The market of Imphal in the Indian state of Manipur is a riot of colour, piled with fruit and vegetables and pungent spices. Bare lightbulbs light alleyways that are darkened by swathes of cloth overhead to keep the bright, harsh sunlight out.
Stalls festooned with giant cloth bales and piles of folded jewel-coloured fabrics stand next to displays of jasmine buds, and stalls with plump red and green grapes hanging from the roof. Two things are remarkable here: every one of the 5,000 vendors is a woman; and in amongst the goods for sale are strategically placed placards with slogans like, “We won’t stay silent” and, “We demand justice”.
The placards ring with a remarkably defiant voice in a country where women are so frequently silenced.
India, according to a 2018 study by the Thomson Reuters foundation, is the most dangerous place on earth to be female. The country’s rape problem was highlighted in 2012 when a young student was gang raped on a Delhi bus. But the problem has got worse since then. In 2012, there were 25,000 rapes annually in India. In 2019, that had increased to 32,000 with a conviction rate of only 27%. Last year, news emerged that even a six year old had been brutally raped and murdered. She was called Twinkle because her family said she shone like a little star.
Further unrest has erupted in recent weeks over the death of 19 year old Nirbaya Devi in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, now referred to by some in the country as the rape capital of India. Nirbaya died after being gang raped. Her vertebrae were snapped, her tongue sliced through between her teeth when she was strangled with her own dupatta, or head scarf.
The indignity of her death was compounded by the disrespectful funeral she received. Her entire family were locked up and police cremated her remains in the middle of the night, an event that subsequently prompted public riots. The protests could not change the fact that Nirbaya died alone and was buried alone, a broken body thrown into open air flames with no one who loved her present to witness her exit from the world.
Yet this story is not just about being a woman. It is a reflection of a world in which a person’s value is gauged not only by their gender but by their family background, social status and income. Nirbaya was a Dalit woman, what was once known as an ‘untouchable’ in India’s brutal caste system, and she was raped by a group of young men from a socially superior caste. Even in the last week, yet another Uttar Pradesh case emerged when a 22-year-old Dalit woman was raped by two men who broke into her home. Around 16% of India’s female population are Dalit and they suffer from the triple discrimination of gender bias, caste division and economic deprivation.
The Nupi Keithel, or “Women’s Market” in Manipur is, therefore, an important economic safety net for women, dating back to a 16th century bazaar that was created when Manipur was a sovereign kingdom. The kingdom’s men were frequently at war with belligerent neighbours and women took on responsibility not just for the homes, but the economy. Equality is impossible without economic independence; as the market illustrates, with economic power comes social power. The women in Manipur suffer oppression but do not remain silent. The Nupi Keithel launched the Nupi Lan – women’s war – and became a forceful voice of resistance through the ages.
Their most famous resistance in recent years was when a dozen middle aged and elderly Manipuri women staged a protest over the death of a young woman who was murdered, raped and mutilated by soldiers. In a country where women are often uncomfortable revealing even their ankles, the protestors stood naked in front of armed soldiers. Standing together in a defiant row, they draped their naked bodies with a giant banner that read, “Indian Army Rape Us.”
The story of Nupi Keithel is uplifting, a light in the darkness of India’s problem with misogyny and class discrimination because it shows the power of active resistance in the face of injustice. It’s touching because in a world where dissent has come to mean terror, the planting of bombs and the cruelly indifferent victimisation of the innocent, non-violent resistance seems more powerful than ever. In that market, hunched women in their 80’s talk the language of resistance but not the language of violence.
It’s the power of the collective, where strength comes from collaboration and unity, and God knows, the world could do with some of that. Solo voices are silenced easily. In a choir, is it hard to distinguish a single voice; the sound swelling to a wall of unified sound that is too powerful to drown out. Right now, the rest of the world seems to be watching in silence as the Indian authorities turn their back on the victims of rape and protect the perpetrators. The granny army in Manipur is a reminder to all of us that courage is hope, and independence is power.