Women of the Northeast Present a Picture of Contrasts

On the one hand, the women of the region have built powerful people's movements and successful entrepreneurial ventures. However, on the other hand, they also face the worst form of patriarchy impeding their empowerment.

The following is an excerpt from the book A Resurgent Northeast: Narratives of Change by Ashish Kundra. 

The lack of participation of women in politics stands out in sharp contrast to their strident activism in situations of conflict. Consider Meira Paibis, the women’s vigilante group, that started in the 1970s as an informal movement against liquor consumption and sale. Women would go out at night holding out torches in their hands, exposing men indulging in liquor consumption. Kangla Fort, once the royal Meitei palace, became the stage of an unusual protest in Imphal. In July 2004, a dozen ‘grannies’, between the ages of 45–73, shed their clothes outside the fort, holding banners that said ‘Indian army rape us’, ‘Indian army, kill us’. These Meira Paibis were protesting against the rape and death of 24-year-old Thangjam Manorama at the hands of personnel of the Assam Rifles. She was suspected to be a member of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

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At the root of the protest was the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act or AFSPA – a law dating back to 1958, which allows sweeping powers to members of the armed forces in a ‘disturbed area’, in the interest of maintaining ‘public order’. Irom Sharmila, called the ‘Iron lady’ of Manipur, went on a hunger strike for 16 years from November 2000 to protest for the repeal of this law. She ended her fast and entered the political arena by launching the People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRAJA) in 2016.

‘A Resurgent Northeast: Narratives of Change’, Ashish Kundra, HarperCollins India, 2023.

In spite of her iconic persona, she was handed down a crushing defeat, securing just 90 votes against the sitting chief minister of the state, Okram Ibobi Singh. She moved to Tamil Nadu and married her longtime partner Desmond Coutinho, a British national. Clearly, even a 16-year-long fast was not enough for her to secure a victory at the hustings. An “ordinary human being, with an extraordinary spirit” who sought “breathing space” was unable to lead the people she stood for.

Women of the Northeast have borne the greatest brunt of prolonged conflict. ‘The Last Song’, a short story by Temsula Ao, revolves around a village ‘singing beauty’ named Apenyo. The villagers prepare for a dedication ceremony of a new church building, where Apenyo bursts into her ‘solo number’ as an “act of open defiance” against an “arrogant Indian army” who desecrates the church. She and her mother are gang-raped by soldiers, who also set the church ablaze. Apenyo becomes a symbol of the “ravaged and ruined children” of Nagaland.

The suffering of women is one of the reasons that they emerged as activists and brokers of peace. The Naga Mothers’ Association’s (NMA’s) motto is “Shed no more blood”. They emerged as the leading mediator for brokering a ceasefire between the Government of India and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muviah) [NSCN (I-M)] in 1997.

Conflict situations led women to “appropriate whatever public space was available to them in the patriarchal Naga society”, comments Toshimenla Jamir, head of Nagaland University’s sociology department. While their activism in peace is welcomed, a foray into electoral politics is “frowned upon”. In substantive peace talks, there were hardly any women representatives. When asked about their exclusion, the Naga Hoho replied, “It is too early to include women now. We have to tread carefully because the peace process is very fragile and the Hoho itself as a body has just emerged.”

Hoihnu Hauzel feels that women as symbols of protest are not a reflection of their empowerment. It is just that they “make for better imagery and make greater noise”. Men in protest are likely to be shot and, thus, women are used as a “convenient tool” to further their own cause. Even the Kangla Fort protest, according to her, was done at the instigation of militants.

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On the other hand, women’s entrepreneurship is certainly a growing trend in the Northeast. In rural areas, handloom is a major part of each household. The Northeast accounts for nearly three-fifths of handloom households in India. More than 1.6 million women are engaged as handloom weavers across the region. In the cities of the Northeast, markets are abuzz with women as small vegetable sellers, salon owners, fashion boutique proprietors and furniture showroom owners. Their mobility allows them the flexibility to travel to shop, trade and bargain for their wares, even from Guangzhou. Hoihnu offers a somewhat cynical explanation: “The extra cash suits men – ‘Darling, why not?'”

Young women of the region are following their passion, making forays into new ventures. Liter Basar, a 35-year-old owner of the Liba Cafe and Pattisserie in Itanagar, baked scrumptious madeleines. She obtained a diploma in patisserie from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. The Galo girl from a remote corner of the Northeast says, “I always wanted to shatter the glass ceiling and be a person who in her own capacity brings about a small change.” Tragically, she committed suicide, cutting short her journey and without realising her dream.

Apart from the inspirational stories of women entrepreneurs in an earlier chapter of this book, there are several changemakers who are altering the rules of the game. A case in point is Lakhimi Baruah, who saw economic hardship firsthand at Golaghat, her hometown in Assam. Turned down for loans after filling out complicated forms and queuing up for hours, women would sink into a cycle of penury before her eyes. Three decades ago, she decided to take matters into her own hands and start the Konoklata Mahila Cooperative Bank, with fifty-two promoters to “popularise thrift and banking habit among women” and instil a spirit of enterprise. After an eight-year-long struggle, her fledgling bank started operations. Today, her all-women bank manages 35,000 accounts and has extended loans of over Rs 350 million to more than 12,000 women.

Women of the Northeast present a picture of contrasts. One part of society allows them the freedom to make choices about work. There are no barriers to entry into the world of work. But when it comes to positions of power, there is a glass ceiling. Top jobs in administration and politics remain an exclusive male preserve. Leadership of tribal bodies, which continue to have a considerable influence, rests with the men. At home, she is shackled to chains of age-old patriarchy and a customary law that relegates her to a secondary position.

The façade of empowerment is only skin deep. Behind the smiling pretty faces, they hide stories of their personal daily struggle. In their minds, they remain conflicted – education has raised their aspirations, which are denied by age-old traditions. Much is made about the need for a uniform civil code, but the traditional customary law remains beyond the pale of popular narrative or political debate.

Ashish Kundra is an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer, and served in Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh.