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Meitei Women in Collectives: Gender, Roles and Potentials

By- Ningthoujam Irina Devi

Introduction:
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-à-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-à-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.
The women in the kin group or sharing same space in one leikai will bear the responsibilities of helping (which may or may not be reciprocal) following the custom of potyeng (monetary help) and potpang (help in kind/object of use)during rites of passage. Even physical/labour services required for the organization of any religious ceremonies of a leikai members like Ushop (community feasts), Shwasti Puja (birth ritual), Shradh (death ritual), etc are provided by different age group of female members in a leikai. The women in a leikai form and engage themselves in Marup(literally means friendship), which also denotes an association of familiar individuals or friends or community members which function for mutual help and benefit guided by norms of solidarity. The concepts of social capital itself underlines that each has knowledge and perceive each other as someone to be trusted. Therefore, individuals join the marup assocation assuming that members will perform their responsibilities without any written rules but on shared understanding and consensus. Anthropologist Manjusri Chaki-Sircar says in Manipur “feminism does not entail a subculture or anti-male attitude but exists as a moral support to the male, an integral part of the social system”. This view has given more emphasis on the dynamics and potential of the collective as the social capital. The everyday engagement in “teamwork”, “working together”, “support for each other”,  “co-operation between everyone”, etc gradually help in accumulating social capital among the Meitei women. This social capital is accumulated through ‘contacts and group memberships which, through the accumulation of exchanges, obligations and shared identities, provide actual or potential support and access to valued resources. While Michael Fukuyama says virtually all forms of traditional culture-social groups like tribes, clans, village associations, religious sects, etc. are based on shared norms and uses these norms to achieve cooperative ends.

Extended Solidarity: Leikai and Beyond
Changing socio-political landscape in Manipur with the advent of British administration and its end in 1947 had a profound influence on the subsequence course of women’s networks based on solidarity. May it be the historic Nupi Lal (women’s agitations) of 1904 and 1939, running of the Ima Keithel (mothers’/women’s market), activities of the Meira Paibi (torch bearing women activists since the 1980s), or the organization of Nupi Marup (women’s credit rotary group), etc. they are all the resultant impact of the social capital Meitei women have acquired in Manipur’s history. Now, the nature of solidarity networks extends beyond the leikai. The women had to venture out of their domestic spheres not only for sustaining their families but also to extend solidarity based on the traditional network system mentioned earlier.
The LallupKaba or the system of forced labour was introduced by the Metei monarch. Under this system, every male member aged between sixteen and sixty were forced to work for ten days in every forty days without remuneration. It the first Nupi Lal in 1904, women came out in large numbers to protest against the order of the British administration that Meitei men should rebuild colonial offices destroyed during an attack. The women reacted by saying that it was nothing less than the imposition of forced labour. The agitation against the colonial order was successful and the British were forced to abandon the Lallup Kaba system. In the second Nupi Lal in 1939, women in the valley again launched another movement against colonial system of exporting rice as it led to food shortage. The immediate response of the women was a demand to halt the transportation of rice to be stored for export in godowns. Around four thousand women marched to the British administration office and demanded that the export of rice, which was the staple food of the Manipuris, be banned. The next day, thousands of women stormed the British political office and threatened to destroy the rice mills. The king and the colonial administration had to concede to the demands of the women.
During both the agitations mentioned above launched by Meitei women, the Ima Keithel (mothers’/women’s market) in the heart of Manipur’s capital Imphal which is one of the biggest markets in Asia controlled and run exclusively by women, became the centre of not only economic activities but site for organisation and resistance. The two women’s movements provide an excellent example of the collective force of women in Manipur. It gave them a voice over the issues of the society and captured its own political space in public domain. In a way, “the radius of trust” increased from domestic level network to the market level. All groups embodying social capital have a certain radius of trust, that is, the circle of people among whom co-operative norms are operative.
If a group’s social capital produces positive externalities, the radius of trust can be larger than the group itself. Such group norms and behaviour got past through generations. Within an overall patrilineal framework, women were able to develop a power base. This has helped them also to possess a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition. The network inculcates a willingness to remain in the group and builds their individual capacities. Social capital was, therefore generated through all these cooperative behaviour manifested at different levels on many occasions.
Women, Conflict and Issues
The Government of India promulgated the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 (AFSPA) in Manipur. This act is a legacy of colonial administration. Since 1980s, with the rise of armed-conflicts, Manipur witnessed the emergence of Meira Paibi (torch bearing women activists). This is a collective response against a draconian law like the AFSPA which allows the armed forces to detain an individual without warrant and shoot on suspicion. The effort has been aimed at protecting individuals from harassments, torture, rapes and killings. Over the years, the Act has become the symbol of oppression, an object of hate and an instrument of discrimination and highhandedness. The Act, which was meant to put an end to armed insurrection, has not served its purpose. From few insurgent groups operating in Manipur when the Act was imposed, now there are more than a dozen insurgent group operating in this small state. With 408 deaths in the year 2007, Manipur remains the second most conflict ridden State in the Northeast, behind Assam with 437 fatalities. The nude protest staged by women in front of Kangla fort, Imphal in 2004 was the testimony against the atrocities and the blatant misuse of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act by security personnel.  It questioned the legitimacy of the security forces, local administration, and the Government of India over their existence and the rule of law in Manipur. The Jeevan Reddy Committee in 2005 recommended the repeal of the Act. There are highly committed and motivated Meira Paibi activists maintaining midnight vigils in most leikai so that no members of the locality are harmed. Based on day-to-day experience, they have even innovated ways of emergency communication in times of trouble to pass the information to every members of the leikai. Whenever an untoward incident occur, the Meira Paibi activists would sound an alarm by clanging stones on metal electric power lines/telephone wire posts. All these activities are voluntary and work on the solidarity norms of a community. Every family in a generally leikai has a women Meira Paibi representative. Armed conflict in the region demand political negotiation and resolution. This means capacity building of the individual members of the society, particularly women, is of paramount importance. With the increased rate of violence and death in the state, women come out spontaneously, stage sit-in protests in every leikai and condemn acts of brutality.
An estimated amount of Rs 20 to 25 crores are lost every day in the state due to strikes, blockades and shutdowns called by different groups across the state. The basic requirements of human security in local environment and strategic consideration for further development of human growth have been sidelined due to the nature of conflict in Manipur. Besides these, the flooding of cheap consumer goods from bigger national economies and international borders with its unequal market competition has degraded the local economy of handicraft and handloom based industries. No public undertaking industries or any big scale private industry and factory exists in Manipur with the only existence of small-scale handloom based industries. There are 5,48,704 (as on 31st March 2006) unemployed youths in the state. The economic survey report 2007-2008 says that the problem of unemployment continues to be a matter of serious concern to the state economy.
Amidst violent socio-political atmosphere, Meitei women have taken refuge in formal or informal organisations based on existent solidarity network. To ease economic hardships, most of the marups mentioned above in their current avatar maintain social and economic security - includes reciprocal gift giving, exchange labour patterns, monetary help, neighbouring assistance in birth, marriage, illness, death, and other personal crisis. The marup is based on already existing primary relationships like kinship based on neighbourhood residency pattern. Marup organised for larger monetary benefits may cover a period of three to four years and the sustainability of this period are all based on the norms of trust and quantum of membership. Marup helps to form a strong self-help group among the individuals. When the institution is based on financial aspect, it is similar to the rotating credit association as explained by Putnam in Making Democracy Work to lay the basis for very strong norms of reciprocity and trust and to forge an especially sturdy template for future cooperation. This solidarity behaviour is dictated by the culture, and that means by “inherited ethic habits and reciprocal moral obligations”. For this reason, behaviour and choices are not rational because they are a consequence of norms that they have not freely chosen. In fact, community members passively internalise these “cultural capital”.
Towards Empowerment and Decision Making
With the rise in female literacy rate from a mere 0.04 in 1901 to 47.60 in 1991, there are many new women’s groups who have taken multiplicity of roles in Meitei society. Many of these groups have modern organizational structure and work beyond the confines of leikai or kinship. They are not governed by traditional norms of collectivity but are bounded by the rules of the organization.  However, their cultural values for solidarity and commitments are at the same level with that of the other traditional and informal groups. There are various formal self-help groups across the state. The most noteworthy of all these organizations is the Macha leima founded in 1969. Macha Leima, roughly translated as “precious daughters” have taken many roles in highlighting not only women’s issues but also the overall socio-political context under which issues they function. The organisation has successfully run schools and had also launched micro-credit finance system in the state. In recent times, Macha Leima has taken up the initiative to spread awareness of the benefits of the “Right to information Act, 2005” among the women of Manipur. The law was enacted by the Parliament of India to give the people access to records of Central and State governments in India. Activities of such groups like the Macha Leima, while banking on the values of solidarity, have infused the rigour of formal structures in order to incorporate modern education and governance concepts. This has helped the organisation grow effectively and also walk the easy rope between tradition and modernity. Here, it is pertinent to note that the concepts and principles behind Macha Leima precede the new global NGOization process. The effective growth of organisations like the Macha Leima is possible because of its core foundation – the community. The significance of community driven development is that it allows the active participation of defined communities in at least some aspect of the project design and implementation. While participation occurs at any level, the importance is the incorporation of local knowledge into the project decision-making process. This gives ‘voice’, ‘control’ and ‘choice’ under certain conditions to the people.
In Manipur too, the existence of community based organisations with a stock of social capital, have gained their ‘voice’ and are making their choice. Despite a highly politically charged and volatile environment, Manipur still has many community-based women’s organizations. The tremendous potentials of the Meitei women have been demonstrated in the ways how they have reacted to given situations arising out of socio-political issues. Because of their peculiar positions, these potentials have been distinctively displayed at the public realm confining themselves just to the “power to resist” and also to some extent control. The tremendous empowering potentials exist within the bigger unquestioned peritrichal structure. When it comes to political decision making, the women rarely figure in the picture. Having taken cognizance of the existence and the vast potentials that the Meitei women have, there are some issues that needs to be highlighted. Does the acquisition of a vast social capital by Meitei women necessarily translate into at the least the idea of empowerment? By empowerment here, I am referring to multi-pronged social processes by the women themselves that helps them gain control over their own lives. This process entails not only the acquisition of social capital but also the power for its effective use in a democratic order that balances gender inequality. The process of acquiring immense capital implies the power or the capacity to decide and implement for use in their own lives, their communities and in their society. For this, the women should have the power to decide and define what is important to them within or beyond the patriarchal social set up they belong to. The power to preserve solidarity and the power to resist as shown by the women in the history of Manipur have not translated into the power to decide in the body-politics of the Meitei society beginning from the domestic to the public realm. The durability of the informal solidarity based networks may experience ruptures and disjuncture due to the impact of the new global order. It is here that there is a need to rethink on how do the Meitei women sustain the collective solidarity that binds them without the traditional forms of “socializing” the girl child. Modern education system as a tool for empowerment does not follow the traditional pattern of socialization and therefore has a definitive impact on how young girls grow up into women. There is a need for a creative fusion between tradition and modernity to make not only the social capital of Meitei women circulate but also have some purchasing power to decide. This fusion can be further enhanced by capturing the potentials of being able to stand collectively on ethical or moral grounds. It may be recalled that within the patriarchal Meitei society, women’s collective voice always had a social sanction despite rigid social mores. And the auto-mechanism that has existed so far has not brought any damage or hindrance to the forms of solidarity as social capital. The solidarity based on informal relationship supported by traditional institutions has always backed the Meitei women. It is time they also take part in formal decision-making process and governance through both a declarative and deliberative policy by the government and the society at large.

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