Going back to the position ofMeitei women in the historical, social and political contexts of Meitei societyto have better understanding of the evolution of their roles and status iscrucial in the study. There is no study that has been specifically done onPhanek or its significance in Meitei society. However, there are a few studies,articles and narratives that highlight and reflect upon the issue of patriarchyand the gendered roles and identity in the Meitei community.
And it isnecessary to understand the position of women in the social, political andeconomical 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 atthose times, but the power was exclusively given to the royal family based ontheir class and not their sex. During the colonial period, Meitei women foughtagainst the British oppression collectively and its still remembered as a verysignificant and remarkable incident till date as Nupi-Lan (women’s war) in thehistory of Manipur (Misra & Bhattacharaya, 1986). In the later 20thcentury, women began to be actively involved in the social welfare movementswith the advent of Nisa-Bandh (to stop selling liquor and fight againstalcoholism), Meira-Paibies (torch bearers) to safeguard the people and protestagainst the atrocities stemming from the armed conflict. Now, it is alsohandling the matters of family, locality, community and any kind of other socialor political issues.
(Brahmacharimayum, 2009)It is believed that this collectivepower was born out of the economic power women have in the society. Meiteiwomen have always been engaged in fishing, weaving and trading and have beenoccupying a large independent space in the market. However, there are certainpatriarchal practices in Meitei society, which oppress and exploit women. Womenstart weaving at a very early age not because of her right to work but of herneed to work to be able to afford her dowry (Misra & Bhattacharaya, 1986).
Polygamy is very prevalent inManipur and a woman’s infertility gives justice to the husband’s secondmarriage, which women never use their collective power to fight against. Malechild is preferred and male superiority in every household is very much alive. Womenhave never had right of inheritance or land rights. Women often fall victim ofa practice called “thaba” (faba is the correct word which means abduction) as “Nupifaba” is often accepted as “Nupi chenba” (eloping), which is socially approved.So ultimately, women who have been abducted are persuaded or sometimes forcedto marry the men who abducted them against her will (Misra & Bhattacharaya, 1986). This is veryprevalent still today. Therefore, though women play significant roles, theirstatus is not justified and the power they seem to exercise through these rolesis under the framework of patriarchy.
This power to fight resiliently comesfrom the source of collectiveness and nobody knows the position of this powerwhen it comes to individual. Women in the Meitei society is deniedindividualism and are rather recognized as a group (Chanu, 2015)Dr. Anuradha Nongmaithem in herFeminism: An unfinished project in Manipur highlights some of the gender roles,social norms and practices of the patriarchal Meitei society. Women during hermenstrual cycle are considered impure and are not allowed inside the kitchen oreat with male members in the family. Touching women’s Phanek by men isconsidered demeaning masculinity as Phanek is stigmatized as impure andinauspicious.
She argues that women are the perpetuators of patriarchy andbelieves that women can hence change it (Nongmaithem, 2015).In some of the interestingnarratives, the relation of Phanek and women are reflected. ‘Nungshitombi andI’ 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 playedunclothed, swimming and diving. He explains how she is a fast runner and active.Nungshitombi likes fruits and they usually pluck fruits from other homesteadsbut one day when the owner runs after them, she is not able to run because shewears Phanek that day. She doesn’t know why she has to wear Phanek butcontinues 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 withthe author, she distances herself from the activities and waits for him tobring her fruits though she is not used to waiting and looking on. Now, shedepends on him for other services as well. The author expresses his confusion how women are called beautiful whenadorned 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 (aheavy attire worn by women in performing Ra Leela) and heavy ornaments andbecause of why she looked weak and tired and moved slowly and uneasily (Naoroibam, 2007). Soibam Haripriya in her poem, ‘FiveDays’ Untouchable, questions how and why human blood is impure. She says Phanekwraps the “unholy droplets” and so is also contaminated and remaineduntouchable to men. She brings out the irony that this so called “untouchablephanek” never defiles those hands of men who tear it for their sexual desireand 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 inher another poem, ‘Of Clothes and Robes’, interestingly brings out about schooluniform in Manipur i.e the replacement of uniform skirt by Phanek, which thepoet doesn’t seem to like it. She expresses her comfort in skirt, that when shetwirls how it catches the breeze. On the other hand, she expresses herconfusion about Phanek, how it looks and how it brings no fun or comfort toher. She condemns the fact that it was imposed on them without even askingtheir 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 limbsthat they cycle comfortably and the pants neither have Khamen Chatpa Mayek (apattern printed on traditional dress of Meitei, which is worn by men) norstitched out of Khudei (traditional daily wear for men) and it is trousers (Haripriya, 2015).
When traced back in history, thissudden and strong emphasis on culture markers seems to have reasons. Hinduismstarted penetrating in the state in 15th century but Vaisnavism laidits 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. Theking exercised his power to oppress the old traditions and religion and imposedVaisnavism, which resulted in loss of Meitei script and was replaced by Bengaliscript, adoption of Hindu traditions and rituals, setting up of Bhrahma Samajto impose Hindu values and practices on Meiteis, setting up of Hindu templesworshipping Hindu Gods. However, Hinduism was not able to completely erase theold Meitei traditions and culture but rather merged into it and adapt to itresulting in a more like fusion of two religions, traditions, customs andcultures (Misra & Bhattacharaya, 1986). Studies on women and women’sclothes in different other contexts also provide much insights in understandingthe issue of the study.Ofra Goldstein-Gidoni (1999) haswritten about how Kimono wearing by women is being encouraged in theage-of-coming ceremony (Seijin Shiki), which is a ceremony celebrated when boysand 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 inthe construction of cultural identity in modern Japan. This is to distinctJapanese-ness from Western which is apparently to distinct their tradition frommodern, which led to women becoming the representations of the culture and themodels of the Japanese womanhood (Goldstein-Gidoni, 1999). The paper also brings out thedistinction between male and female, as men are not restricted to wear thetraditional attire and rather encouraged to wear western clothes while Kimonobecomes 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 paperhighlights how women are molded and corrected physically to fit the ideal shapeof wearing Kimono and also how the attire causes discomfort and restrictions inthe movements, which eventually is appreciated as it is perceived as idealfeminine Japanese woman’s characters (Goldstein-Gidoni, 1999).
Women’s clothes were analyzed basedon health and modesty by many feminists during the dress reform movement in midand late 19th century in America. A group of feminists argued that thepresent clothes of women caused health issues because of its tightness andextra lengthiness while the other group argued that the dress incitedimmorality with its emphasis on bust, low cut and bare arms that they believedencouraged men’s imagination and aroused them. Feminists had further arguedthat women’s clothes were the results of male’s conspiracy to subordinate womenwhere they deliberately designed the dress to obstruct women’s movements and preventthem from earning equal to men and therefore ultimately became dependent on menfor living. They strongly believed women’s clothes are women’s rights and dressreform 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 notencouraged and accepted in the public. There were differences in opinionsamongst 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 thesocial and economic status of the society like opening women’s schools andcolleges, increased in employment opportunities and gaining voting rights, theposition of women has been progressed tremendously and the dress reform had norole played in women’s emancipation (Riegel, 1963).
Looking at the context of Islam,veil (hijab), has multiple meanings. Davary studies about the religious symbolsof hijab in relation with shame, honor and identity. She explores how themeanings of Hijab or veil differ with different geographical and historicalcontexts by juxtaposing the ban of veil in Turkey and its compulsion to wear inIran.
She also says that their bodies define women and the shame and honor areclosely connected to their dress and display of hair and eyes. According to thereligious texts, Quaran, veiling has a lot more to do with women’s body andsexuality and it also serves a boundary between a man and a woman (Davary, 2009).Hijab has been explained as a markof strong conviction to religion and customs, traditions and gender relationsand therefore wearing it makes them gain social acceptance or veneration in thepatriarchal 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 violatedtheir individual rights to choice, to practice their religion and traditionalcustoms and unveiling was a forceful submission to European and his culture.Therefore, veiling had become a symbol of resistance towards thegovernment-enforced secularization. A veiled woman took pride in maintainingher identity as Turkish women and was liberation for her. While in Iran, womenwere forcefully unveiled and dishonored by foreign police officers while Iranwas not completely colonized but covertly controlled by foreign powers. As aresult, the compulsion to wear Hijab was a result of resisting or avoidingforeign invasion and modernization. But women who were forced to veil againsttheir will rejected the imposition to wear Hijab. Veiling could be shameful and oppressing forsome women and unveiling as honorable and liberating for some or vice versa(Davary, 2009).
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 wearor imposed on to wear is very crucial. In this particular study, manyinterviews of Muslim Malaysian women provided insights about the differentmeanings they give to this piece of clothe. Some women choose to wear becauseof religious mandatory. They believe it is a sin not to wear and women’sintellect and abilities were on attention and not their physicalappearance. Veiling reflects the imageand behavior of women in public space and women wear to maintain theirreputation.
Some do not have any religious or cultural reason to wear but as afashion. Some choose not to wear because they are not ready to accept thechange in their personal and social identities. They are also not ready toaccept the restrictions veiling brings along with it like the mobility, inkeeping relationship with men and other certain spheres like clubbing.
Somesometimes wear and sometimes do not based on their situations (Hochel, 2013).Some of these literatures look athow 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 theoppression of patriarchy, which is again the strong influence of the coming ofHinduism in the state in the early time. Some literatures also little touchedupon the relation between patriarchy, culture and Phanek in the Meitei society.Other literatures that are mainly dealt with different contexts clearlyexplains 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.