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Politics of Dominance in Meitei Society

Melody Kshetrimayum (melody.ksh2001@gmail.com) teaches at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

The play of domination and subordination between men and women in segregated spaces conveys a “flexible” patriarchal social structure, which does not impose complete male dominance or complete subordination of women but permits cross-gender role play by women in select spheres.

In traditional, patriarchal societies, the culturally constructed role for women places them in the domestic sphere and prevents them from undertaking social, economic, and political activities designated for men. The inegalitarian socio-economic structures of patriarchy do not permit cross-gender role play. The conception of women’s role as the duty to marry, bear children, and be devoted to their husbands, remains the traditional ideal of a patriarchal society. Across all traditional societies, gender roles assigned to women are more or less similar with prevalent social beliefs and mores dictating the dos and don’ts for men and women and allocating gender roles. However, in some traditional societies, such as the Japanese and Slovenian among others, women have started undertaking non-traditional roles lately (Welter et al 2006; Sugimoto 2010). Today, there is increased participation by women in social, economic, and political activities and workplaces in male-dominated society while continuing to perform traditional roles at home and this changing position can no longer be ignored.

Gender Roles among the Meiteis

The Meitei society in Manipur is uniquely organised in terms of gender. Women undertake non-traditional roles and duties that are traditionally designated for men in other societies. Its male and female members play contrasting roles. The contrasting attitudes, expressions, authoritative behaviours, and interactions articulated as “masculine” and “feminine” in relation to the gender structure peculiar to the Meiteis, at a given time and place, shape the everyday life of the society.

This article reveals the complex dominant–subordinate relationship between men and women in Meitei society. It examines the “collective decision-making” role of women in a visibly patriarchal society. It attempts to unravel the interplay between structures that provide the base of such complex relationships. The omnipresence of women in different institutions playing dominant roles and the network that is established between these institutions, is examined.

By and large, the play of patriarchy in Meitei society is more pronounced within the household. The eldest male of the family is the prime authority and plays a central role in familial and societal aspects. Conduct of the family members is controlled by “his paternalistic gaze” while the dutiful wife disseminates his ideas to their children and of course, to the neighbours to guard their “behaviour” with him.

In colloquial Manipuri,leikai (locality) represents a reciprocal relationship shared by families living in a neighbourhood, rooted in trust and cooperation. Life in the family is dictated by the social conventions of the leikai and life in a leikai is the manifestation of the family culture of the Meiteis. Roles performed by individuals as spouses, parents and children, in the family are conveyed by the norms and beliefs of the leikai. The leikai believes that a married woman should devote her life to her husband, sacrificing her own desires for his growth and improvement in the family and society. Similarly, they believe that it is a man’s duty to control his wife and children as the head of the family. These roles are manifested in the leikai activities witnessed during ceremonial and social events. Men manage and arrange events while women perform housekeeping activities; men of the leikai administer traditional institutions and direct leikai activities. Thus, the leikai acts as a catalyst in promoting patriarchy in Meitei society.

The leikai is, in turn, controlled by their respective singlup, which is again a male-controlled space. Etymologically, singlup means “firewood association,” since members of this body would contribute firewood in the past, to make up the pyre for funeral. It is a unique local administrative body in which each and every Meitei household in a leikai is its member and its main purpose is to help deceased members’ families in observing funeral rituals. The response of the singlup to the everyday concerns of the Meiteis and its strategies in resolving conflicts make up the core content. In the past, the village headman, appointed by the king, was regarded as the head of the singlup. He was responsible to meet the socio-economic needs of the locality during death, sickness, starvation, drought, and so on. He also took charges for the development of the locality, such as construction of roads, digging wells and tanks, and protection of the forest. However, the most significant function of the singlup was to adjudicate cases for petty civil and criminal cases in the neighbourhood. It held the legitimacy to give punishment or expel a person from the neighbourhood, depending on the seriousness of the crime committed. These threefold functions of the singlup continue to date. Thus, one can see that this all-male institution virtually controls the conduct of the entire neighbourhood. One singlup office-bearer expressed:

We elect only men as our office-bearers from the leikai. It is the tradition and we do not want to change it. We can handle any issue of the leikai with ease. Let women look after the household and not interfere in the administration.

The interference from women in leikai administration is not considered appropriate and the decisions of the leikai are to be taken by men alone. Besides, interference by women is basically read as the “incapability” of men. This notion keeps the tradition unchanging and the role of women in administration unresponsive.

Breaking Male Dominance

Ima keithel (mother’s market), an all-women market, surpasses any male-run business in Manipur. The trade is completely owned by women and hence, the name ima. This market trades all kinds of commodities ranging from textile- and agriculture-based products to fermented items. The traditional and contemporary textile commodities, fermented food and beverage items, and other traditional snacks sold in the market are manufactured by women in both rural and urban communities of Manipur. The supply and demand is fuelled by the economic role played by women as manufacturers, sales women, and customers. Irrespective of the class they come from, these women hold a strong position in the trade. The phenomenal growth of this market remains consistent with the growing power of women vendors. Shared values of “unity, trust and belongingness” amongst the women vendors make it possible to protect the integrity of the market. The social network in the market is strong and can be evidenced in the sitting patterns, pricing, selling, crowding, and bargaining processes therein. The organised clustering of imas selling similar items prevents interference and confusion. Some seats are inherited from women relatives who were previously imas in this market. Thus, the network ensures freedom from “male invasion” of the market.

However, this all-women space has been under crisis since the government destroyed the older structure. Women had shown their democratic, collective will against the government and agitated for long, adversely affecting livelihoods in the entire state. It was evident that it is these women who provide the main source of livelihood in a visibly patriarchal society. The oneness and organisation of these women in tackling issues of the market is the reason that the keithels continue to be a quintessential institution for trade in Manipur.

Apart from the ima market, another phenomenal movement that breaks male dominance in Meitei society is themeira paibi. It was awarded the Times of India Social Impact Awards: Lifetime Contribution in 2013 (Sunil 2013). It is a civilian movement fighting state atrocities and human rights violations, drug abuse, crimes against women, and the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA). Meira paibi was established when the men of Meitei society became victims of violence and compulsive consumption of liquor and drugs in the early 1970s.

Every leikai has its own unit of meira paibi. Each and every married woman (as a meira paibi) moves out of her house at any time of the day and night, and reacts to injustice and anti-social activity spontaneously. This moving out of the household at any time is not resisted by the men. Women had been instrumental in various protests in the history of Manipur and had successfully brought about political transformation. Notable among these are the infamous and widespread civil disobedience movement (also known as the June uprising movement) in 2001, and the naked protest (against the rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama) in 2004 (that had caused the withdrawal of a ceasefire extension from Manipur and removal of the Assam Rifles from the Kangla Fort) to protect the integrity of Manipur.

The common element in these two institutions is women’s voluntary mass participation. Participating or engaging in such public extravagance (impacting the time given to household activities), in itself posits female dominance rather than simply empowerment. Men do not interrupt or intervene in the market equilibrium or spontaneous acts of social activism limited within these institutions and hence, can be termed as institutionalised female dominance.

Chaotic Politics of Dominance

The conception of female roles in Meitei society suppresses women and favours male domination within the household. Parents and in-laws play an important role in inculcating such subordinated notions of womanhood. In natal homes, daughters are advised to learn feminine roles from their mothers. The submissive role of women begins on the wedding day itself by following the practice of having the leftover food of her husband. The placing of the husband’s bed, calledfamjao, to the right side (important side) of the room, and the practices of assuming that the wife (and all women) are “untouchable and impure” while menstruating, the wife cannot share food with her husband or cannot have food till her husband finishes his meal, the husband cannot fetch the wife’sphanek (traditional bottom wear) from the clothes line, are social realities that shape marital relationships between husband and wife, and men and women in general, in Meitei society. When male members project patriarchal attitudes, females repress themselves.

Conversely, these same women control their men when they play the role of meira paibi. They tackle men’s adverse actions, protect them from the armed forces, and guard the entire leikai in the case of adversities. The calm and dutiful women suddenly transform into a body of such force that even armed men can only watch them with curiosity and anxiety. On the one hand, one could see disturbing scenes of traffic policemen kicking and throwing away vegetables sold on the pavements around the ima keithels, during the government clampdown. Sadly, the respect for imas ends within the boundary of the ima keithel. One could also see inebriated armed men hurling obscene abuses at women in public places while other bystanders paid no heed.

Meitei women’s protective and instrumental roles as seen in meira paibi can be viewed as retaliations against their controlled and suppressed conditions in the family and society. When men are under the influence of alcohol and drugs, women become the victim of domestic violence. When police personnel undertake unlawful killings of men, it is the widows who struggle to survive the trauma and agony. When men engage in sexual abuse, it is women who suffer from psychological trauma and social stigma. Although women play a pivotal social and economic role in the family and society, their contribution is not acknowledged but rather exploited by men. The anger on account of this exploitation and victimisation results in retaliation in the form of protests and movements. Such aggression of women in fighting injustice was also seen during thenupilan (women’s war or agitation) of 1904 and 1939 against the British government for imposing new taxes, extortion of forced labour, and the exporting of rice at a time of famine.

While male dominance pervades various aspects of everyday life, female dominance is confined within feminised institutions. Men are given preference in ceremonial and religious rituals, social functions and traditional festivities. Having said this, other stakeholders that are extending a favourable space to women in Meitei society aremarup (a self-generated informal institution that is organised by groups of people to gain access to credit, accumulate savings, and reciprocate in times of crisis) and leikai clubs (informal neighbourhood association). Although women need to occupy more space in leikai clubs, they are becoming the “face” of marup through which they seek financial security, social support, and entrepreneurship skills. Thus, complex intersections of dominance can be observed in Meitei society.

The Balancing Act

The play of domination and subordination of men and women occupying their own space conveys a “flexible” patriarchal social structure which does not impose complete male dominance or complete subordination of women but permit cross-gender role play by women in some spheres. This play is the resultant phenomenon of historical, social and political incidents. It certainly favours women to expand and enhance their work frontiers while domestic responsibilities shouldered by men remain limited. Such dichotomous roles help the women maintain a harmonious and congenial relationship with men. This politics of dominance prevents Meitei society from becoming a rigid patriarchal society that is totally unkind or unsympathetic to women.

Note

1 Meiteis are the majority ethnic group of Manipur constituting about 60% of the total population of the state.

References

Sugimoto, Yoshio (2010):An Introduction to Japanese Society, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sunil, Oinam (2013): “TOI Social Impact Awards: Lifetime Contribution-Meira Paibi,”Times of India, 10 January, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/TOI-Social-Impact-Awards-Lifeti....

Welter, Friederike, David Smallbone and Nina Isakova (2006): “Introduction,”Enterprising Women in Transition Economies, Friederike Welter, David Smallbone and Nina Isakova (eds), Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing Company, pp 3–13.

Updated On : 1st Feb, 2018

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