If you are in Shillong or anywhere else in the Khasi Hills of Meghalaya, you won’t miss the ubiquitous ‘Kong’—Khasi equivalent of lady—peddling anything from tobacco to samosa and rice cakes in a wicker basket, traditionally catering to people on the move.
Mobile carry-all shopkeepers, these Kongs exemplify the hold women have in local markets across the North-East. In some areas, the economy is virtually dependent on such enterprising women. If women control much of traditional markets like Iewduh or Bara Bazar in Shillong, they hold total command elsewhere in the region.
For instance, Khwairamband Nupi Keithel in the Manipur capital Imphal is Asia’s second largest all-women market. Apart from being a major source for procuring stuff like vegetables, clothes and utensils, this market is arguably a living museum of women’s culture and history of struggle in Manipur.
If the Imas of Manipur run their establishments during conventional hours beginning early morning, their counterparts in Mizoram are not averse to selling their wares when half the world goes to sleep. Enterprising Mizo women from rural areas outlying state capital Aizawl begin gathering at markets close to midnight and carry on till their stocks are exhausted.
Women belonging to various plain and hill tribes of Assam are the major players in traditional haats or markets that are usually weekly or bi-weekly. “Women in the North-East are more industrious than men, managing their homes, agricultural fields and the markets, with equal aplomb,” says Archana Sarma, who heads Gauhati University’s Women’s Study Centre.
Compared to the hill states, women’s markets in Assam have been less organised. Things changed after the concept of Aamar Bazaar, which translates into “our market”, was introduced in 1998 involving self-help groups to enhance rural economy and ensure self-reliance. The womenfolk of these markets also have a micro savings and micro credit programme.