Posted by: cochinblogger | May 28, 2010

The Bra: Symbol of Oppression or Liberation?

The following extract is from Gowri Amma’s reminiscences titled “The Night They Arrested The Moon” in Kerala, Kerala — Quite Contrary, a collection of articles and short stories on Kerala by an eclectic group of Malayali writers edited by Shinie Antony:

The Nadar weaver women of southern Travancore started wearing bras (rowkas) though, like Nair women, they were not permitted to cover their breasts. The Maharani prohibited the rowka for Nadar women. This brought about the famous Nadar uprising. British intervention saw the Maharani withdrawing her directive.

So, in this part of the country, at one point in time, the bra became a symbol of liberation.

How about the West? I have referred to bra burning in connection with the women’s liberation movement earlier in this blog. (See https://cochinblogger.wordpress.com/2010/04/16/why-men-cant-burn-their-briefs/.) The image of bra-burning activists had burned itself into my brain, but I could not place this image in any kind of context. What was the source of the image? There was no clear-cut answer. I slowly realized that I must have internalized the image over a period of time from encountering that image in what I read, and that those writers were no better than me: they had developed the same reflex from their reading! But there was no primary source in sight.

Then I ran into this blog post: http://mediamythalert.wordpress.com/category/bra-burning/.

It gives a convincing account of how the myth of the bra-burning women’s libber arose. A humorist I admire helped spread the myth with his wisecracks; for a humorist, this was just too good an opportunity to pass up. So I exculpate Art Buchwald.

There is an interesting fine point lying concealed in the above account. Although the author proves that bra burning did not take place at Atlanta, the bra was one of the loathed articles flung into a Freedom Trash Can.  These articles, including the bra and high-heeled shoes, were termed “instruments of torture” by the activists. So, is it not reasonable to infer that though bra burning is a myth, the fact that it symbolized oppression for these activists is not?

If this inference is correct, then the bra is an interesting example of how something that stands for liberation in one part of the world could symbolize oppression in another part of the world. It’s just another of the little quirks that make life interesting.

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