ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Women’s Associational Life and Public Space in the Hills of Manipur

Politics of the Informal

This article contests the view that women’s public space results from their ability to step in as peacemakers, or as part of civil society groups, during conflicts between state and non-state actors, or from the ability to hold leadership positions in electoral politics or in civil society groups. Instead, women’s public space emerges from church welfare services, reformation of inheritance laws and traditional village authorities, and women’s ability to identify problems in state, civil society, and insurgent politics while maintaining a critical distance. The informal associational lives of women are equally public and political. The informal does not merely legitimise the political role of women; it is political because it is an active, creative, and strategic public space

Studies on women, particularly on those in armed conflict zones, have shown how the woman as a victim of conflict is not the only reality. The general argument in most studies on women in South Asia (Butalia 2002; Manchanda 2001; Banerjee 2008; Orjuela 2003) is that conflict pushes women into the public sphere and enables them to carve out a space to cope with the changing realities around them. The conflict could be communal, ethnic, or an armed state–insurgent conflict. Several studies argue that in coming to terms with the realities of conflict and while performing their roles, women acquire a new identity—as “peace brokers” between conflicting parties or “human rights defenders.” Such images are understood as a public identity, rooted in a certain cultural experience. The experience of women as mothers, although considered disempowering by many, is seen as a political resource for resolving conflict and defending human rights. Studies on women in the North East, for instance on the Naga Mothers’ Association1 in Nagaland and Meira Paibis2 in Manipur (Manchanda 2001; Banerjee 2008; Das 2008; Devi 2012), take this view.

Another significant feature of such studies is their dependence on formal space. Above identity, the role of women is visualised as one that is enacted in the formal space of politics. Thus, according to the studies cited above, while the informal is understood as being mediated by culture, formal space is understood as a space for dialogue among conflicting parties, peace-building, and negotiation between civil society and the state. In conceptualising a formal space in conflict zones, civil society is not just the key term, but also a formal space for active politics. Rita Manchanda, for instance, argues that in peace-building, women’s authority consolidated in the “informal space of politics” is used to legitimise authority in the public space of “formal politics” (2001: 24). In addition to the idea that conflict results in public space for women, there is also an argument that women should be given leadership positions in decision-making bodies or the peace-building initiatives of the state and civil society.

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Updated On : 23rd Feb, 2018

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