By Soibam Haripriya
The year had started on a wrong note. The month of January saw a newspaper based in Imphal, Manipur reporting on a disastrous marriage between a meitei woman and a non-meitei man which ended with the man deserting the woman. Apart from the extremely insensitive coverage, the title
“Mayang Nupigi Phijetta Ngaoduna Lamchat kangba Mayangda mayum palluba meitei nupi awaba tare” literally translated as– “Fascinated with the dress of mayang women a meitei woman marries an immoral mayang man and has to face trouble”
With as mild a translation as possible, what the title evokes along with the content is anyone’s guess. Reams and reams of any written narrative and stereotypical view of what people broadly call northeast India, speaks about the freedom that the women from these societies are used to. That cannot be farther from the truth. Most khunai kanba movements (the movements to save the community, preserve an earlier way of life etc.) burdens women in terms of what is the ‘ideal’ expected of her. She being, in their eyes the carrier of everything, is the symbol of culture, tradition and in her action is invested all the implications of either a break-down of norms or preservation of the same. In her rest all the dangers of assimilation to a mainstream and what could be assimilation par excellence but marrying outside the community. The above newspaper article explicitly uncovers this anxiety. Desertion of women is commonplace (not to belittle the suffering involved) but for one such incident to be covered with such insensitivity as if the act of hers has lead to such a consequence (because the man happens not be a Manipuri) is of course illogical. For a newspaper to report it as such however is an altogether new level of incoherence.
A recent uploaded picture of me and my two friends on a holiday in Goa had garnered a comment bordering on threat (two were wearing knee length cotton summer dress and another (me) a cotton skirt and a halter neck top), ad verbatim it read as follows: (cut and pasted from the notification send by facebook to my gmail account)
R wrote: “if naharol happens to find u people sitting like dat, they ll shoot u in the thigh…if u wanna do like that,,,go to atlantic city,usa….n act like bitch!!!!!!!!!huha”
Naharol would be a word which through time no longer refers to what it used to earlier i.e. youth and now colloquially refers to armed youth. It seems to suggest that we have unwittingly accepted what the Indian nation state thinks of all of us –the youth from the ‘troubled’/ ‘disturbed’ place –armed and dangerous and we have accommodated it in our own language so that something as innocuous as a word that signifies youth, naharol now means armed youth. This person (R) has also unwittingly demonstrated how discourses of violence and identity movement collapse and play out in gender relations concerning particularly the women, shooting women in the thighs if they do not wear phanek is still part of the recent memory of some of us. Many an urban legend is recounted about women shot in their thighs for wearing skirts, or exposed stomach painted with tar if one wears mayang sari. The fact is that women are not allowed to exercise a choice among the many identities as she pleases. In overwhelming cases a woman is seen as representative of a certain identity and culture (or what is popularly thought of as culture) through all walks of her life. Every act of hers seem is seen as an elaboration of how well she conforms to the received stereotypes. This gives men the confidence to make statements like the above in a public forum.
Patriarchal militarism that we see today can be defined as a time when military practices and civil arena gets fused and seem like an undistinguishable mass. This includes the practices of the state as well as those who claim to be representing our interest and therefore is an authority. And in the language of both we see no space for women, thus encouraging the proliferation of such statements. By invoking the ‘naharol’ in a thinly disguised threat what is revealed unwittingly is that the state of affairs of women will remain the same regardless of change of governments or regime. In fact the present scenario has become the perfect setting to eternally defer the women’s question. Thus a political struggle armed or unarmed and the state’s approach to ‘counter’ them will continue to subjugate women.
At this juncture it is ironic but pertinent to note that the dress prescribed for women is in practice considered polluting and hence untouchable. Men are actively socialised through childhood by their families in not touching the Phanek of their sisters. The present situation of many women pursing their career or education outside the state has seen a certain way of perceiving women. These women seen as having escaped their clutches and away from familial and community bonds, thought of as unable to handle their new found freedom are therefore the new targets. One instance of such an attempt to assert their control over such women lies in the following example. On the 23rd of January 2012 a daily based in Imphal published an article which reports the press conference of KHUNKAMPAL (Khunnai Kanba Apunba Meira Paibi Lup). “Some girls from the state studying and working in Delhi and other cities of the country are found indulging in illicit affairs with non-Manipuris. If parents of the girls do not reprimand them, the Khunnai Kanba Apunba Meira Paibi Lup (KHUNKAMPAL), Thoubal, will publish names and addresses of the girls in the media along with their illicit photos” At a time when one hopes that there is a certain sensitivity towards women, the idea of a raped or a molested women as ‘having asked for it’, and that too coming from organisations feted as women’s organisation needs to be seriously questioned. The article in mention ends with the following statements:
When the association investigated the cases of molestation and raping of Manipuri girls in the major cities of India especially in Delhi, it was found that those Manipuri girls who wear rags in the name of fashion by imitating western culture invited the dangers lurking in such cities.
Parents are not looking after their children after they send them in these cities. The association is not disclosing the identities of the girls as a chance to come to the right path. If parents concerned fail to call out their children and appear to the office of KHUNKAMPAL to discuss the matter, they will disclose their identities to the public through media, she warned.
I am quoting two different set of statements and provisionally from two different contexts to state the idea of ownership and control over women seem more enhanced at times of conflict. The insular ways of looking at women does not seem to change with one’s location. The comment from someone who is residing in New Delhi and seemingly having access to the same education, and exposure does not in any way seem to lead to a way of looking at women different from the organisations’ which explicitly threaten women as evident in the latter quoted statements.
The above three statements shows the very fact that such vocabulary can be used, printed in newspapers and are a part of our daily language. We are being continuously told to postpone our anxieties about such practices on the pretext that these are troubling times of conflicts and therefore there are other pressing issues. The idea is that there will be a better time to talk about women’s status in our society; that at present the time is not right; that there will be an utopic time when all such questions will be relevant, that a utopia will emerge from the present dystopic hypermasculine military struggles, subjugation and repression and we will finally call back the ‘women question’ from the state of being eternally postponed to somewhere closer. We do not, however, see such a world materialising anytime soon.
Until a time comes when all conflict would end and the peripheral issues of the subjugation in language could be questioned control is the keyword.
(Soibam Haripriya is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi)