Sonja Thomas completed her Ph.D. in Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers in May 2011. Her dissertation, “From Chattas to Churidars: Syrian Christian Religious Minorities in a Secular Indian State,” examined the larger questions of how socially constructed differences between women shape their capacity to create feminist networks and to act towards social change. Her research specifically analyzed the Syrian Christian community of Kerala, India and the intersectional social identities of the religious community; a Christian religious minority identity, an Aryan racial identity, and a high-caste Brahmin identity. From the chatta, a clothing worn in pre-independence India by Syrian Christian women alone, to the churidar worn today by women of all castes, races and religions, her dissertation attempted to understand the complex histories and differences between South Asian people. Sonja accepted a tenure-track assistant professor position at Colby College.
This dissertation is a critical analysis of the feminist concept of intersectionality and a necessary contribution into the study of caste, class, race, religion and gender in South Asia. Rather than viewing identities as merely overlapping, I argue that there exist countless “acts” that implicate the co-constitutive, relational, and fluid nature of identities. Particularly focusing on the upper-caste Syrian Christian community in postcolonial Kerala, India, I examine “acts” in the form of embodied clothing practices, women’s mobility in public spaces and political protests. My dissertation especially intervenes into dominant discourses within South Asian and Women’s and Gender Studies. I reassess of the concept of race in South Asia, provide a sustained ethnographic and historical analysis of the state of Kerala, India, and I place the fields of South Asian and Women’s and Gender Studies into critical dialogue with each other. To make these interventions, I use a variety of sources collected through interdisciplinary research methods. These methods include ethnography, archival methods, feminist and postcolonial theoretical analysis, and visual culture analysis. In the first and second chapters of the dissertation, I provide an overview of the dissertation, my field site and a history of the Syrian Christian community. In the third and fourth chapters I explore the relations between class, caste, race, religion and gender through an examination of the women’s (in)ability to move freely in a changing public sphere. Following this, in chapters five and six I analyze how Syrian Christians have used their social privileges to politically mobilize, define a nation-wide minority identity, and protect their dominance in Kerala’s private education sector. In the last chapter, I bridge Women’s and Gender Studies with South Asian Studies and examine each of the disciplines’ approach to studying differences between peoples in India. From the chatta, a clothing worn in colonial Kerala by Syrian Christian women alone, to the churidar worn today by women of all classes, castes, races and religions, I examine how “acts” of class, caste, race, religion and gender may continue previous divisions between groups, justifying forms of oppression and ultimately upholding systems of domination in India today.