Manipur has witnessed the successful role of collective women's power in the past and also in the present day. This is something, which we can celebrate. However despite their major contributions in the socio-economic and political life of the state, they are not given their due position in society. Thus there is a mismatch between women's role and status. This is indeed a matter of great concern, which we all need to ponder over.
Manipuri women's role in the socio-economic and cultural life of Manipur is significant. Manipuri women do not stay behind the veil. They also do all the buying and selling of goods in the market. Women dominate the markets in the rural and urban areas. Their unique role in the market will be known if one visits Khwairamband Bazar at the heart of Imphal. They are greatly involved in the agricultural related activities. They are artistic and creative which they prove in the field of handloom and handicrafts and dance. Their dominance in the field of sports not only in the national level but also in the international level is remarkable. One significant observation that we find today in Manipur is the rise in the number of women entrepreneurs and women self help groups. The numbers of workingwomen in different sectors are increasing.
Manipuri women have always played a very vital and active role in social movements. The role of women in these movements can be traced back to the pre British Period when Manipur was under monarchial system. But women's social movements emerged in an organized manner from the early part of the 20th century. One was in 1904, which was popularly known as the first Nupilan (women's agitation). It was against the unjust British administration. Because of their high spirit struggle, many administrative reforms were then made, and women leaders emerged in Manipuri's traditionally male-dominated sphere of business, trade and commerce. The second was the Nupilan of 1939. It was a spontaneous eruption of the suppressed energy of the exploited people. The main cause of the movement was directly related to the irregularities and malpractices in the administration of the state and the economic exploitation by the authority. In the agitation some of the women leaders and along with their sympathisers were sent to jail. All the womenfolk expressed their deep concern over the matter. They stopped business in the market and the Khwairamband Bazar remained devastated for three years. Ultimately they succeeded in bringing reforms in administration. The outbreak of women agitation was a turning point in the emergence of new trend of political and national consciousness in the state.
Meirapaibi (torch bearer) movement is a new women's movement in Manipur. It exemplifies another collective women's power in Manipur. It began in the 1980s and is still gaining momentum. The womenfolk to save people from the clutches of liquor and drugs launched the movement. This movement has become a major struggle for human rights. The role of the Meirapaibi is gaining ground due to the rapid increased in the human rights violation and other social problems like HIV/AIDS. As one of the important social institutions, Meirapaibi group has got the potential to become a very significant instrument of progressive social transformation.
Marup or cooperative movement is another movement spearheaded by women for generating income. From the early days the Manipuri society has inbuilt system of socio-economic cooperation known as Marup which continues till now successfully throughout the state. Marup, a type of self help group, is a group or association of individual with common economic needs who undertake an economic activity by participating directly in decision making and sharing the benefits on an equitable basis. It strengthens the existing income generating activity of members and also helps the members to start a new activity of members. This not only makes them economically independent but also helps their families with their financial contributions. It also acts as the financial intermediaries. The members are engaged in both service and production activities. Some of the main incomes generating activities of the groups are - Agarbati making, Papad making, Doll-making, Handloom/Handicrafts, preparation of different sweet items, fruit and vegetable preservation etc. The Marups (cooperatives) are the best vehicles for empowerment of women in Manipur. They are the major force for the economic development of the state. Another important sphere, which is in the limelight, is the political participation of women. The level of Manipuri women's political participation is not quite up to the mark. However their participation in the local self-government is a positive signal for the success of democracy at the grass root level. This will bring a major thrust in the process of rural development and women empowerment.
Manipur women have thus contributed immensely in the socio-economic transformation and upliftment of the society. The above glaring instances of collective women's power in Manipur - Nupilan, Meirapaibi and Marup movements will surely make a reader believe, that womenfolk in Manipur are accorded high status. But unfortunately the reality is somewhat the other way round. The society is still in the womb of the patriarchal system. Women have no much say in the decision making process. Their representations both in the secondary and tertiary sectors are quite minimal. The preference of male child is still prevalent. There are certain rituals where women's involvements are considered profane and restricted their participation. Women produce children; they are mothers and wives; they do the cooking, mending, sewing and washing; they take care of men and are subordinate to male authority; they are largely excluded from high status occupations and from positions of power. In terms of the reward of prestige, wealth and power attached to gender role, women almost invariably come off worst. According to the 2001 census, Manipur has a total population of 2,388,634. Out of these the numbers of males and females are 1,207,388 and 1,181,296 respectively. The literacy rate of the state is 68.87 %. For males the literacy rate is 77.87 % while for females it is 59.70 %. Thus there is a gap of 18.17 % in the male-female literacy rate, which clearly indicates the prejudices of the society towards the female child. It is also worth noting that 40.30 % of the female populations are illiterate. Here, education is crucial because it is said that if you educate a man, you educate an individual whereas if you educate a woman you are educating the entire family. One interesting fact is that the sex ratio of Manipur is much above many other Indian states. It is 978 as compared to all India ratios of 933. Though the cases of dowry deaths, rape and molestation are not so high in Manipur, there are incidents of eve-teasing and domestic violence which are symptomatic of a larger malaise where Manipuri women are not given due position in society.
There is a need to change the attitude of the society in general and men in particular. It is high time that we respect and reflect on the contributions of women not only in the socio-economic sphere but also in the fields of cultural, political and sports. Women of Manipur deserve a higher status, for the development of any society the status of women is a key factor determining progress.
*Otojit Kshetrimayum is a research scholar in the Centre for the Study of Social Systems; JNU, New Delhi. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org