Beyond the image

For many Southasians, the image they hold of Manipuri women is one of strength, empowerment and activism. Northeast India in general is often depicted as a 'utopia' of matriarchal societies, and Manipur as home to a population of women who are in particular control. The activities of the Meira Paibi women's organisations, which remain at the vanguard of protesting atrocities by the armed forces in the state, is one striking and well-publicised example. Likewise, there is Irom Sharmila Chanu, who has been on an indefinite fast for the past six and a half years demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. The Ima Keithel, a market run entirely by women, has also been a source of inspiration for many.

Those who seek to explain this state of heightened liberation point to the state's history, noting how lallup, or compulsory military service for men in the Manipuri rulers' army during the 18th and 19th centuries, meant that the responsibilities of agriculture, trade and even governance fell on female shoulders. The explanation of the Manipuri miracle is even sought in mythology, where many important local deities are goddesses.

These achievements notwithstanding, Manipur's women in fact suffer under a harsh patriarchal culture. Especially within the household, they are bound by deeply restrictive mores. And, if domestic violence in any indicator, the position of women in Manipuri society is dismally low. According to the recently released 2005-06 National Family Health Survey, nearly 44 percent of married Manipuri women aged 15-49 reported spousal abuse. This is high, but not out of line with the rest of the Northeast: Tripura at 44.1 percent, and Assam at 39.6 percent. More significant, the fact that only 8.3 percent of women in Manipur had reported being beaten by their husbands in the previous National Family Health Survey, in 1999, perhaps indicates a greater awareness, one that is encouraging women to go public with their stories after generations of suffering in silence. In the process, the exaggerations regarding woman-power in the state are being challenged.

Manipuris who seek to explain the high incidence of domestic violence point to several possible factors: poverty and unemployment, societal male chauvinism, alcoholism and drug abuse, protracted armed conflict, and the tradition of dowry. But alcohol is what is seen as a primary cause. It was in protest of rampant violence against women that Manipuri women originally started what was called the Nashabandi, or prohibition, movement during the mid-1970s. It was the Nashabandi groups that eventually evolved into the Meira Paibi women's vigilante organisations, whose main mission today is to protect civilians against excesses committed by the army.

In large part in response to the demands of these women's organisations, Manipur was declared a dry state in 1991. This, however, does not seem to have reduced either alcoholism or spousal abuse. "For some time now we have stopped our anti-liquor activities," explains Ibemhal, a Nashabandi worker in Thoubal District. "This happened after we started facing physical assaults and threats to our lives from the bootleggers, and when our own men failed to cooperate."

Domestic violence, meanwhile, continues at an alarming incidence, going largely unremarked upon. The National Family Health Survey indicates that at least four out of ten married women 50 years old or younger are abused by their husbands. But from 2001 to 2006, however, only 58 cases of domestic violence were reported to the Crime Branch of the Manipur police in Imphal, a bureau that serves an urban population of over 200,000.

Painful numbers
Even more worrying is that Manipuri women have shown a tendency to justify such assaults. Earlier this year, this writer surveyed 50 married women (from the Meitei, Muslim, Kuki and Naga communities), asking when wife-beating would be considered 'acceptable'. Of this group, 44 percent said that such behaviour was acceptable if a woman were to go out without telling her husband; 76 percent said so if the wife neglected the house or children. Another 54 percent justified beating if a wife argued with her husband; 52 percent, if she showed disrespect towards her in-laws. Nearly a quarter of respondents said that a husband had the right to beat his wife if she was a poor cook.

~ Thingnam Anjulika Samom is a freelance journalist based in Imphal.
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Himal Southasian