Editor’s note: This article was published before the coronavirus pandemic, and may not reflect the current situation on the ground.

In northeastern India, there’s a market with a difference: At Ima Keithel, only women can trade. But that’s not all—it’s also a community hub that inspires change and empowerment. Eileen McDougall talks to the Imas, or the ‘mothers of Manipur’.

Anandi Devi is holding my upturned hands in hers, looking seriously at my palms. She lets out a long sigh. “Yes, you will get married soon. You already know him. Just wait and he will come.”

The surrounding ladies, hunching on tiny wicker stools behind towering piles of shawls, cackle. Anandi runs her forefinger downwards from the crown of my head and jabs me under my breasts. “Any stomach problems you have are from thinking too much.” She erupts in laughter, clasps my head in both hands and smacks a kiss on my forehead.

Anandi Devi is one of over 4,000 women, known as Imas, who gather daily at Ima Keithel, the main market in the north-eastern state of Manipur. Situated in a remote corner of India bordering Burma/Myanmar, this market is unique: Here, men are forbidden from trading.