A Fight for the Right to Cover Up

Shannon Mathew

I learned about Shanar revolt back in 2009 from a small section in my 9th grade History textbook under the chapter “Caste Conflict and Dress Change”. The 19th century Shanar Revolt is a significant moment in history as it is a milestone victory of subordinate groups in breaking social hierarchies and rules of caste identity. And like any other revolt, it is important for students to be taught about the historical struggles that have paved the way in establishing current social status quos.

I still remember how exhilarating it was to read about it. It was there that my reverence for the NCERT history textbooks began. If you know me, you know that I absolutely loved our history textbooks, because simple as the language may have been (something my ICSE peers always scoffed at), it was beautifully formulated. So the minute I decided to write about the Shanar women, my immediate thought was to go back to the source. Imagine my surprise when I read that the CBSE issued a circular ‘asking’ all affiliated schools to omit the entire chapter from the curriculum, with effect in 2017.

Now, this is not due to any opposition from students or even teachers. In fact, the coordinator of the book, Professor Kiran Devendra, has gone on record to say that the section is factually correct and that there have been no complaints regarding the contents of the section from school students or teachers.

But for now, let’s put that debate aside, even as it continues to be a relevant and important conversation to have in our present context. Let’s also look at the role of clothing as an instrument of patriarchal control.

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“Nowhere in India was the Hindu caste system more clearly defined and more meticulously maintained than in Travancore… It is one of the sacred countries of the Hindus, having been reclaimed from the sea… for the sole use of Brahmans. The Brahman is regarded as a foreigner but nowhere in India holds a higher rank than here. He is considered by the orthodox to be the actual lord of the soil. The Nayars are next to the Brahmans; below the Nayars, and classed among those outside the pale of orthodox Hinduism, are the two great classes called Shanars and Iravars, the former of who are found in the south.”

“Nowhere in India was the Hindu caste system more clearly defined and more meticulously maintained than in Travancore… It is one of the sacred countries of the Hindus, having been reclaimed from the sea… for the sole use of Brahmans. The Brahman is regarded as a foreigner but nowhere in India holds a higher rank than here. He is considered by the orthodox to be the actual lord of the soil. The Nayars are next to the Brahmans; below the Nayars, and classed among those outside the pale of orthodox Hinduism, are the two great classes called Shanars and Iravars, the former of who are found in the south.”

In Travancore, there were numerous restrictions imposed on the Shanar women (now called Nadars). These included maintaining a stipulated number of paces from the various upper caste groups, remaining barefoot, not wearing gold ornaments, and not building homes with more than one storey high. Two conditions particularly enforced were to carry water pots only on their heads as a sign of subservience, and not being allowed to cover their chests. Caste laws forbade both lower caste men and women from covering their upper bodies – a sign of respect to the higher castes.

In the 19th century, many Shanars converted to Christianity primarily due to their social status, which often required them to work for little to no wages and pay exorbitant taxes. Their conversion helped the Shanar women to extricate themselves from the oppressive system and began to advance economically, to the continues anger of the higher castes. From this clash arose the Shanar Revolt or the breast cloth controversy of the early 19th century.

The Shanar women successfully campaigned to be allowed to cover their breasts, and in 1813 the British dewan in the Travancore court issued an order granting the Christian converts permission to cover themselves. This order was later withdrawn when members of the council of the Raja of Travancore argued against the order, saying that it would destroy cast differences and pollute the state. This did nothing to deter the women from continuing their fight for their right to wear upper body clothing.

By the early 1820’s, violence against the Shanar women escalated. Schools and churches were burned down, and in 1822, Nayar women attacked the Shanar women and who tore off their upper clothes. Numerous complaints were filed in the court against the Shanar women’s dress change. They retaliated to by refusing to give free labour to the higher castes. In 1829, the Travancore government ordered Shanar women to abstain from covering the upper parts of their body. But the Shanar Christians, joined by the Hindus as well, continued to adopt the blouse and upper clothing.

In 1858, when an official of the government along with the higher caste women attacked and stripped the revolting Shanar women in the marketplace, it sparked 20 days of rioting. Later the military was called to quell the rioting, and once brought under control, the dewan issued a public warning against violating ancient customs, and promised swift and severe action against those who takes law into their own hands.

The spirit of the Shanar women refused to be extinguished, and by 1859, the government relented and issued a proclamation permitting Shanar women of all faith to cover their upper bodies, as long as it was not similar to the way upper caste women did.

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The importance of learning about this struggle is not limited only to the knowledge of history, but to recognize that even today, a women’s right to choose how she clothes her own body continues to be dictated and regulated by patriarchal institutions.

Some religions, for instance, have a particular set of clothing requirements for women. In some sects of Hinduism, women are expected to cover their heads and/or faces with their dupatta or pallu, especially in temples. Within some Muslim sects, women are expected to cover their head, face and/or body by wearing a burkha, hijab or niqab. This has led to the evolution of this attire in a more modern set up as well, where we have seen innovations such as burkinis, and specially made sports hijabs for Muslim athletes. These often become issues of contention as well when the law, in an effort to liberate women, still impinges on their freedom to make their own choices.

But regulation of women’s attire does not exist solely in religious set-ups. Educational institutions impose highly restrictive dress codes on female students, an issue that has begun to be highlighted and challenged across the world in the recent past; professional workspaces sometimes have mandates directing women to wear high heels, or even specific types of dress.

Though the definition of ‘appropriate’ attire for women has evolved (or devolved) over time and varies from culture to culture, its regulation by external authorities is something that has stood the tests of time. Thus between questions of morality and law, women’s rights often become political or social issues, as opposed to being a matters of personal choice. 

Shannon Mathew studied History at the University of Delhi, completing her Bachelors in 2016. Currently, she is interning with The YP Foundation.