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The Transcendental Role Of Women In Manipur History

Dr. M. C. Arunkumar & Irengbam Arun

2. Near-Complete Absence of Female Disadvantage (F.D.) In Manipur

A shrewd observer, Captain E. W. Dun, 1 wrote about the Manipuri women in his book: "They are very industrious. The most of the work of the country, except the heaviest, is performed by them. It would be difficult to find a more industrious woman in India than the Manipuri." Even if some explanation would seem apt for the above sweeping generalization, that had been advanced by another Britisher, Mrs. Ethel St. C. Grimwood: "The Manipuris do not shut up their women, as is the custom in most parts of India, and they are much more enlightened and intelligent in consequence." 2

Of late, such gender admiration had come interestingly from sociologists and ethnologists. Their accounting would certainly attribute towards a general lack of disadvantages (F.D.) vis-a-vis male counterparts. However much one may wish, such FD can not be factorized for those valiant souls, for want of corresponding data, for such a precise estimation of the then FD in modern terms as the proportional difference between Infant (male and female child) Mortality Rates (IMR) or the expectancy of a female child to live beyond 5 years against a male child; etc.

In strict theory the coefficient of FD can perhaps be schematically measured as the proportionate difference between female and male child mortality or more accurately as:

Coefficient of FD = (Q5f _ Q5m ) x 100/Q5f ;
where Q5f and Q5m denote respectively female and male child mortality
(or expectancy to live beyond 5 years).

Yet an inference clearly holds out that FD in then society used to be negligible, if not zero. This appears a bold hypothesis in view of the fact that the female literacy then used to be nil or negligible. Literacy concept is herein introduced because current empirical studies have shown a marked negative correlation between FD and female literacy. To quote such a realistic finding: `Female literacy, being the highest for Imphal East and Imphal West districts, would result in negative FD (or positive Female Advantage: FA).' For more on a districtwise FD-estimation see Note: 5 below: Negative Values of Estimated Female Disadvantage.

It remains to be seen if such a bold hypothesis can be proved significant, and if so, at which level and in which socioeconomic setting. And herein the unique role of Manipur women traders need be spelt out by way of making up for the shortfall in female literacy. That they embody not at all an inferior status in family or society can be discerned from their very crucial contribution to the volume of economic activities, and yet holding a distinctive position in social, religious and political life of the Leikai or village. James Johnstone 3 in the year 1896 has given an unforgettable epithet to his own conviction of the working life of Manipuri feminism:

"Women are the great traders of Manipur and many walk miles in the mornings and buy things in the more distant bazars to sell again in the capital in the evening. It is not etiquette for men too often to frequent the Bazars".

Almost a decade afterwards (1908) yet another eminent administrator, T. C. Hodson 4 left behind a similar account which cannot be overlooked:

"The women hold a high and free position in Manipur, all the internal trade and exchange of the produce of the country being managed by them.... The women weave all the cloths, and all girls whose position is at all respectable learn to dance, for in Manipur the dancing profession is often a road to royal dignity and is not despised in any way as is the case in India.... The education of women cannot be said to have made equal progress, although it was hoped, not without reason, that in a country like Manipur where women hold such an important position in the economic activity of the State, the efforts to establish a good school for the daughters of the higher classes would have been attended with more success than has actually been the case."

There are citations in the annals of women holding out a privilege in terms of having a separate women's court, with all judicial authority vested in women judges. An analogy to Manipuri females cannot be found in the rest of the country westward, although their socioeconomic behaviour (trade participation in particular) are somewhat similar to that of their counterparts in southeast Asian societies of Burma, Java and Malaysia. On the important roles not only in subsistence but also in marketing and trade, they can be further compared to those of some West African societies such as Igbo, Nupe and Yoruba of Nigeria; the Ga, Akana and Ashanti of Ghana; and Mende of Sierra Leone.


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