Phenomenal Women
The market may be the only one of its kind in the world
Photo Courtesy: Dirklaureyssens (Wikipedia)

Imphal’s iconic Ima Market – possibly the world’s only market where all the traders are women – has been damaged in the earthquake that shook the north-eastern state in the early hours of Monday morning.

Manipuri activist Binalakshmi Nepram tweeted earlier this morning and said that the market had been “severely damaged” in the earthquake of 6.7 magnitude which struck in Manipur’s Tamenglong district, which is 29 km west of Imphal. At least five people have died and over 40 people injured in the quake.

The Ima Market (mother’s market) is also called the Khwairamband Bazar or the Nupi Keithel (women’s market), according to freelance journalist and human rights activist Anjuman Ara Begum. The market is said to have around 4,000 traders – all of whom are women – who sell everything from food items to household article and handicrafts. A detailed picture story can be found on Your Story.

Women outside the damaged Khwairamband Bazar in Imphal. Photo Courtesy: Binalakshmi Nepram, Twitter.

Earlier, the traders conducted business from sheds, but now the Imphal Muncipal Council has built four concrete structures within which the whole market is located, according to North-East News Portal

According to information collected by Anjuman, the origins of the market are unknown. Possibly the first recorded mention of the women’s market was in the Gazeteer of Manipur 1786, which said that all the markets were conducted by the women in open-air markets held in the mornings, she says.

According to a BBC report, one reason why the market only has women could be that Manipuri men were largely engaged in fighting wars against the Chinese and Burmese and hence, women had to look after the families.

Anjuman says in her blog womennes.blog.spot.in in October 2010 that the market is not just a place for economic transactions but is also a place where the traders have taken political stands.

“In between 1948-52, a proposal came from some local rich persons in connivance with the petty alien trades to demolish the existing shed. But women were not outnumbered and were successful in retaining it. Centre for Organisation Research & Education (CORE), Manipur, India in a report published in 2005 pointed out that ‘these Keithel as not just hubs of commerce, but also of information exchange and socio-political processes’. During lunch or break times women discuss socio political issues and this flow of information keep them aware and empowered. It won’t be wrong to say that the Nupi Lan or women’s upraising against the British in 1904 and 1939 were organized and conceived from the market places. Thus women shopkeepers here are not simply business women but are leading examples of leadership and revolutionist.”

Anjuman also says that in more recent times the Imphal Municipal Council’s decision to construct buildings for the three traditional sections within the market has brought to the fore the tensions between various social and ethnic groups.

She says: “Starting from nomenclature of the three complexes, allotment of shops, feeling of discrimination etc will haunt the celebration for many women. Several indegenous bodies have objected to the nomenclature of the three complexes terming it non-representative of the culture and history of the land.”

While the Imphal valley is dominated by the Meitei community, the hill districts of Manipur are inhabited by around 30 tribal communities.

Recently the social tension between the people of the hills and the Meitei-dominated government of Manipur flared up when the state government tried to pass three bills that would change land equations in the state.

Read: A crystal clear explanation of why Manipur is witnessing violence

The market itself, Anjuman says, has traders belonging to various social groups who are demanding reservations in the market. There is also a separate category of women created by the region’s particular historical animosity with the Indian government: widows of men allegedly killed in encounters by the Indian Army.

Anjuman syas: “Shops are allotted to ‘licensed’ vendors while some women said that an average of 300 single women and widows, mostly the widows whose husbands are killed in fake encounters join the market to earn their livelihood. Most of these women have no license. In such a situation there is risk that these women will lose their livelihood. Several bodies have demanded special allotment or reservation for their community women.”