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.
Highly coveted in the local communities, a pitch in Ima Keithel is usually passed down through the female members of a family. The main market is housed in three concrete buildings in Imphal, Manipur’s capital city.
Thousands more informal vendors crowd the surrounding area, invading the lanes and traffic-jammed roads with their fresh produce. Everything, from locally produced salt to squirming eels, is available here, and most of the items are produced right here in Manipur.
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When I arrive on a sunny winter morning, many Imas are still unpacking their wares, but most are already positioned behind their stalls. As I circle the market taking photographs, the jokes start coming. “Are you going to buy something?” Many are concerned about my bare arms—they’re wrapped in a kaleidoscope of shawls and blankets.
As a result, from 1980 until today, most of Manipur has been subject to the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act which gives the Indian Army extra powers with the aim of maintaining public order. In practice, it gives them the ability to arrest or kill without the fear of prosecution.
Over such human rights abuses, the women in Manipur have been at the forefront of protests. Most famously in 2004, nine Manipuri women protested naked outside an Indian Army base in central Imphal following the rape and murder of a local woman by army forces. The base later relocated.
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Following my palm-reading, Anandi excitedly tells me about the culture of resistance embedded in the market. “During a protest, we close all our stalls, and make a human chain around the market, blocking the roads,” she says. “If we don’t agree with something, we strike.”
Female resistance over perceived injustices in Manipur dates to the time of British rule, at least. In the 1930s, in what’s known as the Nupi Lan, or Women’s War, the Imas protested the excessive exports of local rice to British battalions in other territories.
The British responded by trying to sell the market buildings. When the Imas refused to relent, the British deployed the military against the unarmed women, but eventually reversed the policy.
And while the state’s rulers may change, the Imas’ protests continue. Kunjamani recounts how in 2003 the local government tried to replace Ima Keithel with a modern shopping mall. “There was a huge tussle between us and the government!” she says. “For three months, we organized 24-hour sit-ins and didn’t do any business.”
Casually, she adds how the government used tear gas to disperse them, injuring many. The plan was shelved—a clear indication of the level of influence the Imas have obtained in Manipuri society—all the more notable in a country where most women have little influence over societal affairs.
Indeed, the rows of matriarchs sitting in Ima Keithel appear an intimidating force. From all my conversations with them, I get the overwhelming sense that the market is more than a job: It’s a crucial social institution and a way of life for thousands of women. Here, news is shared, ideas are debated, protests shaped, financial credit disbursed, all with a sprinkle of humor.
Before I leave the market, I return for a second plate of addictive singju. Y Memcha tells me about the time she got really sick and had to go to Delhi for treatment. “I was so upset at the thought of not being able to come here anymore,” she says. “I can’t imagine life without it.”
Before I bid her goodbye, I ask to take her photo. “Make me famous!” she quips, and bursts out laughing.