Literally translating to ‘Mother’s Market’, Ima Keithel is Asia’s largest all-women market, where all the stalls are run exclusively by women. Located in the heart of Imphal, in the Indian state of Manipur, the 500-year-old vibrant bazaar has 4,000-odd local women trading with thousands of customers each day. The market also serves as a meeting ground for discussions on important social and political issues of the state.
The market’s origin dates back centuries, to a time when Manipur was ruled by kings. During this time, a tradition called ‘Lallup’ was followed, requiring male members of the local Meitei community to serve the king whenever summoned. So the women of the household would take the responsibility of farming and commerce. This instilled an entrepreneurial spirit in them, which has been passed all the way down to the present generation of female traders. Interestingly, to this day, only married women are permitted to trade at the market.
Over the years, the market has come under frequent attack by various invading forces who tried to control local trade and commerce and undermine the independence of the Manipuri women. But these strong women managed to survive exploitative policies during the British rule, by launching ‘Nupi Lal’ (Women’s Wars) in 1904 and 1939. Even after India achieved independence in 1947, the female workforce of Ima Keithel was constantly under threat of displacement, but they managed to hold the fort in the face of adversity. The only time the market was completely shut down was during World War II, when Imphal became a bloody battleground for the British and Japanese forces.
Even as recent as 2003, the local government planned to take down the market and replace it with a modern supermarket, but the association of women traders protested the decision and eventually had their way. Today, Ima Keithel is housed in four new buildings that were recently constructed by the government. The place is a melting pot of diversity – with traders hailing from various ethnic groups and religions, and tourists from various parts of the world.
At Ima Keithel, women traders sell a variety of goods. One building is dedicated exclusively to the sale of fruits and vegetables, while another houses handicraft and jewelry stores. The women sell cosmetics, apparel – including traditional Manipuri outfits, articles of religious importance, and even local sweets. Most of the stores have been passed from mother to daughter, down several generations.
“I have been sitting at this same place where women from four previous generations in my family have sold their goods,” Anoubi Devi, an 81-year-old trader, told Indian journalist Nilesh Wadhwa. “For most women here, it is like a family business.”
Studies show that most of the traders at the market earn anywhere between INR 73,000 to INR 200,000 ($1,000 to $3,000) a year. “Even though the women sell so much, they don’t earn much as most of their earnings go for payment for the goods they sell, the raw materials and logistics,” explained Dr. Yumkhaibam Shyam Singh, Associate Professor of History at Imphal College. “The cost of transportation is high, as a result these women hardly get a good margin.” And according to independent researcher Dr. Shristi Pukhrem, the market is still under threat from “large-scale penetration of cheap products and new technologies from elsewhere in India and other countries.”
“Retail chains trading imported goods at competitive prices are adversely impacting local production and indigenous markets,” she wrote for Nezine, an online magazine that focuses on Northeast Indian states. “Besides, women traders are facing the challenge of reducing dependence on exploitative local moneylenders.” But she has great hope for the future of Ima Keithel as a “symbol of Manipuri women’s empowerment.”
“The Ima Keithel gives shelter to the women in pursuit of livelihood in a state that has been hit hard by decades of violent conflict, poor governance, and lack of development,” she writes. “The vanguards of women entrepreneurship at Ima Keithel are not merely petty vendors. They are at the core of Manipur’s economy, culture and politics. Our women have been able to sustain, rather strengthen, the age-old tradition and maintain the indigenous way of life.”
“It is the strong spirit of Manipuri women that holds them together to make the state more progressive.”