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The free women of the East

Kamal Narang | Updated on April 21, 2021

A market run by women tells the inspiring story of female entrepreneurship in the North East

Northeast India is famous not just for its beautiful landscapes and natural resources including flora and fauna but also for its empowered women. On a recent trip to Imphal, the capital city of Manipur, I found the strong presence of women everywhere. But nowhere was it more visible than at the world famous Ima Keithel (Mother’s Market), located in the heart of the city. A complex consisting of three large buildings, the historic market is split into two sections on either side of the road. The market is run exclusively by the women of Imphal, a practice in place since the 16th century, local people say.

The word Ima means mother. According to researchers, the female-only workforce emerged due to a practice called Lallup-Kaba. This was an ancient forced labour system in Manipur under which Meitei men had to go away to remote regions — to cultivate land or to often fight wars. This meant that women had to stay back, taking care of their own lands and families. Local commercial needs led to the birth of the IMA Keithel.

Women here are traditionally dressed and their wares include everything from daily essentials to fancy items. They also sell meat and paan — products usually sold by men in the rest of the country. The market has a turnover of about ₹50 crore and is managed by a union that also gives the women loans, if required. The union maintains a custom of permitting only married, divorced or widowed women to set up stalls.

Women entrepreneurs aren’t an unusual sight in neighbouring Nagaland’s state capital Kohima either. Women of all age groups can be found running small and big businesses. These womenfolk run motor garages, traditional handloom handicrafts and sell meat with equal ease. Women are visible in public spaces and cross difficult hilly terrains with ease. The inspiring sight brings Maya Angelou’s quote to mind: “.. each time a woman stands up for herself she stands up for all women.”

Published on April 16, 2021

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