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Manipur's Women Torch Bearers

12 women stripped naked in a protest before the Kangla fort in Manipur on 15th July, 2004. These mothers or “Imas” were protesting the rape and extra-judicial murder of 32 year old Thangjam Manorama.

On July 15, 2004, 12 women stripped themselves naked in front of Kangla fort, the headquarters of an Indian army unit in Manipur. The ‘imas’, or the ‘mothers of Manipur’ were protesting the custodial rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama, a 32-year old woman who the Indian army had suspected of being a militant.

The image of the protesting women came to symbolize an unwavering resistance against sexual violence and continues to be an iconic image for feminist politics. The women held banners and shouted, “Indian Army Rape Us” and “Take Our Flesh.” The Indian state attempted to frantically control the circulation of these images of the women standing naked and banging on the door as the soldiers watched aghast.

The protest is part of a longer history of Manipuri women's resistance, Meira Paibi. Meira Paibi is premised in the fight for self-determination and autonomy. The movement actively resists the human rights violations committed by the Indian army. At Kangla, the protesting women specifically targeted AFSPA and the horrific impunity it grants the military, which renders the women especially vulnerable.

The transformation of the body as a site of struggle is a recurrent act in feminist movements. In conflict zones, the military regularly deploys sexual violence as a deterrent against people’s rebellions. The Meira Paibi movement recognises this vulnerability. On the nature of their naked  protest, one of the protestors, Gyaneshwari, responded, “We could easily be molested or raped. Why then should we not walk in the streets naked?” (The Mothers of Manipur, Teresa Rehman)

These women–all of whom were from conservative settings–rebelled against the confinement of their households who were unaware of their intentions. The women called upon the symbolic power of the “mother” figure, but refused to be bound by the patriarchal construction around it. In shouting “we are the mothers of Manorama”, the women positioned themselves in solidarity with all victims of sexual violence, even those not bound by kinship.

In 2020, we spoke to Ima Lourembam Nganbi, who was one of the 12 Meira Paibi women who protested. Nganbi speaks of solidarity and unfaltering courage in the face of oppression. The Meira Paibis continue to fight to this day but few know that the history of Manipur's women's movements is more than a 100 years old.