the concept of pluralistic ignorance created by Floyd Allport & Danial Kartz (Social Psychologists) in 1930s describing misconception of others' values causes groups to act in ways that differ from what they believe in. Both concepts of normative social influence and pluralistic ignorance are talking about overreliance on presumptions without consulting the facts because of fear of 'violating' and possibility of subsequent 'rejection' from our sense of community belongingness. Though these are pervasive human tendencies in general, such miscalculations of others' judgements and quick unthought-of escapism from like confrontation with conflict happens more in diverse society like Manipur.

We, majority of Manipuries on retrospection, are mostly going with the flow of time and situation without attending to or questioning the intuitive signals that could successfully guide us. This is widespread in all socio-political scenarios, not only in issues related to women. Or we overreact with overwhelmingly emotional charges against any anxiety provoking situation.

Along this line, I like to also highlight the recent massive reaction on Irom Sharmila's resignation from more than 15 years of fasting to instigate ethicality in state oppressors. She was instantly brought down from 'Goddess to homeless'. Why would her decision shock people is evident in the aftermath video clips from news channels itself.

Former supporters' self imposed idolisation of one woman to sacrifice her life to bring success in our collective struggle against APSFA is a major reason of the shock. And hence our very own self claimed 'emas's (meira paibis) merciless burning of 'echa nupi Sharmila' to 'useless ash' eventhough temporarily.

But why would she be burdened to sacrifice her life to walk through the chaotic political unrest while no one even cares to give one day of their life on the same cause with such determination? Is that the myth the example set by historical mighty women? To what extent 'mighty' can be considered as virtue? These are some of the haunting questions one is to talk about historic triumph of 'Nupi Lal' in contemporary context.

Only two visions that i would like to propose here in today's context is:

1. Hatred/helplessness is a conditioned response (behaviour), we can uncondition anything that's conditioned.

2. Empathetic communication/dialogue with minimum preconceived assumptions could promise a great achievement if we are to talk about 'mystic mighty women of Manipur or with one another too.

I like to end with this quote:
'If you are neutral in situations of injustice you have taken the side of the oppressor'.
--Desmond Tutu


o Arun Irengbam, ‘Between the Lines: Stereotypes and Prejudices’ Opinion-1, Article published in Manipur Update-January Issue (Volume I Issue II, January 2000)
o Support Services to Counter Violence Against Women in Manipur A Resource Directory, 2002. Published by North East Network. Supported by UNIFEM
o Violence against women in north east India: an enquiry report, published by the north east network 2004. Supported by national commission for women, New Delhi
o Dr. Th. Binarani Devi, Women and Human Rights: Some Reflections in North East India (2014), published by International journal of English literature and Humanities.

Online articles:
o Manipur Women Rises To End Violence Against Women And Girls In State –Kangla Online, Feburary 13, 2013
o Manipur ranks 4th in domestic violence cases in the country - Eastern Mirror March 9, 2015
o Why sound legal knowledge is a must for Manipuri women - Sangai Express march 13, 2016
o Manipur: Police indifference shocks panel as abused women recount their ordeal – Asia Times may, 25, 2016.
o The Transcendental Role Of Women In Manipur History by Dr. M. C. Arunkumar & Irengbam Arun

** From a speech given at 'Nupilan Day Observation at Delhi in December 2016 ** *

* Bibinaz Thokchom wrote this article ; The writer is Assistant Lecturer, Ambedkar University, Delhi
This was forwarded to by MSAD (Manipur Students Union, Delhi) who can be contacted at msad(DOT)manipur(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was posted on May 02, 2017.

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