The word ima means mother in Manipuri. The Ima market is a symbol of women’s empowerment from the Northeast. Is the largest women’s market in the world located in the city of Imphal, the capital of Manipur which comes under NE. Ima market, also known as the Nupi keithel (Manipuri word), makes it the only market in the world run entirely by women. They do not allow male shopkeepers to sell anything in this market.
In this market, there are around 7000-8000 women, and some of them age more than 90 years. Most of them are the sole breadwinner of their Families.
Around 1533 AD, a labor system was imposed on Manipur. In this forced labor system, the male of the family has to go to a faraway land to work or to fight wars leaving the women behind. The families found it very hard to survive, so women in the villages took the responsibility into their own hands. They cultivated their paddy fields, weaved textiles, and created several items that they sold in improvised markets, leading to the birth of the Ima market. Dating back more than a century, the all-women market is the first of its kind for many reasons.
As you walk around the market you will see a variety of people from all stages of life. Listen to sounds of cheerful banter, and laughter and can experience sweet aromas of fresh local foods filling the air. And as soon as the sun starts to go down the women start packing their stuff and prepare to leave for their household. Ima market is not only a center of commerce but also a symbol of women empowerment from the Northeast. The market inspires females and gives them a platform to become independent and start something of their own. It also is a symbol of equality.
Ima Keithel has remained the center of life, and identity; more importantly, it is a reminder of women’s irremovable place in Manipur’s history and its economy.
As a native of Manipur, I have seen the woman of the ima market come together on several occasions- to support Irom Sharmila, on a hunger strike demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, to protest against the killing of Thangjam Manorama in 2004.
Ima Keithel stands as a sign of women’s empowerment in the face of untold hardship brought on by years of armed conflict.