Almost anything needed for life, you'll find at the Mother's Market in Imphal, India -- raw potatoes, religious coconuts, live fish, squares of brightly-colored fabric for a new sari.
The one thing you won't find here: men!
The Mother's Market is the largest women-only bazaar in the world. Here, women legally discriminate against men. Men are allowed to shop, but otherwise, they have to leave. The city even posts notices saying men shouldn't hang out at the market if they have nothing better to do.
The Mother's Market is run and managed entirely by women. It's located in the heart of Imphal, a remote city in Northeastern India.
The physical building itself isn't much to look at. It has the elegance of a parking garage, open on all sides. Inside, a chill fills the air, which is why most of the women at the market are wrapped up to their chins in blankets. Only their heads peak out, topped with slivers of sandal paste decoratively running from the top of their foreheads to between their eyes.
The women sit perched along elevated concrete platforms stretching the length of the hall. Each woman's goods are piled up around her. The women look like small statues -- goddesses resting in a shrine -- with only an occasional arm emerging from underneath their shawls to beckon a customer or complete a sale.
“But it's 2016!” I said to Chitra Ahanthem, a female friend and journalist from Imphal. We were interviewing some of the women. I continued,
What about equal rights? What about gender equality? Isn't it time that men also be given a fair chance?
With Chitra's help, I posed this question to an 85-year-old vendor selling betel nuts. Her facial expression let me know this was one of the most moronic questions she'd ever heard in her long life. She responded,
It's just not possible.
Hundreds of years ago, Imphal was the capital of an independent kingdom, and the town's men were drafted into the king's royal workforce. It was this tradition, called the "Llapup" system, that forced the remaining women in town to take over selling at the bazaar.
Generation after generation followed, and the market simply became known as the "Ima Keithel," or Mother's Market.
Centuries later, the bazaar is still the exclusive domain for Imphal's women. Men are emphatically shut out from working here, and there are good reasons for this!
3 Reasons Why
Two chatty, neighboring vendors sit selling strings of colored beads and small squares of fabric. They're both wrapped in beautiful shawls. They explain men are not allowed because, sometimes, men touch women in inappropriate ways.
A different reason is offered up by a thin vegetable vendor chewing on a piece of fruit. She says if men and women sit too close together, something immoral will probably happen.
Back at the betel nut stall, a third argument: Men have countless job opportunities in other towns. This Mother's Market is the only place that levels the playing field to the advance of women in town.
In addition to the (no-men) cardinal law, today's Mother's Market is governed by a number of informal rules.
Most of these have been in place as long as men have been banned. For example, women vendors aren't free to sell just whatever they wish. According to one traditional rule, women vendors are only allowed to sell goods sold by their predecessors.
These old restrictions put some women at disadvantages, like Jina, a mother of three whose husband is unemployed. Five years ago, she took over a pottery stall in the Mother's Market. Instead of selling pottery, she broke the rules and turned her spot into a food stall. She said there just wasn't enough demand for pottery and there were too many pottery vendors.
Going against the market's informal rules, however, carries consequences. Jina's small oven she used to cook food was recently stolen -- a punishing message from the other women for selling food instead of pottery, as tradition dictates.
However, Jina is, in some respects, lucky. She had a relative who gave her a vendor's license.
Poorer women can't pay for the permit to be allowed to sell inside the Mother's Market. Instead, most sell illegally on the sidewalks surrounding the market. These women work like nomads, moving around all day, from corner to corner, to avoid being busted by local traffic cops.
Back inside the Mother's Market, one illegal seller managed to sneak inside. She crouches down on the floor in between stalls. The women who have licenses allow her to come and sell there because they have compassion for her, but it's not really allowed, according to the rules.
Today, even a few men have secured footholds in the Mother's Market. They work as porters, carrying heavy loads around the market.
An Old Tradition for 2016?
Old traditions: They seem to die out when they cause more harm than good, when the disadvantages outweigh the benefits or when the underlying rational for the tradition's initial inception fades away.
Similarly, the thought of reviving the Manipuri “Llalup" tradition, or drafting all the men into royal work service, seems pretty silly without a king on the throne in Impahl.
Someday, the Mother's Market's ban on men will fade away -- just as soon as women can work without fear of sexual harassment and enjoy the same employment opportunities as men.
But until this happens, the Mother's Market, although not a perfect place, does seem like an old tradition whose time has come. Maybe there should even be more Mother's Markets in the world today.
A special thanks to the OXLAEY volunteers for this story: Chitra Ahanthem (Interviews); Chitra Ahanthem, Salam Santosh, and Nongmai Maibam (Translations); M Mangangsana (Music); Ryan Anderson (Producer); With special thanks to Goro Hajarimayum and Premananda Nongthombam at Taret in Imphal, India.