Exceptions in the Labour Movement?: Anna Lindberg on Early Twentieth Century Women Workers in Travancore’s Cashew Industry

[Here is an excerpt from Anna Lindberg’s brilliant work on gender in the cashew workers’ mobilisation in Travancore and Kerala in the 20th century, which reflects upon the way in which women workers, who formed the bulk of the participants in the massive, militant labour struggles of the mid-20th century, ended up being portrayed as more exceptional than normal. It gives a glimpse of women’s militancy — and of an exceptional incident of resistance from the early 1960s, in which a young woman worker pulled off her blouse and showing her breasts to the armed police, dared them to shoot her there. Lindberg notes that this dramatic and politically-charged use of the female body was hardly recognized for its subversion: it was seen as either ‘a manly gesture’ or ‘unnatural’. Indeed, this was the kind of participation that the elitist representatives of ‘Women’ (who echo the elitist Navoddhana Mahila of the 1930s — evident in an essay by an author named Vasumathy in 1960 (in the section Critique) — that criticised women’s participation in public demonstrations and so on as merely shouting obscenities for various political parties. And sadly enough, this remains the case in 21st century Kerala, as evident from the frenzy around the exposure of the female torso in Rehana Fathima’s body art, recently.]

[Anna Lindberg, Experience and Identity: A Historical Account of Caste, Class, and Gender Among the Cashew Workers of Kerala, 1930-2000, Lund: University of Lund, 2001, pp. 274-76]

… in a 1946 description of one of the earliest demonstrations, we noted the police reporting that 300 coolies, including men and women, participated. At the time it was considered remarkable that not only women, but also men of the lower castes challenged the establishment. Twenty years later, accounts of collective labour actions singled out women’s participation as remarkable. We get the impression from the newspaper citations that women had come to be considered exceptions in labour movement activities and needed to be remarked upon. It appears from these accounts that, in spite of the greater numerical presence of women in the factories, they had become less prone to take an active role in trade unions as time went on. To continually stress that “women, too, participated” is to express the uniqueness of this occurrence. The fact of the matter is, however, that, in most
demonstrations of cashew workers a large number (most often the majority) of the participants were women. [this is based on a review of the reports in the communist party newspaper, Janayugam, of the 1950s.]

When we consider that since about 1960, more than 90% of all cashew workers have been women, it is rather curious to find that so many men participated in the demonstrations at all! If the newspaper is correct, there were often as many men as women (and sometimes more) in evidence. Who were these men, and why did the reporters not comment on their participation? I asked Gomathi trade union convener since the mid- l 940s, who had participated in hundreds of strikes and demonstrations, and had been imprisoned several times, about the men in question:

In the old days, many of the men in the demonstrations were cashew workers. I cannot tell you in each and every case who the men and women were, but usually when we staged a satyagraha or picketed a road, a factory gate, or a building, most female workers in the shelling and peeling sections participated, and also most male workers. The graders-mainly Nairs-have been a little bit reluctant to participate, but it is better now than, let’s say, thirty or forty years ago. The male participants you read about in the paper are, apart from cashew workers, made up of two groups. The first consists of our husbands, brothers, sons, fathers, and uncles. Whenever they had the opportunity-and they often had, as many of them frequently were unemployed they joined us to help us to create a big crowd. The other category may have been more professional activists from student organizations, youth groups, other trade unions, or political parties. They, too, have shown their solidarity with us. That is why you read about so many men joining the women’s struggle.

-Gomathi, Ezhava woman, born 1930, sheller, trade union convener.

Gomathi’s view was shared by many other of my informants. All of them were women who had participated in a number of strikes, demonstrations, marches, picket lines, and other trade union activities during the last four or five decades. Their stories suggest that there has been a joint struggle against capitalism in their families. Numerous instances of women maltreated by their husbands (or other male family members) may be encountered, and yet capitalist exploitation was considered stronger and more important to combat. Male family members were also exposed to capitalist exploitation, and class conflict among men and women were always seen as more important than gender conflicts. The family was considered a joint unit for taking a stand against capitalist forces. However, in reports of
demonstrations and other trade union activities, the true activists, the women, have been portrayed as the exceptions, the Others. Males-in most instances not even cashew workers-have been regarded as the true activists.

A vivid history of another “exception” has been preserved among trade union leaders. It appears that this happened in the early 1960s. A cashew factory near Quilon [Kollam] had suddenly withdrawn all welfare benefits, causing the enraged workers to strike and surround the factory. The manager called the police, who tried to disperse the crowd and send the demonstrators home. Suddenly a young woman jumped in front of the armed police, tore off her blouse, and challenged the police to shoot her through the breast.
The story has survived for about four decades and it has been characterized as, on the one hand, amusing, and on the other as unnatural.

In having the audacity to venture her femininity by tearing her blouse off and exposing her naked breasts to the police, the woman, although perhaps acting intemperately, took a stand as a true worker and true radical member of the labor movement. This kind of behavior had long been common in Kerala among men, the intent being to shame the police and show
them as cowards and traitors for attacking poor, unarmed workers. But when a woman did the same thing, it was considered so remarkable that it engendered a long-lived story among male activists and found its way into the trade unions’ historical accounts as an amusing rarity. What made the event remarkable was not only that she exposed her body, but that she behaved like a man and was seen to be possessed of the true spirit of radicalism. Such behaviour and mentality were not expected of a woman, as women were stereotypically supposed to be frightened and in need of male protection….

[Anna Lindberg’s wonderful doctoral dissertation, a true gift to historical scholarship on Kerala, is available as full-text online. Click here to read/download it.]

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