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The Suitable Boy

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By: Gautamjit Thokchom
In the past week, there was uproar on social media over a comment made by a popular film actress that she had no qualms about state girls (referred to as Meitei or Manipuri girls hereafter) marrying non-Manipuris. The dominating male voice was on full display in the comment sections on Facebook. A relatively small but equally vociferous section put up a brave fight. The battle moved beyond the controversy and turned into a deeper conversation on the rights and status of women in Manipur and their significance in the demography and politics of the state. Here is a sample of some of the hard hitting questions, and for a better understanding of the issue, we will try to answer (or, touch upon certain aspects of) some of these questions. Why are we particularly concerned about Manipuri girls marrying out of the community to a foreigner or a non-Manipuri? Is it the hurt inflicted on male ego or the intangible but real danger to our future as a small ethnic group the cause of all our overreaction? Why is it less of a problem when the groom is a foreigner or an ST?
We are, without a doubt, a conservative society. Proponents of this designation are mostly the elderly population with strict views on marriage alliances – the familiar checklist of yek, community, language and deeper concerns about bloodline and domesticity. However, with millennials and an educated section joining the conservative bandwagon, the opposition is framing this particular issue as a men-driven tirade against women’s individual freedom. Putting the blame entirely on men discounts the fact that in Manipuri society, both parents have more or less equal say in the marital choices of their children. Like it or not, the mother is an accomplice in the patriarchal treatment of her daughter. She is complicit with her husband in making sure the daughter marries a ‘groom from the same community’ in order to save the ‘face of the family.’ When every family does this, it becomes a norm of a larger section and in due course, a rule of the entire society. This silent complicity brings us to the question of autonomy and status of women in our society.
A Manipuri woman enjoys a fair amount of autonomy in economic affairs. Restrictions are more strictly placed on her dress and conduct with other men. Having learned and experienced the enormous liberty women enjoy in other societies, a new generation of Manipuri women want more than what they are getting now. This gap between the level of freedom they want and how much Manipuri society is willing to give is at the heart of this ongoing debate. The traditionalist arguments of morality and decency are not convincing anymore. They lack forward thinking as well as global currency. Women of today want to take care of their own affairs just like men do theirs. The idea is not about going separate ways, but a realization of a society in which men and women are equal stakeholders. What’s most infuriating though is the moral high ground from which men shape these debates. It’s an undeniable fact that men have never seriously questioned the morality (and the double standard) of unilaterally laying down rules for women because the status quo thus created makes them kings of their families and decision makers of the society. History is on women’s side to prove this point. One thing men do is heaping praise on successful and daring women. Nupi Lal and the role of Meira Paibis are enthused examples of the high stature of women in Manipuri society. In the present context, they should be chilling reminders of the inaction of men and a testament to women’s ability to assert themselves and rise to the occasion.
Women are a symbol of purity and beauty (not to objectify, but for the purpose of this discussion). Since ancient times, men took it upon themselves the responsibility to protect them. It’s not hard to imagine then, the insecurity and self-deprecation shared by men whether consciously or more likely subconsciously at this new reality of ‘competent’ and ‘naive’ girls of the soil choosing outsiders over them. There are frequent reports of state girls lured by money, falling into the traps of foreigners. The existence of this repressed male anger sounds like a far-fetched conjecture, but is not entirely impossible given the complexity of gender psychology. One reason often given to justify this imperative to marry within the community is the diminishing demographic strength of Manipur. While it’s true that a handful Meitei bride marrying outsiders would hardly have any impact on the size of our population, one should see the outcry as a manifestation of the betrayal felt by Manipuris when women of our own are cozying up to the same people we are at odds against. The state is under a strong demographic pressure from non-Manipuris due to immigration and competition for resources. Issues ranging from AFSPA to racial discrimination at Indian cities to an uncertainty over the state’s territorial integrity are constant sources of enmity with the much stronger Indian state. This strained relationship has planted a strong sense of distrust of non-Manipuris in the Manipuri psyche. Thus, marriage, which is symbolic of complete acceptance and trust, has come to acquire a political significance. Far removed from these larger than life concerns, the real problem though, that every family faces when someone marries out of the community is the inevitable clash of cultures. Both families have to make lots of adjustments and tons of sacrifice to iron out the differences in etiquette, food habits, social obligations, interests and priorities. Add to this the distance of the daughters after marriage and the headache for travel and communication, no wonder Manipuri parents don’t take such prospects kindly! In conclusion, the prevailing opinion seems to be that girls should marry within the community. The conflict between the progressive ideas of freedom of women and the conservative ethos and cultural dissonance of the old guard happens in every small ethnic group at our position. It’s a toxic culture to target women to vent out our collective anger and even hinging our hope on them to solve our ethnic crisis. The debate should be about creating a liberating environment for them to make informed and wise choices for themselves and the community.
(The writer is in medical profession. He did his MBBS at JIPMER, Puducherry)

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Imphal Times is a daily English newspaper published in Imphal and is registered with Registrar of the Newspapers for India with Regd. No MANENG/2013/51092


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