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Ima Keithel: The Women Market of Manipur, India

20 Sep,2022 03:28 PM, by: Anushthatri Sharma
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Since time immemorial, women have played an important role in shaping and building society, which in turn have moulded states and nations. The level of advancement of the entire society can be measured through the status of women, as all social and economic inequalities find their reflection in the status of women. This status thus has become an indicator of the development of every country that took on a global scale. The only way to win the struggle against poverty, hunger, and demographic problems is through the fullest involvement of women as participants and beneficiaries of development. Hence, the empowerment of women enabling them to enjoy higher status becomes an important development goal. Let’s have a look at one such empowered society in the state of Manipur.

ImaKeithel is the only market of its kind in India. It’s a unique example of women's empowerment and their self-sufficient social-economic role in society in the Indian state of Manipur. Probably the largest market of its kind in the world, ImaKeithel is famous for being a market solely run by women. The market located in the capital city of Imphal is a vibrant and colourful arena with an amalgamation of products that attract tourists and locals alike. It is an amazing sight to see local women dressed in traditional phaneks (long skirts tightly draped around the waist) and innaphis (shoulder drapes very similar to shawls) setting up their shops and stalls every morning, as they get ready to welcome scores of customers. The market is truly a house of attraction for those who enjoy shopping. From fresh fruits, vegetables, and spices to textiles, handicrafts, etc., the shops in the bustling market cater to all the needs of locals and tourists. The word ‘Ima’ means mother while ‘Keithel’ means market and there are around 5,000 imas running stalls on both sides of the road at the ImaKeithel. Located at the heart of Imphal, the 600-year-old market has been an important trading hub of the state and continues to draw a large number of buyers on a daily basis. Women who run this market here not only sell goods but over the years have knitted a close bond with each other as they regularly share their day-to-day struggles while also conversing and opinionating upon social, economic, and political affairs. Women in Manipur enjoy a unique status in society. Women’s empowerment is visible through the high economic participation rate of women as well as physically manifested activities carried out in the economic sphere as evidenced in the Imakeithel. A distinct feature of Manipuri women is their predominance participation in economic activity be it in family run business, farming, skill-based work, or as seen in streets, roads, lanes, and by-lanes of Manipur, where one can see women working passionately; selling fruits, vegetables, fish, clothes, etc.

The prominent economic role of women has its historical roots in the lallup system of Manipur, where the men folk were obliged to serve the king at times of need, for instance, as state forces in times of war, or by rendering free labor in road construction, digging and clearing riverbeds, or any other service for the king, for which they were not paid, and this left the women to fend for themselves in their husband’s or men folks’ prolonged absence. They had to shoulder immense economic and social responsibility in the absence of their husbands. They took up farming, tending cattle, weaving, blacksmithing, fishing, agriculture, kitchen gardening, etc.

 In Manipur, the workforce participation rate is quite high for women, as compared to the rest of India. According to the Union Budget 2022, the overall workforce participation rate of women in India is 20.3%( about 29% in Manipur), which is among the lowest in the world.

This can explain the improved status of Manipuri women be it increased literacy rate, sex ratio, strong political force, entrepreneurship skills, multiple works including sociocultural-political-economic activities, and skilled weavers. However, there is a further need to bring inclusive development across India to improve the economic status of women and their work participation by offering them better opportunities and financial credit.  

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author's. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The Critical Script or its editor.

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