Nangeli, a woman from a lower caste in the princely state of Travancore cut off her own breasts when she was asked to pay something called a ‘breast tax’. She was one of the many rebellious women of Travancore who fought for the right to cover their breasts.
The Marumarakkal Samaram (protest to cover the upper body) or the Channar Lahala (Channar Revolt) began in the early 19th century. Women of the lower caste were forced to uncover their breasts and if they disregarded this practise, they were made to pay a ‘breast tax’. Women from the Channar caste (which included the Nadars and Ezhavas) protested to cover their breasts, a right that was astonishingly given only to upper caste (Nair) Hindu women in Travancore. Clothing had become a marker of a woman’s social standing.
On protests by Nadar women, the diwan of Travancore, Colonel Munro passed an order that allowed only women that converted to Christianity to wear the upper cloth. Even after such an order was issued, members of the Nair community in Kerala refused to let the women wear an upper cloth. The order was later amended to say that Nadar women who converted to Christianity were allowed to wear a jacket (blouse) to distinguish them from what Nair women wore.
In 1822, almost ten years after Munro’s order riots broke out in parts of Travancore. Nair men took to violence, and attacked the Nadar women who chose to wear a cloth that covered their upper bodies. In response to this British missionaries approached the courts to get a favourable order for the Nadar women. The courts permitted Nadar Christian women to wear an upper cloth, a right that was guaranteed to all Christians. However, the violence did not reduce. Towards the late 1820s, a royal decree was issued. The royal decree allowed the Nadar women to wear blouses – which was different from what the upper caste women wore.
The same issue resurfaced again when Nadar women started wearing both the blouse and the upper cloth that Nair women wore. This time around, the violence and atrocities on Nadar women were much more and in a larger scale. After many long months of riots and violent clashes, the Travancore Palace, under pressure by the British Governor passed a decree that allowed all Nadar women to wear the garments of their choice.
Clothing has become a form of expressing one’s gender, sexuality and even religious belief. And so, those who mandate who can wear what, try to maintain some sense of social hierarchy through a dress code. Now, we are seeing similar debates on Muslim women’s right to wear the hijab. The Karnataka High Court is hearing a case where Muslim women have sought for the constitutional protection of their right to wear a hijab- as freedom of choice and religion.
From the Chanar Revolt we know that these are battles that have been fought by women much prior to our Constitution even coming into force. Battles that have been and are being fought to break past religious, caste and gender hierarchies existing in the society. Unfortunately, the Indian society is no stranger to using clothing as a tool of repression and continues to do so till date.