Amidst the rubble of several destroyed market cultures stands Ima Keithel -- the women’s market -- a testimony to the respect and power the gender commands in Manipur
When 83-year-old Angoubi names the price of the product she is selling, the customer pays for it. No haggling. If she feels like it, she may even add a few spoonfuls extra. After all, 40 years of selling wares and she can judge her customers from a distance. She knows that a genuine customer will always come back to her spot in the Ima Keithel. “Because I sell good stuff,” she asserts.
Sitting cross legged on the raised platform in Ima Keithel, Angoubi is one of the 10,000 women who sell textiles, spices, vegetables, fish, food grains and other essential items in the heart of Imphal. Touted as one of the biggest women’s markets on the continent Ima Keithel or mother’s market operates from three premises. Not too long ago, the market used to be only tin sheds. “It was very difficult. Whenever it rained, all our goods used to get wet and there was a mad rush to keep things from getting destroyed in the storm,” remembers Roma Sarankham. The mother of five has been selling cloth at the market for nine years now and is hoping to save enough money so that her youngest son can appear for competitive exams.
The 51-year-old does not see herself retiring at all. “I don’t like staying at home, I like coming here. I have many friends and it is fun to do this job,” she says.
She recounts the time when the market was threatened with demolition. All the women came together to protest and reclaimed their rights.
Ima keithel was saved, but several other keithels in the north east did not share the same fate.
The indigenous women’s market or keithel used to be a central feature of the Manipuri women’s independence and the control they exerted on the economic, cultural and social spheres of daily life. The entire chain of food production and consumption used to be under the command of women who also dictated the terms of trade.
As the market place is seen as an important power centre, the British repeatedly tried to bring these women’s markets under their control. The well known Nupi Lan or wars of Manipur, where women confronted the British soldiers with their implements is testimony to the courage and bravery of the women folk.
But after Manipur’s merger with India and the subsequent introduction of the market economy, the traditional market system was slowly eroded and replaced with the patriarchal kind of market place, dominated by men. Keithels steadily reduced in number and prominence. As these keithels used to be in central locations in the cities, they became the target of land sharks who mushroomed in the aftermath of the real estate boom.
From amidst the rubble of several destroyed market cultures, stands the Ima Keithel as a testimony of the respect and power that women in Manipur command even today, when compared to the rest of India.