Legend has it that over 100 years ago, in a Kerala that was not so celebrated for literacy or living standards, there existed a regressive tax system—mulakkaram or breast tax. Women from lower castes were not allowed to cover their breasts, and were taxed heavily if they did so.
And it is here that folklore speaks of a woman champion, Nangeli, who belonged to the Ezhava caste and was expected to pay the breast tax. The brave Nangeli unflinchingly defied the orders—she covered her bosom and refused to pay the tax. When the tax collector reached her house to collect the money, she cut off her breasts with a sickle knife and presented it to him. It is said Nangeli died of excessive bleeding, and her distraught husband killed himself by jumping into her funeral pyre. The king revoked the breast tax. Womanhood won.
Eons later, comes another piece of news from the land of Nangeli who fought to cover her breasts—maaruthurakkal samaram, or bare chest campaign. A new movement has taken over social media by storm in Kerala where an activist Diya Sana posted pictures of a bare-chested woman holding watermelons.
She said the pictures were of her friend Rehana Fathima, a social activist and model. According to reports, another woman Arathy S.A. was the first to post a topless picture. Facebook has removed the pictures. The campaign is in protest to body-shaming comments by a professor who said girls were not 'covering their breasts properly' and likened them to watermelons.
"I am teacher of a college where 80 per cent of the students are girls and of that, majority are Muslims. These girls are not wearing dress as per the religious tradition. They are not covering their chests with hijab. But showing part of it is like slice of red water melon being displayed," professor Jouhar Munavvir of Farook Training college, Kozhikode, said in a speech that is going viral.
Angry students of the institution took out a 'watermelon march' to the main gate holding sliced watermelons in their hands and sought action against the professor.
This is the second time 'breasts' have come into the public realm of debate and discussion in recent times in Kerala. Recently, the state witnessed a similar debate against breastfeeding taboo after a magazine carried a photograph of a model breastfeeding on its cover. Morality and culture debates will rage on, and drown the message that these women, right from Nangeli to these activists generations later, cry out loud—my body, my right. Speaking to media after the hullabaloo, Sana said she doesn't intend to urge women to bare breasts in public. “It is their choice. Women should have the liberty to wear what they like.”
The voices, the protests are all an uprising against the rampant objectification of women, and sexualisation of her body parts. As society slut-shames these women, it is important to look at the larger message, which is loud and clear.
A classic example of how social media frenzy often takes the attention away from the truth is Malayalam actress Rima Kallingal's 'fish fry feminism' speech and the comments that followed. She addressed the subject of gender discrimination at home through an anecdote from her childhood—missing out on the fish fry because men in the house got the preference. This was what turned her into a feminist, she said. While many ridiculed her and wondered what was the relation between fish fry and feminism, they clearly missed the point Rima tried to make—that gender discrimination happens in everyday life—at the dinner table, or at work.
Same goes with the bare chest campaign. Let the point be clear: objectification of women happens in everyday life—be it a skimpily clad model, an item song dancer, a breastfeeding mother, a 'modestly' dressed female colleague or classmate. To talk about clothes—jeans, leggings, kurta or sari—would need another movement all together.