Nangeli: A Feminist From The 19th Century

Feminism is not really a new concept; it’s been around for a very long time. Hundred of years ago, there were women who fought for their rights that were not known to the world. One such woman who fought against discriminatory breast tax was Nangeli. This tax was introduced by the King of Travancore. 

Also Read: Why Some Malayalis Hate Feminism

Lower caste women were expected to show their breasts according to cultural norms. The prevailing caste structure was immensely strict at the period, and these ladies were not permitted to wear upper clothing. If they refused, they would be fined for their defiance. And the horrifying part is that the tax amount was calculated depending on each woman’s breast size.

So what is this breast tax?

The king of the Travancore state imposed a new levy known as Mulakaram also known as breast-tax during the early 1800s. Local kings were frequently forced by the British empire to pay high taxes. As a result, monarchs were obliged to look for new ways to generate tax revenue. As such, they prohibited lower-caste women from covering their breasts in public. However, they had to pay hefty taxes if they wished to hide.

Even more disturbing, every woman would have to have her breasts checked by royal tax collectors during the period of adolescence. Her taxes would then be calculated depending on the size of her breasts. This procedure amounted to a complete invasion of their privacy and their dignity.

Unfortunately, as the lower castes struggled, the upper caste continued to prosper and live decently. The implementation of the breast tax was primarily attributed to two principal reasons: to degrade the lower castes and to burden them with obligations that kept them poorer.

Nangeli: A Feminist From The 19th Century

Since Christian women were not required to cover up, several lower caste families switched to Christianity in order to avoid this tax. Christianity was still comparatively unknown to the region at the time, and the religion was still attempting to expand among the populace. More and more families converted to Christianity as the days passed, in an attempt to avoid shame, resulting in a large number of immigrants from lower castes into Christianity.

Also Read: The Successful Woman Archetype: Feminism’s Loophole

About Nangeli

Nangeli was a member of the Ezhava caste. Her group, along with other lower castes such as the Thia, Nadar, and Dalit, had to pay the tax. She frequently protected young ladies from being used by upper caste people, which had serious consequences for her and her husband. Members of the lower caste were no longer working as a result of the ongoing protests. They were forced farther into poverty as a result of the situation. Notwithstanding this, the state was forcibly collecting taxes from low-income women who were covering up their breasts.

Nangeli was unafraid to break the state’s regulations in 1803, and she did it without hesitation. She went out in public wearing her blouses. The upper castes were outraged. She was immediately accosted by members of the upper caste, who demanded that she undress in public. She replied by handing over her knife and fighting off the attackers.

When a tax inspector learned about Nangeli’s defiance and refusal to pay tax, he went to confront and warn her about her breach.

He further demanded that a fine be paid right away. Nangeli went inside her house and cut her breasts and placed it in a plantain leaf as a form of protest. Nangeli died from massive blood loss, and her grieving husband killed himself by leaping into her funeral pyre.

Nangeli: A Feminist From The 19th Century
Credit: Padmasree Murali

Scheduled castes communities continued to protest the discriminatory tax system until the king was obliged to abolish it. Women from the Nadar communities are well-known for fighting for the right to cover their breasts. The breast tax was finally repealed in 1924.

Malavika Venugopalan
All great articles start with a great interview. I talk to people, get to know their journey and I put it down to words.

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