THE STORY OF THE NEGLECTED
Exclusion of Manipuri women: A case study
By: Seram Neken
“I am on second line ART (Ante-Retroviral Treatment) now. My father died in the year 2000. Four years later, my mother left us to live with another man …………” – a tearful 15 year old girl who lost her father to AIDS eleven years back shared her ordeal in an interaction. The HIV positive girl along with three other sisters is struggling to survive today. Her elder sister of 22 years continued the narration that as her mother left them, she had to bear the responsibility of looking after her younger sisters. She takes tuition and works in an NGO to earn their living. The hapless girls do also make soft toys to supplement their income. Thus, children either orphans or living with single parents, boldly came out to reveal their concealed stories, to express desires for growing up and studying like others.
In another revelation, a twenty nine year old woman narrated “when my husband was brutally killed by the armed people during communal clashes, nothing except my two small daughters and a dilapidated hut was left at the far away abandoned village in Churachandpur district. Amidst the scare and tearful longing for months, we had to starve many a day. As an innocent housewife of 19 years, my option was only to die in the footsteps of my husband. However, I was compelled to live for I had to feed my small kids, the age of the smaller being only 6 months then. My elder daughter, 2 years by that time, helped me a lot in rearing her sister even while I was out to beg food from nearby village. I could not die, even though my fate dictated me to do so. My love for my daughters forced me to live, rather to sell my chastity as a woman. I was ready to do whatever that gave life to my children.”
The sex-worker-turned-housewife who migrated to the heart of Imphal city out of necessity is residing at rent somewhere in Imphal along with her two daughters. Her only dream is to see her siblings complete matriculation and get suitable jobs at any agency so as to survive in this highly materialistic world. She wished her present HIV status would not dash her purpose of living.
A number of excluded women have turned to sex work due to economic necessity, social unrest, communal hatred, irresponsible male behaviour, dearth of earning avenues, increasing immorality among both the male and female folks, lack of recreational room in society, absence of work culture among the males etc. These are a few clear examples of social exclusions facing the women of Manipur, the north eastern state of India bordering Myanmar.
Social exclusion is a multi-dimensional process of progressive social rupture, detaching groups and individuals from social relations and institutions, and preventing them from full participation in the normally prescribed activities of the society in which they live. As discrimination is human nature, everyone or every group everywhere feels excluded in one or the other way either mentally or physically. Human beings are excluded politically, socially, economically, religiously or ethnically from existing social entities in varied forms for one or the other reason. Social Exclusion is a new concept in Manipur, although it has been in existence among the various peoples and groups since long time back. Dissatisfaction of certain individuals or groups in matters of co-existence may be referred to as exclusion – it may be either from within or from without. Among the many facets of social exclusions prevailing in the country, the most commonly encountered and impactful in Manipur are the exclusion of women (gender-based).
When a married woman indulges in illicit extra-marital sexual relationships with other man, she is ostracized by the family, relatives, locality or society at large. However, in case the same thing happens to a man, he is accepted by the society. Even if the man brings home second wives to the family, the society does not resort to punish him. Hence, no matter whether the act committed is socially sanctioned or not, the treatment meted out to women is much more contradictory to that done to men.
The mother, a woman, who prepares food in the family, always attaches priority in feeding the husband and the sons. When the boys finish their dinner, the mother will eat with the daughters the rest of the items – no matter it is enough or not for them. Most women have the mentality to treat girls as inferior to the boys. Feeding, clothing, educating and health care for women or girls are often considered as secondary tasks as compared to those for men.
Traditionally, women in Manipur face exclusion in almost all sectors right from the domestic chores to the social platforms. Women in Manipur households are usually identified as ‘Chaga Chaba‘ (eating the unwanted over-baked rice) to ‘Aremba Chaba‘ (eating the remains) in the traditional Manipuri families. The society has wrongly modeled a picture of good women as submissive women. Traditionally, there is the male preference in every walks of life starting from expecting a new baby to decision making in the family. The society even relies on a mentally unsound man rather than on a cautious woman. When a man and woman together do something which is against the norms of society, fingers are pointed more to the woman even though both are part of the act. Women are often discriminated in decision making process although her role is considered important in it. Although women in Manipur have become more assertive nowadays, they are still under represented politically.
Most Manipuri women face hardships in earning, feeding and serving families. Many women are still living under coercion of their husbands. Women are always victims, if their husbands indulge in immoral activities. There are also men who forcibly take money from their wives to use drugs and to have drinks and also men who live with second wives out side families. More disheartening is involvement of woman in perpetrating violence against another woman. In families, localities and society at large, women themselves look down upon their own counterparts. When the son indulges in unwanted behaviour outside the family, no mother bothers seriously. But when the daughter-in-law does a tiny mistake in family, the mother-in-law scolds and even ostracise, as if the former has committed an irreparable mistake in life. Women exclusion are not wholly the perpetration of the opposite sex, women themselves depower their own folks.
Women and children infected or affected with HIV/AIDS are the most socially discriminated in Manipur society. The taboo they have to live with is traumatic and lifelong. In spite of many awareness campaigns, not much justice is done for them. Amid repeated mental or physical harassment, the society at large sees women as something not to be forgiven and not to be supported. It is only in paper that status of women in India vis a vis Manipur is penned as better off nowadays, but in reality it is different. The worst discrimination women face in Manipur is that of HIV afflicted widows whose husbands gave them the virus and died, leaving behind kids, either HIV positive or otherwise, only to be fed and groomed by the women. Meanwhile, people particularly the male folks started to raise fingers on their chastity.
An HIV affected widow in her early thirties, on condition of anonymity, revealed that many acts of oppression on her and a host of other women of her stature are committed by the opportunist male folks in the workplace, sometimes even at the health service centres, only because of their hapless status. Such types of discrimination, victimization and oppression are not uncommon in Manipur society. The mysterious killing of an HIV-positive woman, Moirangthem Ongbi Rasheshwori (33) wife of M Ibomcha of Manipur on the night of June 2 2011 is one of the most recent instances of HIV related exclusion of women in Manipur society. She was allegedly killed by her husband for keeping her HIV status concealed. In spite of various laws and policies on HIV and AIDS, there is still the atmosphere of stigmatization and discrimination against HIV infected people prevailing in Manipur. Although the AIDS awareness level, as per official records, has nearly reached cent percent, the quantum of understanding among the general people is still negligible as revealed by such sad incidents.
During the years 2012 and 2013, numerous cases of molestations, assaults, rapes and murders in Manipur. State police has considerably failed to prevent, probe and investigate such cases properly, thereby letting recurrence of the same again and again. For instance, Manipur police personnel remained silent spectators on the attempted assault on a Manipuri female actress by the insurgent leader of an organization at the fag end of 2012. State Police, as an institution for protection of citizens, lost its very purpose of existence out of fear. A few days later, a girl heading for Christmas celebrations along with her colleagues was molested at a place near the capital city by three youths. To no avail, the girl’s team had earlier sought police assistance in reaching their village. Had the police escorted the team to their destination, the unfortunate incident might have been averted. In another case, a young lady called Satyabhama Devi was found brutally killed at a paddy field in greater Imphal area during 2013.
Rape has become the most familiar word in India, particularly Manipur. It is the most naked reality in the villages as well as cities in India. Sometimes the victim is forced to keep her mouth shut by her family, at other times police don’t register the crime under the influence of the accused and then the doctor at times may manipulate the report. The ground reality is that hundreds of rape cases still go undisclosed and unregistered in Manipur.
Traditional India respected its women as much as it attaches importance on goddesses like the Durga, Parvati, Saraswati, Lakshmi, Sita, Radha etc. The status of women in India is also considered at par with their male counterparts in ancient times. Ancient Indian works such as Patanjali and Katyayana reveal that women were educated in the early Vedic period. Rigvedic verses suggest that the women married at a mature age and were probably free to select their husband. Scriptures such as Rig Veda and Upanishads mention several women sages and seers, notably Gargi and Maitreyi. Women enjoyed equal status and rights during the early Vedic period. Later on, the status of women began to decline with the Smritis and with the Islamic invasion of Babur and the Mughal Empire and later Christianity curtailing women’s freedom and rights.
The Indian woman’s position in the society further deteriorated during the medieval periodwhen Sati among some communities, child marriages and a ban on widow remarriages became part of social life among some communities in India. The Muslim conquest of the Indian subcontinent brought the Purdah practice in the Indian society. In some parts of India, the Devadasis or the temple women were sexually exploited. Polygamy was widely practised especially among Hindu Kshatriya rulers. In many Muslim families, women were restricted to Zenana areas.
Although status of women was somewhat at low points in the medieval period, many reformers were born to modern India to bring women at par with their male counterparts. In modern India today, women have adorned high offices of the country including that of the President, Prime Minister, Speaker of the Lok Sabha and Leader of the Opposition. Till recently, the Speaker and the Leader of the Opposition in Lok Sabha are women. Indira Gandhi, who served as Prime Minister of India for an aggregate period of fifteen years is the world’s longest serving woman Prime Minister. Women in India now participate in all activities such as education, sports, politics, media, art and culture, service sectors, science and technology, etc. However, women in India continue to be abused, raped and murdered.
Since the pre-historic times, women of Manipur have been regarded as courageous and patient. Manipuri women gallantly came out to fight for the nation during the two historic Nupi Lals (Women’s War) in 1904 and in 1939. In almost all agitations in the society, women of the state have been taking the leading role to fight out errant policy makers and executers. Women vigilante groups in the form of ‘Meira Paibi’(Torch Bearers) in every locality of the state have been protecting the youths from the commissions of the security personnel. In controlling drug abuse and alcoholics, women groups have been burning the midnight oil in local streets everywhere since decades back. The historic nude protest in front of the Kangla in the infamous Brutal Murder of Manorama case reflects the inherent courage and will of Manipuri women. Right from the small economic activities to earn for the family to the active participation in nation building exercises, women always take unlimited roles in Manipur.
In history, when Manipur was invaded by its neighbours, Manipuri women came out to defend their motherland. Women of Manipur, like their male counterparts, were also acquainted with the skills of warfare. Besides looking after home and bearing all the responsibilities of children, financial support to the family by doing transactions in the market etc., they also learnt the skill of self defence and offence. As for instance, the infamous queen Linthoingambi of Manipur could capture the enemy when the king was on some other expedition to war. Princess Sija Phongdalokpi, the daughter of Maharaj Gourashyam saved her husband from the clutches of the enemy.
Princess Thoibi of Moirang came riding on horseback from Kwakta to Moirang to save her prestige. During the days of Khamba Thoibi, women of Manipur participated in various athletics sports such as race, Kang Sannaba, boating and horse riding. So it is no wonder to see a Manipuri girl playing the game of Polo sitting on horseback with stick in hand in modern times. Imbibed with the spirit of sports right from the young age, they can easily adjust to any kind of sports readily. It is no wonder that Manipuri girls who are habituated to the indigenous games turn out champions in national and international sports events. Not only the games, Manipuri girls excel in numerous arts such as Ras Lila dance, Lai Haraoba dance, Thabal Chongba dance and many other tribal dances. Boxer Mary Kom won Bronze Medal in London Olympics 2012. L. Bombela represented India in London Olympics in 2012 in Archery. Th. Sanamacha Chanu participated in Sydney Olympics in 2000 and Athens Olympics in 2004 in weightlifting. L. Brojeshwori and S. Kunjarani participated in Athens Olympics 2004 in Judo and weightlifting respectively. Thus sportswomen of Manipur have exhibited their indomitable spirit to the world.
Of course, the status of women in some creamy layers of Manipuri society nowadays is considerably improved. Ladies role in important seminars, workshops and functions which was generally limited to badge-pinning of VIPs, bouquet presentations and tea distribution, has now widened to participation in discussions and deliberations with the appearance of a number of women intellectuals, journalists, social workers, politicians and responsible officials. Women obviously no longer remain backward and downtrodden. At some circles, the status of women is almost at par with the opposite sex. In families, in workplaces, government offices, colleges, schools, universities etc., women play greater role and take greater responsibility than men. In middle class families of Manipur, many men are doing domestic works like the women in order to harmoniously maintain the family. Today, both the parents are made to engage their time and energy at the maximum in upbringing children. No wonder, men begin to cook food, wash clothes, clean the floors and teach the children to assist their better halves. Roles of men and women have almost become the same in family maintenance.
From intellectuals, scholars and teachers to doctors and engineers, from journalists, columnists and news anchors to security officers and administrators, from artists and poets to sport stars, from politicians and social workers to successful entrepreneurs; there is no dearth of Manipuri women occupying responsible positions. Present day Manipur has given birth to bright ladies – it is proud that Manipuri women have entered in the Indian Administrative service, other than the state civil services and state police services. Manipur University has a number of women professors, associate professors and so on, besides a host of lecturers teaching in colleges and schools. In reputed private schools, lady teachers take a big share as compared to men counterparts. A number of Manipuri ladies are also serving as Doctors in state and outside hospitals. Young Manipuri ladies are also serving as responsible positions in multi-national companies outside the state and even abroad. There are also lady news reporters, sub-editors, news readers, anchors who are in media houses of the state. In politics and social service, we have enough number of women holding responsible positions. Manipuri women are also sitting as Judges and Magistrates, besides a number of lady advocates in various Law courts of Manipur. The picture, however, is not all rosy everywhere. There are still reports of domestic violence, coercion, rape and atrocities against women.
In spite of all the glories, Manipuri women at large still face discrimination and exclusions. Solution lies in encouraging participation and empowerment of women. Male folks should be equally empowered to enable them to swallow their pride and accept the need for equality with women. Women should be fully equipped to meet the challenges. “Martial arts should not be taken up only as a sport. I urge all women to take up martial arts so that they can defend themselves to some extent…………” This is what Boxer Olympian Mary Kom from Manipur once appealed to all women of the country in the wake of burgeoning tragic gang-rapes and murders in India in recent times. It’s indeed true that women should be fit enough – both emotionally and physically to protect themselves against male brutality. Mentality of Indian males has drastically become inferior to that of animals, as animals do not indulge in assaults and rapes of their females. Rather, animals treat their female counterparts with due regard and respect. Rampant incidents of molestation, rapes and murders of women in the country and Manipur state have been due to degrading human values and immoral psyche of the males.
Feeling the strong need to politically empower the better-halves of the community, the Constitution of India has made provision for seat reservations for women in local bodies’ elections. The ideal is that women will have their say in governance, they will advocate their needs and they will strive for their fulfillment. However, the reality is that men still take part in huge power sharing behind the women reservations theory. Powerful men are putting up their wives for the fray, so that they exercise the power behind their wives. There is need to make rational use of constitutional provisions.
Behind every successful man, there is always a woman. But, it is not said that there is a man behind every successful woman. It obviously indicates a unique sense of responsibility attached to the other half of humanity. Educating a woman is educating the whole family. Empowering women is empowering the society. However, it is disheartening that most cases of domestic violence, coercion and mishandling against women in Manipur involve one or the other woman of the family. There is often a woman involved in perpetrating violence against another woman. In families, localities and society at large, a woman often try to subdue another woman. Instead of sustaining and forgiving her gender counterpart, a woman tries to suppress and depress a woman. Women issues are perpetrated mostly by women, against women. Women themselves should take greater role in empowering themselves than the men. Until and unless women fully appreciate their own folk in the society, one half of the humanity will not get relief from atrocities and crimes.
Discrimination of HIV infected people in Manipur society is not a new story. The stigma and discrimination attached to HIV infected people are due to ignorance about the disease by the general people. When the ignorance and misconception surrounding the HIV and AIDS menace is removed, when we all realize that HIV virus is not transmitted via social gatherings, we will not discriminate infected people. When we avoid the thinking that HIV and AIDS are behaviour related ailment, we will not stigmatise the HIV infected people. In spite of having the AIDS policies at national and state levels to prohibit any kind of discrimination against HIV AIDS infected or infected people, there are still cases of exclusion of the affected.
(The writer is a freelance journalist based in Manipur)