This month’s blog of Mel Insights focuses on Writing for Change and celebrates every woman. Happy Women’s Day!
In view of a recent viral video of a newly married woman, in Manipur, following the post-wedding ritual of having the leftover food of her husband, but was unable to complete the ritual as she felt disgusted, I feel that as a society, we need to review and reflect on these customary rituals that portray strong patriarchal beliefs. Having said this, one should not blindly belief that Manipuri society is completely patriarchal. But some customary rituals, that are in fact common in many communities in India, need to be changed for a just society that promotes equality and empowerment. If the customary rituals are oppressive in nature or against anyone’s consent, we need to reflect and act on it.
The Meitei society in Manipur is uniquely organised in terms of gender. Women undertake non-traditional roles and duties that are traditionally designated for men in other societies. Its male and female members play contrasting roles. The contrasting attitudes, expressions, authoritative behaviours, and interactions articulated as “masculine” and “feminine” in relation to the gender structure peculiar to the Meiteis, at a given time and place, shape the everyday life of the society.
In colloquial Manipuri, leikai (locality) represents a reciprocal relationship shared by families living in a neighbourhood, rooted in trust and cooperation. Life in the family is dictated by the social conventions of the leikai and life in a leikai is the manifestation of the family culture of the Meiteis. Roles performed by individuals as spouses, parents and children, in the family are conveyed by the norms and beliefs of the leikai. The leikai believes that a married woman should devote her life to her husband, sacrificing her own desires for his growth and improvement in the family and society. Similarly, they believe that it is a man’s duty to control his wife and children as the head of the family. These roles are manifested in the leikai activities witnessed during ceremonial and social events. Men manage and arrange events while women perform housekeeping activities; men of the leikai administer traditional institutions and direct leikai activities. Men are given preference in ceremonial and religious rituals, social functions and traditional festivities. Thus, the leikai acts as a catalyst in promoting patriarchy in Meitei society.
The conception of female roles in Meitei society suppresses women and favours male domination within the household. Parents and in-laws play an important role in inculcating such subordinated notions of womanhood. In natal homes, daughters are advised to learn feminine roles from their mothers. The submissive role of women begins on the wedding day itself by following the practice of having the leftover food of her husband. The placing of the husband’s bed, called famjao, to the right side (important side) of the room, and the practices of assuming that the wife (and all women) are “untouchable and impure” while menstruating, the wife cannot share food with her husband or cannot have food till her husband finishes his meal, the husband cannot fetch the wife’s phanek (traditional bottom wear) from the clothes line, are some social realities that shape marital relationships between husband and wife, and men and women in general, in Meitei society. When male members project patriarchal attitudes, females repress themselves. Unfortunately, women are the main enforcers of patriarchy and discipline their daughters and daughter-in-laws to remain calm, coy and dutiful irrespective of what is happening in the family.
As women, we all can contribute in our small ways to stop other women from following these rituals in our families. Change starts in the family! HAPPY WOMEN’s DAY!
This write up is modified from my own paper published in Economic and Political Weekly.
Photo Courtesy: Simon Maage