Ima Kethel, also known as the Ladies’ or Mother’s market, in the capital city of Manipur is not just any other market but is unique and different from all the other markets we have ever seen or heard. All the shops in the market are headed only by ladies, although men can go and buy things, but they are not part of the selling side – which is totally opposite of what happens in other parts of the country and the world.
The market is said to have been established around 1500 AD and is run solely by women from different communities of the state. The market can be seen as a ‘Mini Manipur’, which employs over 4,000 women selling all sorts of stuff ranging from fruits and vegetables to flowers and clothes and handicraft products. It is the lifeline of the state and serves as an important trading centre.
The earthquake that hit Manipur last year damaged the iconic Ima market building however, it failed to damage the spirit of women entrepreneurs in the market who stood tall and did not get discouraged by the damage done by the quake.
After the earthquake, the shops had to be shifted on the streets as cracks appeared in many pillars of the building and now the ladies sits on the corner of the roads running their shops as they did inside the building. When asked for the reason, one of the shop owners who sell flowers said, “Waiting for the building repair will take long and we also have a family to feed, we cannot wait for the work to be completed and then run our shops.” Echoing her, another shopkeeper at the market who sells fish said,”If we wait for the building to be repaired, how will we run our households? It will take time to rebuild the market, but that doesn’t mean that our lives will come to a standstill!”
The market was also badly affected by the demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes by the Government of India, due to which the sales were dropped as there was a lack of proper cash flow in the city. Left with no option, the sellers were forced to accept old currency, and ask the customer either to purchase goods worth the entire sum of Rs 500/ Rs 1000, or refuse them, due to unavailability of change.
The ladies running the shops are mostly those women who are the sole bread earners of their families, ranging from all age groups – starting from as young as 18 to around 65. They either own a particular section of the area to set up a shop, or they have to rent the place in the complex. The section owned by the ladies are only transferred to other ladies of the family – daughter or daughter-in-law – or can be only brought by other ladies. Men are not part of the transfer of the property.
Earning is not the sole reason they establish a shop in this market, rather it is about engaging in productive time utilisation or being independent. Many women set up shops to feel independent by using the free time at their disposal.
“My family does not depend on me as my kids are working and they can manage to run the family. Even if I don’t work, I can live a fine life. My reason for coming here is just to utilise my time as I don’t have much to do at home,” said a lady in her sixties who sell fruits.
Another lady in her fifties also said, “My husband was in government service and I too came here to use my time. My family is not dependent on me, all my children are doing fine jobs. I am running my shop here from the past seven years as I do not have much to do at home.”58-year-old Bilasini who is married to a retired policeman started working at the Ima market three decades back, not for money but to develop an identity of her own.
“It is very important for everyone to have an identity of their own. It should not matter whether you are a man or woman. Stepping out of the house and earning makes you independent and changes your vision as well,” she says.
The Manipuri society, which unlike most parts of the country is matriarchal in nature, upholds the rank of a woman in a household, and the Ima Keithel market is just one such example.1