Going back to the position of
Meitei women in the historical, social and political contexts of Meitei society
to have better understanding of the evolution of their roles and status is
crucial in the study. There is no study that has been specifically done on
Phanek or its significance in Meitei society. However, there are a few studies,
articles and narratives that highlight and reflect upon the issue of patriarchy
and the gendered roles and identity in the Meitei community. And it is
necessary to understand the position of women in the social, political and
economical spheres within the bound of patriarchal Meitei society.
There is a history of Meitei women
(royal family) holding legal power in women’s court (Paja), which addressed the issues of and violence against women at
those times, but the power was exclusively given to the royal family based on
their class and not their sex. During the colonial period, Meitei women fought
against the British oppression collectively and its still remembered as a very
significant and remarkable incident till date as Nupi-Lan (women’s war) in the
history of Manipur (Misra & Bhattacharaya, 1986).
In the later 20th
century, women began to be actively involved in the social welfare movements
with the advent of Nisa-Bandh (to stop selling liquor and fight against
alcoholism), Meira-Paibies (torch bearers) to safeguard the people and protest
against the atrocities stemming from the armed conflict. Now, it is also
handling the matters of family, locality, community and any kind of other social
or political issues. (Brahmacharimayum, 2009)
It is believed that this collective
power was born out of the economic power women have in the society. Meitei
women have always been engaged in fishing, weaving and trading and have been
occupying a large independent space in the market. However, there are certain
patriarchal practices in Meitei society, which oppress and exploit women. Women
start weaving at a very early age not because of her right to work but of her
need to work to be able to afford her dowry (Misra & Bhattacharaya, 1986).
Polygamy is very prevalent in
Manipur and a woman’s infertility gives justice to the husband’s second
marriage, which women never use their collective power to fight against. Male
child is preferred and male superiority in every household is very much alive. Women
have never had right of inheritance or land rights. Women often fall victim of
a practice called “thaba” (faba is the correct word which means abduction) as “Nupi
faba” is often accepted as “Nupi chenba” (eloping), which is socially approved.
So ultimately, women who have been abducted are persuaded or sometimes forced
to marry the men who abducted them against her will (Misra & Bhattacharaya, 1986). This is very
prevalent still today. Therefore, though women play significant roles, their
status is not justified and the power they seem to exercise through these roles
is under the framework of patriarchy. This power to fight resiliently comes
from the source of collectiveness and nobody knows the position of this power
when it comes to individual. Women in the Meitei society is denied
individualism and are rather recognized as a group (Chanu, 2015)
Dr. Anuradha Nongmaithem in her
Feminism: An unfinished project in Manipur highlights some of the gender roles,
social norms and practices of the patriarchal Meitei society. Women during her
menstrual cycle are considered impure and are not allowed inside the kitchen or
eat with male members in the family. Touching women’s Phanek by men is
considered demeaning masculinity as Phanek is stigmatized as impure and
inauspicious. She argues that women are the perpetuators of patriarchy and
believes that women can hence change it (Nongmaithem, 2015).
In some of the interesting
narratives, the relation of Phanek and women are reflected. ‘Nungshitombi and
I’ is a tale of the author and his very close childhood friend who is a girl.
He begins the story with their childhood days when they actively played
unclothed, swimming and diving. He explains how she is a fast runner and active.
Nungshitombi likes fruits and they usually pluck fruits from other homesteads
but one day when the owner runs after them, she is not able to run because she
wears Phanek that day. She doesn’t know why she has to wear Phanek but
continues to wear because her mother imposes the compulsion on her to wear it.
When she becomes a regular Phanek wearer, she stops going to pluck fruits with
the author, she distances herself from the activities and waits for him to
bring her fruits though she is not used to waiting and looking on. Now, she
depends on him for other services as well.
The author expresses his confusion how women are called beautiful when
adorned with layers of clothes and jewelries. When Nungshitombi danced as Radha
(a dance from called Ras Leela), the author felt she was burdened with Potloi (a
heavy attire worn by women in performing Ra Leela) and heavy ornaments and
because of why she looked weak and tired and moved slowly and uneasily (Naoroibam, 2007).
Soibam Haripriya in her poem, ‘Five
Days’ Untouchable, questions how and why human blood is impure. She says Phanek
wraps the “unholy droplets” and so is also contaminated and remained
untouchable to men. She brings out the irony that this so called “untouchable
phanek” never defiles those hands of men who tear it for their sexual desire
and satisfaction and also, when this piece of cloth is apart from the “impure”
body and hung on the cloth line, its untouchable-ness is still alive (Haripriya, 2015). The poet in
her another poem, ‘Of Clothes and Robes’, interestingly brings out about school
uniform in Manipur i.e the replacement of uniform skirt by Phanek, which the
poet doesn’t seem to like it. She expresses her comfort in skirt, that when she
twirls how it catches the breeze. On the other hand, she expresses her
confusion about Phanek, how it looks and how it brings no fun or comfort to
her. She condemns the fact that it was imposed on them without even asking
their opinion. They didn’t ask her if she wanted that freedom or to uphold culture.
She also says boys continue to wear pants, which give them place for two limbs
that they cycle comfortably and the pants neither have Khamen Chatpa Mayek (a
pattern printed on traditional dress of Meitei, which is worn by men) nor
stitched out of Khudei (traditional daily wear for men) and it is trousers (Haripriya, 2015).
When traced back in history, this
sudden and strong emphasis on culture markers seems to have reasons. Hinduism
started penetrating in the state in 15th century but Vaisnavism laid
its first foundation on Manipur during the reign of King Garibniwaz (1709-1748)
and since then, it has become the major religion of the Meitei community. The
king exercised his power to oppress the old traditions and religion and imposed
Vaisnavism, which resulted in loss of Meitei script and was replaced by Bengali
script, adoption of Hindu traditions and rituals, setting up of Bhrahma Samaj
to impose Hindu values and practices on Meiteis, setting up of Hindu temples
worshipping Hindu Gods. However, Hinduism was not able to completely erase the
old Meitei traditions and culture but rather merged into it and adapt to it
resulting in a more like fusion of two religions, traditions, customs and
cultures (Misra & Bhattacharaya, 1986).
Studies on women and women’s
clothes in different other contexts also provide much insights in understanding
the issue of the study.
Ofra Goldstein-Gidoni (1999) has
written about how Kimono wearing by women is being encouraged in the
age-of-coming ceremony (Seijin Shiki), which is a ceremony celebrated when boys
and girls reach the age of 20 that marks the beginning of adulthood in modern Japan.
The paper discusses how Kimono has become gendered attire for Japanese women in
the construction of cultural identity in modern Japan. This is to distinct
Japanese-ness from Western which is apparently to distinct their tradition from
modern, which led to women becoming the representations of the culture and the
models of the Japanese womanhood (Goldstein-Gidoni, 1999).
The paper also brings out the
distinction between male and female, as men are not restricted to wear the
traditional attire and rather encouraged to wear western clothes while Kimono
becomes deeply rooted and important in women’s life on the same occasion. Moreover,
donning of Kimono also emphasizes a lot on being the ideal feminine woman. The paper
highlights how women are molded and corrected physically to fit the ideal shape
of wearing Kimono and also how the attire causes discomfort and restrictions in
the movements, which eventually is appreciated as it is perceived as ideal
feminine Japanese woman’s characters (Goldstein-Gidoni, 1999).
Women’s clothes were analyzed based
on health and modesty by many feminists during the dress reform movement in mid
and late 19th century in America. A group of feminists argued that the
present clothes of women caused health issues because of its tightness and
extra lengthiness while the other group argued that the dress incited
immorality with its emphasis on bust, low cut and bare arms that they believed
encouraged men’s imagination and aroused them. Feminists had further argued
that women’s clothes were the results of male’s conspiracy to subordinate women
where they deliberately designed the dress to obstruct women’s movements and prevent
them from earning equal to men and therefore ultimately became dependent on men
for living. They strongly believed women’s clothes are women’s rights and dress
reform would bring a positive change in the position of women. In the process,
it involved adoption of men’s clothes by radical feminists, which was not
encouraged and accepted in the public. There were differences in opinions
amongst the feminists and the existing women’s clothes like short skirts,
divided skirts, etc began to be used for different purposes like exercising,
walking, cycling, etc. and the whole movement declined. With the changes in the
social and economic status of the society like opening women’s schools and
colleges, increased in employment opportunities and gaining voting rights, the
position of women has been progressed tremendously and the dress reform had no
role played in women’s emancipation (Riegel, 1963).
Looking at the context of Islam,
veil (hijab), has multiple meanings. Davary studies about the religious symbols
of hijab in relation with shame, honor and identity. She explores how the
meanings of Hijab or veil differ with different geographical and historical
contexts by juxtaposing the ban of veil in Turkey and its compulsion to wear in
Iran. She also says that their bodies define women and the shame and honor are
closely connected to their dress and display of hair and eyes. According to the
religious texts, Quaran, veiling has a lot more to do with women’s body and
sexuality and it also serves a boundary between a man and a woman (Davary, 2009).
Hijab has been explained as a mark
of strong conviction to religion and customs, traditions and gender relations
and therefore wearing it makes them gain social acceptance or veneration in the
patriarchal society. To some, it is a symbol of oppression but to some other,
it is a symbol of liberation. In Turkey, when veiling was banned, it violated
their individual rights to choice, to practice their religion and traditional
customs and unveiling was a forceful submission to European and his culture.
Therefore, veiling had become a symbol of resistance towards the
government-enforced secularization. A veiled woman took pride in maintaining
her identity as Turkish women and was liberation for her. While in Iran, women
were forcefully unveiled and dishonored by foreign police officers while Iran
was not completely colonized but covertly controlled by foreign powers. As a
result, the compulsion to wear Hijab was a result of resisting or avoiding
foreign invasion and modernization. But women who were forced to veil against
their will rejected the imposition to wear Hijab. Veiling could be shameful and oppressing for
some women and unveiling as honorable and liberating for some or vice versa
In a study done in Malaysia,
women’s consciousness and reasons to veil or not o veil is being explored.
Understanding women’s perspectives about the clothes they are expected to wear
or imposed on to wear is very crucial. In this particular study, many
interviews of Muslim Malaysian women provided insights about the different
meanings they give to this piece of clothe. Some women choose to wear because
of religious mandatory. They believe it is a sin not to wear and women’s
intellect and abilities were on attention and not their physical
appearance. Veiling reflects the image
and behavior of women in public space and women wear to maintain their
reputation. Some do not have any religious or cultural reason to wear but as a
fashion. Some choose not to wear because they are not ready to accept the
change in their personal and social identities. They are also not ready to
accept the restrictions veiling brings along with it like the mobility, in
keeping relationship with men and other certain spheres like clubbing. Some
sometimes wear and sometimes do not based on their situations (Hochel, 2013).
Some of these literatures look at
how Meitei women play different roles from the time of history in the society.
However, despite of them being powerful in some ways, they seem to be under the
oppression of patriarchy, which is again the strong influence of the coming of
Hinduism in the state in the early time. Some literatures also little touched
upon the relation between patriarchy, culture and Phanek in the Meitei society.
Other literatures that are mainly dealt with different contexts clearly
explains how clothes become gendered as well as a part of gendered identity,
the layers of meanings women give to the same cloth and the political,
religious and social use of women’s clothes.