Women’s struggle for clothing, caste and choice

Cloth – a barrier, a protective gear, an ornament, a symbol for status, identification and humility has many meanings and purposes. A piece of cloth has a history attached to it. Defined by the norms, society, class, gender and styles shaped by the different periods and regions. 

Be it Khadi being portrayed a s a symbol of self – reliance and resistance by Mahatma Gandhi, or Dalits wearing three-piece suits at public gatherings to make a statement of self – regard. The clothing in the early twentieth century with western shoes and long women’s blouses worn by upper classes. Or the saree adopted by Brahmo Samaj women, later to be known as  Brahmarika saree. The style was influenced by the Prasi women.  A piece of cloth can create a sense of euphony, as heard in the song Mera joota hai Japani, Patlon Hindustani from the film Shree 420. And can also lead to violence. That is, the cloth Gandhi cap worn by nationalists led to the arrests by the police during the Khilafat movement. 

Looking back at the history of clothing, the notions regarding the same in the nineteenth and twentieth century were heavily controlled by one’s status in the social hierarchy. As ideas changed and reforms came about changing social values, the social history of clothing experienced dramatic modifications and the perception surrounding it. 

One such revolution by the women that called for wider social norms and resistance against class-based injustice was The Channar Revolt of 1813 to 1851. The Nadar community under the caste hierarchy of Travancore, a princely state in south-western India, now part of Kerala. Faced several social disabilities. Where they claimed to be wrongly placed in the caste system due to Nayak invasion were subjected to discrimination. The Nadar climber women of the kingdom of Travancore and majority of the non – Brahmin women of Kerala were not permitted to cover the upper part of their body to accentuate their status in the society. And had to pay Mula Karam also referred to as breast tax to be able to cover their chest with a cloth.  

In 1822, the Nadar women were attacked by the Nairs (group of upper castes) for covering their bosoms with cloth which later led to violent social reactions. Men and women both had to be bare chested when in the presence of a higher ranked caste. And during 1820, under the influence and the rise of Christian missionaries, many converted and started to wear long tailored jackets and blouses when in 1813, Colonel John Munro, issued an order which granted permission to women who converted to Christianity to wear upper cloth and many did so to in order to be at par with the dominant castes.  

Narayana Guru and Hindu reformer Ayya Vaikunder were the two prominent figures who actively participated in the protest. One was in opposition of converting into another religion to escape injustice and the latter participated actively when the Nairs resorted to violence by tearing clothes of the women who started wearing upper clothes. The violence increased in the 1820’s, when the women continued their fight. The proclamation in 1829, declined the Nadar women to cover their bosoms. The abolishing of slavery in Travancore, 1855 increased the resentment in the controlling section of the society. Later when the riots and revolt escalated in 1859, the government gave the right to the women to wear upper body cloth, whether Christian or Hindu. But not in the same manner, as higher class Niar women did. 

Women, in different periods, have been at the very end of injustice and have faced hostility when gone against the traditional conventions. In this case, one’s femininity, honour and charm were directly related, only if they choose to accept traditional norms. 

The decision regarding women’s bodies lied with establishments in society rather than the women themselves. 

In recent times, there have been several instances where CBSE took the decision to omit important topics of gender, class, diversity, secularism etc from the syllabus. And one such decision pertaining to the section, Caste, Conflict & Dress Change’ from the Social Science Curriculum for the students of class IX was ordered to CBSE in 2016 by Madras High Court. 

The section mentioned the same atrocities faced by the Nadar Community, Channar Revolt and the mention of Mula Karam and several other taxes paid by the lower castes in the caste stricken Kerala. The section was called offensive and of wrong impression. But the move was opposed by historians and public intellectuals, who questioned the decision to remove a section which discussed the caste and gender relation in India and its evolution over the years. To sideline any important historical developments and only study the glorious events makes for a very tinted and false image of the country. And suggested that rather than eliminating the whole section, CBSE should have option for fact checking and revisions. 

In July 2016, the legendary story of Nangeli surfaced. The story is not officially recognised by Indian historical accounts and remains largely debatable. In the 19th century, Cherthala, Kerala. Nangeli, an Ezhavas chopped off her breasts and presented it to the tax collectors on a plantain leaf, who visited her after she refused to cover her chest and later died of blood loss. Her death started the future movements against the caste – based tax. The story has been adapted differently in current cultural space. Is it said that her husband, Chirukandan, later jumped into her pyre and sacrificed his life.

Which led the state of Travancore to officially abolish the tax in 1924. The tale gained momentum and visibility after Chitrakaran T Murali, a painter, painted the whole series on her tale which was covered by the BBC in July 2016.  The artist found the tale in a local magazine and later went to her village to delve more into the background and sacrifice she made. Thereafter, his paintings and recognition he provided the story have been used in feminist writings, and debated by many organisations about its authenticity and relevance in the society where class struggle is deeply rooted. 

Keeping aside it’s authenticity, it is important to touch upon the tale in terms of the backdrop of this insurgent act to understand the domination and suppression the women have faced over the years. Ever since, the ideals around beauty and style have taken multiple forms and taken the shape of the new values the fight by the women and several reforms brought in the changing times. Dominant attitudes were questioned in the country where technology and economy was advancing and it became necessary to adapt and learn from the struggles of the past and make way for a more tolerable, rational and just society. Where the decision of wearing a piece of cloth and the material it is made up of lies only with the person wearing it.