The human race universally wears articles of clothing, also known as garments or attire, on the body in order to protect it against the adverse climate conditions. People wear clothing for functional as well as social reasons. Apart from the practical functions of placing a piece of garment above the skin, wearing clothes also carries specific cultural and social meanings. Religion, customs and of course, particular historically important circumstances have shaped the way different people in various times feel about clothing and exposure. Moreover, clothing has been regarded as one of the best ways to distinguish social class, sexes, occupation, marital status and ethnic or religious affiliation.
Encircled by nine hill ranges, Manipur is marked out by a picturesque valley in the midst. The total area of Manipur is 22,327 sq km. The hills around the cup-shaped valley add the natural beauty of Manipur. The first Prime Minister of India, the late Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, described Manipur as a ‘’Jewel of India’ ’bewitching beholders with its natural beauty and its cultural paraphernalia. It is bounded by Nagaland in the North, Mizoram in the south, upper Myanmar in the east and Cachar district of Assam in the west. Among the Manipuris, the Meitei form the predominant ethnic group and traditionally inhabit the valley. The surrounding hill ranges are settled by many tribes. Meitei are deeply sensitive and their unique pattern of life with inherent love of art is reflected in the festival, dance and music. Their rich culture and tradition are also reflected in their costume, handloom textiles and in finer workmanship of handicrafts.
It is generally believed that the dress worn by the Meitei men was the kind of dress worn by the king of Manipur when He ascended the throne. Regarding female dress, it is said that phanek mayek-naibi, the strip colour phanek with plain edge which was used by Panthoibi is being followed by Meitei women till now. This phanek was actually used by the queen when she ascended the throne along with the King. Today, this phanek is seen worn by Meitei women. Meitei women started wearing shirts from the second week of October, 1779, when Maha Rasa Lila dance started in Manipur. Because of the advance in civilization, besides phanek women started wearing shirts, skirts, jeans,sarees and salwar kameez where the male counterpart wore a shirt and pants. Unfortunately women do not enjoy the taste of different types of dresses for some time (not so these days) because their dresses were being discussed, discarded and restricted to wear by different insurgency organizations a few years ago. In recent trends, in schools and colleges girls are not allowed to wear skirts so they have to compulsorily change their skirts into phanek.
Regarding ornaments, most of the ornaments worn by the ancestors cannot be seen today. However, as far as the dress and ornaments are concerned, most of them are seen in the traditional and religious occasions like Lai Haraoba festivals that are worn by women only. Women are the one who save the culture and at the same time this culture is again giving a very different picture in the status of women in the society.
The concept of Culture is developed by beliefs, faith, practices, customs, way to live, language, food habits, etc. Cultural growth gave identity to the societies. Through the generations, it has been noted that women are the one who carry the culture from generation to generation at different forms and at different levels. Women of Manipur have come under the influences of cultures at various times and contributed to the growth of civilization. Women in Manipur seem to enjoy greater mobility and visibility than women of other communities in the country.
According to census 2011, the sex ratio of Manipur is987 against all India with 940. Looking at the literacy rate, women of Manipur are much higher with 70.26 % than the national level of 65.46% according to the 2011 census. Thus, it is often cited to portray a picture of equity between men and women in the region and has given rise to the presumption that discrimination against women is not a major concern in the area however; the region under the shadow of conflicts has witnessed resurgence of patriarchal values, norms which have brought after the Hinduism that affect the Meitei people at large but the impact on women and girls is far greater because of their sex and status in society.
Manipur has its own identity which can be seen in their art and culture which are famous in the world. The rich culture and the centuries old tradition can also be depicted in their handloom woven clothes and handicrafts. The Manipuri culture is a blend of the indigenous Meitei culture based on the Sanamahi laining (Sanamahi worship) and the Indian culture, based on the Hindu religion. However, there are more than 30 majestic cultures and dances of the different tribes of Manipur as well. The culture of Manipur is as exotic and ancient as the state itself. It is a perfect colorful mixture of the rich customs, the traditional cuisines, and the music that is the main essence of Manipuri culture; the strict and vibrant customs, the world-famous dance forms and the rich history together make the most enchanting culture of the Manipuri’s. The fun and exciting element among the people of Manipur can be reflected in the various festivals that they observe like the Kut festival, Rath Yatra, Ningol Chakkouba festival, Yaoshang festival, and many more. Festivals help to liven up the people of their daily chores with their music and dance. The dance that is called the Thabal Chongba (Moonlit dance) performed by both men and women is a typical dance form during the annual Yaoshang festival. The most distinctive feature of Manipur is the contribution of women in the various realms of society. Manipuri women since earlier times have played significant roles in various activities of life, covering the religious, social, cultural, economic and political. Besides, they are the frontrunners in solving various social and political problems of the state. They have been active in various spheres of life since the times of the Monarchical era.
"They are very industrious. Most of the work of the country except the heaviest is performed by them. It would be difficult to find a more industrious woman in India than the Manipuri".
Manipuri women, as a group, very often played an active role and participated in the political and social movements of the state. The 20th century witnessed a number of significant instances of women’s participation in socio-economic and political uprisings. The first Nupi-lan (Women's Uprising) in 1904 and the second Nupi-lan (Women’s Uprising) in 1939 were glaring examples of such collective women’s participation during British rule.
In spite of the major contributions made by the women in Manipur in various fields, the women of Manipur are marginalized and faced discrimination in the patriarchal society of Manipur like in the rest of India these days. During the pre-Hindu period, there seem to have high status of women in society. The status of women was equal to their male counterparts. Thus we can conclude that women of Manipur contribute major important roles in society and they deserve to be given their due share of respect and dignity in society. They need to be treated on par with their male counterpart. They need to be treated on equal terms by giving them equal respect and dignity in society. The low status of women which reflect in the cultural norms and rituals in the society can only be corrected by empowering them by educating the women and also through certain plans and policies of important role in rectifying the cultural norms and building peace in the Manipuri society.
Women’s roles in Manipur society especially in peace building in the last decade highlight the importance of moving women beyond their traditional roles. Women have been playing an important role in various issues in Manipur. These women who have sacrificed their personal lives and dedicated themselves to the states in order to bring peace and harmony have always been at the forefront to solve many problems in the state. All their activities are conducted voluntarily for ages. Thus we can say that the women of Manipur are the Savior of the state of Manipur.
It is, therefore, we all need to give a serious thought to this and focus our concern towards women empowerment as women have an active part socially, culturally, politically in all spheres.
We cannot blame only males for the oppression caused to women but also the women themselves. At the same time the role of the male to make sure that the wife has an equal voice within the family and society at large. Let us not forget that a female is no lesser a human being but just our male dominated society over the years having amazingly projected that to be the case, so we all need to fight this gender inequality in customs and cultures especially in Meitei society.
(The views expressed are personal)