Unfurling Her-Stories

Women have been witness to and recipients of the armed movements in North East India, and have struggled for decades to be the harbingers of peace. Their work in both these contexts remains primarily invisible and underground. Even though they appeal for peace and justice, they are trapped in a patriarchal whirlpool of rights and access to resources. In a recent mob lynching incident in Assam, one of the singers publicly asked why women couldn’t save the youths from the mob. In recent years, women within diverse groups like Naga Mother’s Association, Meira Paibi (women’s movements) in Manipur, women’s associations in Mizoram, women’s groups in Meghalaya and Mahila Samities in Assam have engaged in protests against violence in private and public spaces. In all these pursuits, many contemporary women’s groups like North East Network, Sisterhood Network, Bodo Women’s Justice Forum, Wing NE, Nirjaton Birodhi Oikya Mancha, The ANT and LGBTQIA groups within the institutional spaces have emerged to engage in creative ways to include the role of women in negotiating peace and social justice. They have used various creative expressions to address the context of conflict and unrest. While exploring some memorable slogans by women’s groups in North East India, I came across some striking ones, including ‘Shed No More Blood,’ a movement by Naga Mothers’ Association to stall the fights between the armed forces and Naga movement in 1994 in Mokokchung, Nagaland. Another prominent movement called for the repealing of AFSPA (Armed Force Special Powers Act) 1958 which continues to remain a draconian law in some of the North East states.

Irom Sharmila poem

In Manipur, Especially, armed forces have had an adverse impact on women compelling them to demonstrate naked in front of the Kangla Fort in Imphal in 2004 to protest the rape and killing of a woman named Thangjam Manorama Devi who was allegedly linked to an underground group. This incident stirred the consciousness of women’s groups across the country and the world, when elderly women staged a naked protest to defame army atrocities on innocent people. Writings from the region stir women’s emotions in the process, calling them to action.

18 Degrees Festival, Shillong

The 18 Degrees Festival in Shillong connected art, stories, performances and movements. On the one hand, these movements have encouraged women to take on the role of symbolic motherhood to resist violence with direct action in Manipur; however,  it has also appealed to peace in Nagaland and Assam. “We are all Manorama’s mother!” spoke the Meira Paibi women during the naked protest in front of Kangla Fort. As Teresa writes in her book Mothers of Manipur, ‘Elders do not touch a phanek [traditional Manipuri skirt] as a mark of respect. The women screamed at the soldiers, ‘If you touch our phanek, we will beat you with it instead of a stick. We will challenge your guns with a phanek.’ And every Meitei man knows what this can mean.’ Looking at more recent writings, Thingnam Anjulika Samom heralds a new #hashtag poetry series and strikes gold in connecting women, work, home and politics in Zubaan’s Centerpiece.

I remember watching a documentary where a Tangkhul woman shared her memories of weaving a mekhala design in memory of the army atrocities on women in her community.

In The Exodus is Not Over, Nandita Haksar writes about a Naga migrant worker in a metropolitan who survives extreme adversities in contemporary times. Every migrant worker whom Haksar refers to in the book is inspired by Lifesong by Shelmi Sankhil,

‘From land afar I have come
Leaving green, blue sky and cool streams all behind
I carry dreams in my heart
And live each day remembering guns and tears.’

I recall an Angami Folk Song which depicts the resilience of women who, despite pain, sorrow and  through all difficulties, continue to work for the family for its happiness and well-being. An Ao Naga warrior shawl was fashioned by women to inspire and reward heroic exploits of the men in warfare during olden days. Easterine Kire writes in her poem Kelhoukevira

‘…We’er waiting for silence to scream.
So that the guns may be silenced and fear obliterated.
A nation has been waiting fifty-seven years to be born.
The exodus is not over.
This is not the destiny of the Naga people.
What we have now is not what we want.’

Prayer Hill, Manipur is a memorial of ethnic conflict between Kuki and Naga communities

In the Naga hills post conflict movements are far more heart wrenching than the violent past. Women’s groups and individuals are expressing their realities through writing, poetry, song and street art. While understanding movements in Mizoram, V. Sawmveli  and Ashley Tellis in The Peripheral Centre write about patriarchal silencing of atrocities on women as a part of the Mizo peace process, and the reclamation of traditional proverbs that were used to oppress and belittle them, citing Lalrinawmi Ralte’s rewriting of a popular saying that devalues women as crab meat in the form of what she calls ‘Crab Theology’.They bring out an interesting insight about this “crab theology”, expressed through dance and recreate Mizo spirituality with renewed physical creativity.

In her poem ‘What Poetry Means to Ernestina in Peril’, Mona Zote writes,

‘What should poetry mean to a woman in the hills as she sits one long sloping summer evening
in Patria, Aizawl, her head crammed with contrary winds, pistolling the clever stars that seem to say:
Ignoring the problem will not make it go away…

…Poetry must be raw like a side of beef,
should drip blood, remind you of sweat
and dusty slaughter and the epidermal crunch
and the sudden bullet to the head.

Sit in for peace, Guwahati

In Assam, diverse movements on language, tribal identity, peasant struggle and autonomy have been ongoing for the last five decades. But in any situation women have been at the tail end of the tunnel waving a white flag for peace. In one of her short stories, The Test, Anju Daimary deals indirectly with insurgent violence. “At the request of our leaders, we would write one-act plays or poetry with political messages during the years that the Bodo movement was going on so that they could be performed in rallies and political meetings. They might have been printed in souvenirs or journals, thereafter, but we have not compiled them,” informs Renu Bodo who was involved in the movement for almost two decades.

 In Yatra by Indira Goswami (Mamoni Raisom), she said, “No guns here? It almost seems as if a soft green carpet has been laid over the land, concealing all the traces of blood.” It was her peace appeal which moved the civil society, state and underground groups to come for talks. Some women’s journeys never stop with the sudden bouts of violence, state repressions, systemic threats and public outcry. They are still weaving the bruises of women’s lives back to peace and stability through consistent community peace and livelihood initiatives. Poets like Kaberi Kachari have voiced their experiences of being a witness to the ULFA movement from close quarters. Even Arupa Patangia Kalita has flagged the subaltern women’s voices in her epic novel Felanee and also in The Musk and Other Stories.

Jogmaya Chakma’s ‘The War Dress’ engulfs her story of struggle which is felt in Tripura

“…There are diseases,
Of sabotage and pangs of uprooting.
My poet, from your body
Even for a moment
You could not take off
The war dress.”

 Activisim by women against violence in Assam. Image courtesy North East Network,   Protest by women against violence in Assam. Image courtesy North East Network

Mamang Dai’s ‘The Sorrow of Women’ captures women’s plight within larger movements in Arunachal Pradesh.

‘…and they are talking about escape,
About liberty, men and guns,
Ah! The urgency for survival.
But what will they do
Not knowing the sorrow of women.’

 These are just a few stories of her struggles to survive identities, ethnicity, customs and masculinity. Many are yet to be unfurled and some are buried under life-threatening prisms.

Kohima street art.
Photo credit: Alo Naro

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Samhita Barooah has lived and worked in rural North East India for her doctoral studies which she completed this year. Her past work spreads across human interest issues, media and teaching social work students. She works as an independent researcher, writer and traveller.

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