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India’s progressive egalitarian society
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(Credit: Ben McKechnie)
Ima Keithel – or Mother’s Market – is the largest female-only-run market in Asia. No men own businesses here, and it has always been this way.
(Credit: Ben McKechnie)

(Credit: Ben McKechnie)

A market like none other

In a far-flung corner of north-east India, just under 65km from the Myanmar border, is an extraordinary market. Located in the city of Imphal, Ima Keithel – or Mother’s Market – is run exclusively by at least 4,000 women. No men own businesses here, and it has always been this way. It is the largest female only-run market in Asia, and perhaps the world.

But that’s far from the most unique thing about Ima Keithel. Led by the women of the market – the imas – it is a simmering hub of social and political activism, and the centre of such activities for women in the Indian state of Manipur. To understand why, knowing a little of this region’s past, both ancient and recent, is crucial.

(Credit: Ben McKechnie)

(Credit: Ben McKechnie)

Here, women rule

Surrounded by lush green hills, the valleys of Manipur once made up the independent Kangleipak Kingdom, which survived from 33AD until the 19th Century when it became a princely state of British India. Manipuri men were trained as fearsome warriors from a young age and deployed to the kingdom’s perimeters for defence, leaving the women to run all other aspects of daily life.

This formed the basis for Manipur’s traditionally egalitarian society, which according to the imas, still very much exists.

(Credit: Ben McKechnie)

(Credit: Ben McKechnie)

A welcoming place

For travellers, Ima Keithel is atmospheric, friendly and engaging – a true human wonder of the world. Those interested in visiting to meet the imas in person will be warmly welcomed. One lady grasped my hand, stared into my eyes and said in the local Meitei language a heartfelt sentence that translated as: “I am so happy that you have come all this way. Thank you, thank you.”

It’s easy to leave with a positive impression, especially after having engaged with the imas on a deeper level and listening to the many stories they have (and genuinely want) to tell.

(Credit: Ben McKechnie)

(Credit: Ben McKechnie)

Good company

The strength of the imas is immediately noticeable in their mannerisms and body language; sitting cross-legged on raised platforms, they lean forward with elbows resting on thighs supporting strong shoulders. They seek out and maintain eye contact with passers-by and are not shy of a joke. Few men are to be seen.

The market comprises three large two-storey buildings with traditional Manipuri-style tapered roofs, and foodstuffs and fabrics are the main wares. A relatively common sight is groups playing the board game Ludo, the imas’ favourite game to unwind with during the market’s quieter hours.

(Credit: Ben McKechnie)

(Credit: Ben McKechnie)

A progressive market

Sitting among neatly stacked piles of handmade scarves and sarongs, Thabatombi Chantham (pictured) recalls the market’s earliest incarnation in the 16th Century. Before currency was introduced to Manipur, the market was based on a barter system of trade. Sacks of rice might be swapped for fresh or fermented fish, cooking utensils and fabrics for an extravagant Manipuri wedding.

In 2003, the state government announced plans to construct a modern shopping centre on the current site of Ima Keithel. This led to one of the market’s first notable instances of activism of the new century, with the imas holding sit-in protests overnight that ultimately persuaded the government to abolish its plans.

(Credit: Ben McKechnie)

(Credit: Ben McKechnie)

Just outside the market

Outside the three market buildings sit hundreds of other women. They hawk fruits, vegetables, herbs and the ubiquitous fermented small fish that are a staple of Manipuri cuisine. Mixed with king chillies and mashed vegetables to make the fiery chutney eromba, the fish are the source of a pungent odour that lingers in the narrow alleys nearby.

These women outside the market do not possess a licence for a space to sell inside Ima Keithel, and therefore must exercise caution and keep one eye peeled for the law. “The police rarely bother to make arrests or issue fines,” Chantham said. “Instead, they’ll just toss the fresh produce into the street.”

I spot a pile of fresh-looking apples in the gutter, evidence perhaps of a recent altercation.

(Credit: Ben McKechnie)

(Credit: Ben McKechnie)

Commanding respect

Chantham agrees to set up a meeting with the group of imas who head the main organisation that leads and represents the market’s 4,000 women, Khwairamband Nuri Keithel, of which she herself is an executive member.

Upstairs in one of the buildings, these imas gather in their office. Outside the door lies a young man taking a nap on a piece of cardboard, seeking respite from the day’s baking heat. One of the women, Mangolnganbi Tongbram (third from left), stands over him and orders him to wake up and vacate the area. He leaps up, apologises profusely with head bowed and scarpers. It is unmistakably a display of deference to a respected figure.

(Credit: Ben McKechnie)

(Credit: Ben McKechnie)

A strong voice

Shanti Kshetrimayum, 60 (pictured on the right), has a formidable, room-filling presence. The mother of four is the president of the aforementioned organisation. “I was elected democratically to represent the 4,000 women of the market. Why? Because of my strong voice,” she said. This is palpable throughout her interviews; when Kshetrimayum speaks, everyone in the room listens.

Through her, it becomes clear that the imas do not draw a distinction between themselves, the market, and Manipur as a whole. An issue of importance to the state is one that they will fight for. When asked about the most significant action the imas have taken in living memory, she told a story that has been paraphrased as follows.

In 1958, to quell secessionist and revolutionary forces in India’s restive north-east, the Indian government passed the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA). This granted special powers to the region’s security force, the Assam Rifles paramilitary organisation, which has frequently been accused of abusing such powers, interpreting the AFSPA as a ‘shoot to kill’ licence. Until 2004, the 17th battalion of the Assam Rifles was housed in the very heart of Imphal at Kangla Fort, an ancient palace of the Kangleipak Kingdom. Just a few hundred metres from the market, this was an inauspicious location and somewhere ordinary citizens could not enter.

(Credit: Ben McKechnie)

(Credit: Ben McKechnie)

A decision to rise up

As she recounts the story, the room falls silent and some eyes well up at the details that follow. In 2004, a young Manipuri woman was abducted from her home and taken to the base at Kangla. She stood accused of having relations with a revolutionary (or of being a revolutionary herself, depending on the account), for which she was gang-raped, shot at close range in her genitals and riddled with bullets. As word spread of the murder, some of the imas – outraged at the inhumanity and impunity of the soldiers – decided to rise up.

This was not the first time something of this nature had happened, but it had to be the last. In what became an infamous protest throughout India, 12 women from the market marched to Kangla Fort and stood completely naked outside carrying a banner that read ‘INDIAN ARMY RAPE US’.

(Credit: Ben McKechnie)

(Credit: Ben McKechnie)

You desire the flesh of women? Come, take our flesh and satisfy yourselves! This inhuman act is for criminals in the jungle! Indian Army, leave Kangla and leave Manipur now!” they shouted, according to Ambrabati Thingbaijam (pictured).

(Credit: Ben McKechnie)

(Credit: Ben McKechnie)

A symbolic victory

The nude protest was not in vain, and the 17th Assam Rifles vacated their base in Imphal four months later and handed Kangla Fort and its grounds over to the people. Although they remained in the rest of Manipur, the imas had successfully driven them from the centre of the state capital, a symbolic victory.

“The imas of the market have the power of unity; when 4,000 of us stand together, we are protected and our collective voice is strong,” said Kshetrimayum.

(Credit: Ben McKechnie)

(Credit: Ben McKechnie)

The story of one seller

Rani Thingujam, 56 (pictured), is the chief secretary of Khwairamband Nuri Keithel and sells fish at the market. Thingujam started working at the market when she was 30 years old, not long after she saw her husband for the last time.

“One evening, six days after I had given birth to my youngest son, my husband arrived at the house with a young woman,” she said. Her husband claimed to have married the woman and began introducing her to Thingujam, their other children and his parents as his second wife. All through that evening and into the night, the walls of the house reverberated with the sounds of a furious fight. Eventually her husband stormed out, new wife in tow, and Thingujam remained at his parents’ house for 40 days with her children. He never returned.

(Credit: Ben McKechnie)

(Credit: Ben McKechnie)

A new lease on life

“In those early days, I thought about killing myself again and again,” Thingujam said. “I wanted to drink poison and not wake up.”

Eventually choosing to live, Thingujam spoke to her father, who agreed to take her and the children in. Shortly after, hardened by her experiences, she gained a licence to sell at Ima Keithel and began working to support her family. Thingujam devoted herself to the market, not only rising to her current position as secretary but becoming one of its most prominent activists.

(Credit: Ben McKechnie)

(Credit: Ben McKechnie)

Going to parliament

In January 2019, Thingujam and two other women flew to New Delhi. A large-scale protest against a government bill had taken place at the market, during which the imas had locked themselves inside for five days. The situation had escalated when the police used tear gas to disperse them, and at least eight imas were injured. Now, Thingujam was taking the fight directly to the Indian Parliament.

The Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) was targeted at assisting minority citizens of neighbouring countries, such as Hindus, Christians and Buddhists from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, to move to India and later acquire citizenship. Protesters in Manipur and Assam in India’s north-east feared their states would unfairly have to absorb a mass influx of people.

“We burned an effigy of Modi!” yelped Thingujam delightedly, referring to the current Prime Minister of India. She considers the central government in New Delhi to largely ignore the voices of the people of Manipur, making decisions from afar that are not in the best interests of the state. She brought a message: Manipur may be 2,400km away, but you will not ignore us.

(Credit: Ben McKechnie)

(Credit: Ben McKechnie)

A fight for all women

The majority of women at Ima Keithel are from the Meitei ethnic group, the original inhabitants of Manipur. Meitei culture is alive and prominent in Imphal and throughout the surrounding valley.

However, while it is true that the CAB would have mostly affected the Meitei because they live in the valley (the hill tribes would not see the same influx), the imas do not only fight for issues affecting Meitei, but for all women in India, as demonstrated by the Kangla Fort incident.

(Credit: Ben McKechnie)

(Credit: Ben McKechnie)

India’s protectresses

At Kangla Fort, young women laugh and pose for group photos, arms around each other on manicured lawns. Such scenes, unimaginable prior to 2004 when it was occupied by the Assam Rifles, are possible thanks to the women of Ima Keithel. Here, Kshetrimayum’s parting words resonate stronger than anywhere else in the city.

“We will continue to fight for the state. The imas will always be the protectors of Manipur – not only for the Meitei, but for everyone who lives here,” Kshetrimayum said.

Why We Rule is a BBC Travel series that follows powerful women who have pioneered the path to female sovereignty and are truly rulers of their worlds.