When it comes to gender equality, Manipur is a land of contradiction. In many ways Manipuri women are much more liberated. Traditionally they have been economically independent and as in any agrarian society, they participated in the same occupations as their men folks. This is except in matters of soldiering, and there are in fact explanations that traditionally women in the state are vitally involved economic activities and in keeping the family hearth burning precisely because at times of wars, able bodied men automatically were conscripted into the state’s fighting forces. Since wars and raids were frequent, it became essential for the women to fill in and do the needful to keep the economy of the place standing. That the tradition of women shouldering the major part of the responsibility of taking care of family needs has hung on even after the advent of the modern economy is a failure of the tradition from growing with the demands of the time thus making itself anachronistic and redundant. What is also true is, while a traditional woman in Manipur would be much more independent and liberated than a traditional woman in most other parts of sub-continental India, the same is hardly true of the modern woman. Manipur, and indeed the entire northeast would fall far behind in this. Just considering the example of women leaders who emerge on the political horizon would be evidence. Again, the power of women in Manipur in the traditional sense is witnessed in the Meira Paibi movement, the most recent climactic demonstration of this power was on July 15, 2004 at the Kangla Gate in the now famous naked protest by 15 women. In many ways Irom Sharmila is another demonstration of this same phenomenon.
It is in the transition of this traditional strength to the modern incarnation of the Manipuri woman that the curtain has fallen. For evidence, look at the Manipur State Legislative Assembly. In the current one, there is only one woman MLA, and this too almost by default. Had the lady not been the wife of the chief minister, Okram Ibobi, it is unlikely she would have made it. In this sense, it can almost be said the lone seat occupied by a lady was won by the chief minister and thus it is his second seat in the Assembly. In other words, there is a woman in the Assembly only in form but in spirit it is a man’s seat, making it not altogether incorrect to say that in actuality there is no independent woman representative in the current Assembly. Compare this with traditionally conservative states like Rajasthan, Bengal, Tamil Nadu etc. These states have seen towering women leaders who even rose to the position of chief ministers. Is such a situation thinkable in Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram, Assam, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh or for that matter Meghalaya, where women are supposed to have always occupied an especially powerful place in a matrilineal social structure? Something is just not right and this calls for right advocacy and intervention.
The trouble perhaps is also about a hangover from a patriarchal feudal past and the inability of the modern to overcome it. The values of this patriarchal order are ingrained deep in the society and its proponents incidentally are not always men. Women are equally responsible for its perpetration. This latter point is in two ways. One, in the manner Jean Paul Sartre explains in his introduction to Frantz Fanon’s “Wretched of the Earth” where he says through generations of oppression the oppressed begins to believe in his or her own degradation. She then identifies her own detested self image in others in similar predicament as her. Thus, it is often the mother-in-law and the sister-in-law who are the meanest and cruellest to the daughter-in-law. The other way this social inequality is perpetrated is by an internalised self interest of the feminine gender. This internalisation has become almost an intuition. Evidence of this is seen practically every day whenever a woman thinks it fit to project herself as the weaker sex, and as if by rights guaranteed by this status, insists on jumping long queues outside bank counters and ATM machines. True the patriarchal order is also zealously guarded by men who like to see their women as cultural show pieces, dressed and groomed the way they want, and behaving as helpless dependents they can lord over as chivalrous defenders. All these hypocrisy on the part of the feminine gender and the hegemonic stupidity of the strutting males in Manipur must first change before a radical transformation capable of bringing about a parity of power in the relationship between the two genders can come about.