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.]

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