Ima Keithel: A Symbol of Women’s Empowerment in Manipur

by Urmila Chanam
While the rest of India is fighting for respect and dignity of women, ‘Ima Keithel’ the all women market in Manipur symbolizes women’s empowerment. In this northeastern extreme of India, women enjoy a unique status in their homes, in the workplace and in the community, a trend found very rarely in the rest of the India. Every time I come to Ima Keithel, I find a new way of looking at these women.

Through Ima Keithel, women in Manipur have carried the economic responsibility of trade and commerce for centuries, endured political and military upheavals, maintained the indigenous way of life, and remained economic pillars of their families and community. This undying spirit of powerful local women holds them together in solidarity for a better future.

Pushpa Lairikyengbam Ongbi, 60, is the mother of three. She sells different varieties of laddoos - a popular Indian sweet generally made of flour, sugar, milk and made into bite size balls - some made of rice flour laloo, some made of beaten rice kabok. Her space in the market is a family legacy that has been passed down from her mother-in-law who occupied this position until she turned 80. Pushpa’s husband tells of the benefits reaped by the family, and how his mother supported the entire family on her income from selling edibles for 35 years. The children went to school, clothes were bought for them, food was abundant, the children were married off, and the familial house was constructed - all from this income.

After her mother-in-law died, Pushpa says she was not in a position to take over the business right away. She had small children and domestic responsibilities. So during this period spanning over five years, her mother sold edibles from the space and paid monthly rent to Pushpa’s husband.

Serial number 1, seat in shade number 13, has been lucky for Pushpa in the two years she has taken over from her mother as a vendor. “I am very happy here. I don’t want to stay at home doing nothing anymore, after having tasted this way of life,” she beams.

When asked how many years she plans to sit in Ima Keithel, Pushpa refuses to come up with a number. “As long as I can, and my health permits.” Pushpa is valued by her husband and her children, all of whom look up to her as a pillar of strength.

Nungshitombi Laishram, 45, earns Rs.4000 (USD$ 73) per month on average, which she uses prudently to run her entire household of five. Her three children are still in school. With these earnings she puts food on the table and pays for her children’s education, clothing, medical care, and social expenses. She sells indigenous fresh vegetables that include a special kind of chilli umorok, bamboo shoot soibum, lemon grass nakuppi, and ginger.

Nungshitombi became the breadwinner for her family at 18 when she married her husband, a farmer. She smiles as she recalls, “I have been here for a long time. Twenty-seven years have just gone like that. In return I have found a stable livelihood, support that comes from belonging to this big women’s association of Ima Keithel, and confidence that I will be able to complete my children’s education successfully.”

Pushpa and Nungshitombi are not the only women, of the nearly 4000 women vendors at Ima Keithel, who form the economic backbone of their families. The term ‘market’ is in fact highly inadequate to describe what Ima Keithel is and the role it plays in the local economy, culture, and society. The economics of such marketing is not just about the women who sell their goods, but it is also about the men and women who produce these commodities in communities stretching for hundreds of miles around the markets. In that sense, Ima Keithel is the site for the affirmation of women’s control over the production, the use, and the management of consumption patterns.

Ima Keithel can be traced back to the 1580’s and has been under constant threat of displacement and relocation since the British occupancy of Manipur in 1891. The British were successful in controlling trade and commerce in Manipur by reducing the trading women to petty vendors. On at least two occasions, first in 1904 and next in 1939, the women rose against the exploitative colonial British policies and asserted themselves in what later came to be known as Nupi Lal or the ‘War of the Women’.

It is most important to remember that the market houses poor women in livelihood pursuits in an environment where everything else seems to have broken down - from the economy of the state, to law and order. Manipur has been under the tight grip of armed conflict for decades, and years of strain have crippled its economy so much that the State Government of Manipur has not been able to pay salaries to its employees for months. Manipur receives power for just three hours a day, and unemployment is the gravest threat facing the youth, next to drug addiction and HIV/AIDS.

“It’s almost like we have seen our good men being wiped away by either militancy or HIV,” says one woman vendor, leaving after selling vegetables the whole day. When asked what her husband does to earn an income, she says, “He is unemployed and helpless...” and adds, “…that leaves just me to do something to bring food on our plates. For the next few years till my son grows up I see myself doing this.” The woman gets on a public jeep that will take her to her village in Nambol, some 25 km away from Imphal city. Some women come from villages even further beyond.

These women should not be mistaken for petty vendors as classified by municipal authorities. They have been known traditionally to manage trade and commerce and are the producers of many goods - including textiles, food, and earthenware - for consumption, local exchange, and the larger regional markets. They are active conservers of biodiversity (agro, wetland and forest), both through their farming practices, which nurture it, and also through their active promotion of the local cultures. The market is a society, an institution, a way of life.

Throughout history, a favoured tactic has been to displace and relocate Ima Keithel - be it by the bankers and advisory to the ancient chiefs and their councils, the British colonists, or the recent demolition of the Keithel by the State Government to make way for a modern supermarket.

In 2003, the government of Manipur planned to demolish Ima Keithel. The women’s association, the Khwairamband Keithel Nupi Marup, appealed to the government to preserve this institution and not replace it with a modern supermarket. They sat undeterred for the right to preserve their heritage, even under the threat of the use of force by the armed forces and government in 2004. In April 2005 the state government demolished the old Ima Keithel to build a modern structure, but owing to the protest of women of this market, shelved the original plan of housing a supermarket. Today this new structure is the new face of old Ima Keithel and one of the biggest tourism destinations of Manipur.

Today Ima Keithel still faces an uncertain future. The systematic invasions of new products and technologies constantly seek to replace local production and eliminate local economy. If retail chains are introduced in Manipur the indigenous markets like Ima Keithel may not be able to compete. The loss will be all of ours, firstly for the women, then for the farmers and producers of the goods stretching over hundreds of miles around this market; and lastly for the people of Manipur, for the loss of an indigenous way of life and our history.

The enemy is different now and the dynamics may change altogether tomorrow, but the women of Ima Keithel march forward. Together, in each other, they find the strength to carry on and remain the torch bearers of their society.

Urmila Chanam is a journalist from the small state of Manipur in north-eastern India. She is a columnist for the leading English Daily in Manipur, the Sangai Express. In addition to The WIP, she contributes to SUN Magazine, Chilli Breeze, and Global Press Institute, along with the journals World Pulse and Voices for Human Rights. Her dream is to be the 'Voice of the Voiceless.'

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One comment on “Ima Keithel: A Symbol of Women’s Empowerment in Manipur
  1. knowledge112005 says:

    Dear Urmila
    It gave me great pleasure to read about women market ‘Ima Keithel’ which has helped the families to be independent by empowering the women of the house, even though Manipur has suffered so much armed conflicts, militancy and economic hardship over the years.
    What is wrong with the Manipuri Government, instead of providing support for such a unique market, how can they even plan to eradicate such indigenous way of life associated with the history of Manipur.
    I wish the members of Ima Keithel success and hope that they find ways to compete in this modern era with the support of other Manipur state residents.

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