Shahida Rahman

Photograph of Indian suffragettes on the Women's Coronation Proc

Women’s Coronation Procession, 17 June 1911, courtesy of the Museum of London
The vital role that Asian women played in the feminist movement in early 20th century England has gone largely unnoticed.

By the 1900s, women had been campaigning for the right to vote for nearly half a century. In 1903, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was founded in Manchester, breathing new life into the suffragette movement and fighting for the rights of all women, regardless of their nationality.

Although British women were perceived as the weaker sex, they were also labelled as morally superior to men, making them the logical choice to raise children and care for the home. Inevitably, feminists were accused of neglecting their nurturing duties during their public struggle for equality. Their response to this was to find a cause that would emphasise their moral high ground, giving them a plausible reason to fight for their rights.

Asian women filled this niche.

During this tumultuous time and at the height of British colonisation, many Asian women found themselves adrift within British society. Most had entered the country on ships employed by English families as ayahs (nannies) and, once they’d served their few weeks at sea, were dismissed, expected to survive on their own. Securing passage back to India was seasonal and often difficult especially during wartime, leaving hundreds of young women stranded far from home.

Many British high society feminists voiced concerns for their Indian sisters, regarding them as passive victims. Their mission was to rescue these perceived objects of pity and misfortune. This concept was not limited to the stranded ayahs in Britain but was generalised to include the oppressed women still in Asia.

A gradual change in this compassionate but superior attitude came about as Asian women grew stronger and more outspoken, not only in Britain but also in India. By 1905, Asian women were emerging to show public support of various political activities and the exploitation of women and their traditional roles were challenged.

This show of strength and solidarity for the global women’s movement and political causes in general, worked to forge a new respect for British women’s Indian sisters, refuting the portrayal of helplessness. Two influential Asian women, in particular, Sophia Duleep Singh and Bhikaji Cama became powerful and influential suffragettes, fighting for Asian women and Indian independence.

Sophie Duleep Singh, of Asian descent, was born in Norfolk. She caught typhoid as a child. A battler, even at nine, she recovered from the fever but sadly, her mother did not and Sophie’s father left his children in the care of foster parents. As Sophie grew, her social life and connections flourished and she joined the WSPU, becoming an active campaigner and fundraiser for women’s rights. She was also a member of the Women’s Tax Resistance League and made many appearances in court for non-payment of taxes. She strongly opposed the injustice of making a woman pay taxes when she had no right to vote or voice her opinion on how those taxes were spent. In 1911, Sophie was fined by the courts for refusing to pay taxes due on her five dogs and man servant. The courts also impounded her diamond ring and auctioned it off. However, the auction was attended by many women’s right campaigners. One of these was a Mrs Topling who purchased the ring and promptly returned it to Sophie.

Tax resistance was not Sophie Duleep Singh’s only form of defiance; she also took part in many acts of civil disobedience. In 1910 she marched at the head of the Black Friday deputation to the Houses of Parliament, protesting the paper shuffling and delays involved in reading a bill in Parliament that would give women the vote. This protest ended in police violence and the death of two suffragettes. During World War II, Sophie also took part in the 10,000-strong Women’s War Work procession led by Emmeline Pankhurst to support the involvement of more women in the war effort.

Bhikaji Cama was also a prominent suffragette and ardent socialist, actively campaigning for gender equality and Indian independence. Born in Bombay in 1861, she came from a wealthy Parsi business family and attended the Alexandra Native Girls Institution, one of the best Indian schools of the time. She was married at the age of 24 and, as this union was an unhappy one, Bhikaji spent much of her time involved in social work and helping women less fortunate then herself. She became particularly proactive in campaigning for a free India.

In 1902, Bhikaji applied herself to helping victims of the Bubonic Plague and contracted the dreaded disease herself. She survived, but was left weak and physically vulnerable. Her doctors advised her to travel to Europe until she had recuperated. While in London, Bhikaji was able to reinforce her belief in the equality of the sexes and became involved with the suffragette movement. The strength of the women she met and their belief in the possibility of change fed her resolve to continue her campaign for an independent India. She held regular meetings at Hyde Park, India House and, as her strength grew, became a highly influential figure to many other Asian and British suffragettes and free India activists.

While in London, Bhikaji was dealt a powerful blow. She would be prevented from returning to India unless she desisted in her nationalist activities. Unwilling to step away from the causes she believed in, she rejected this offer and was subsequently extradited to Paris. Influenced by the suffragette movement, Bhikaji was vehement in her support for gender equality and soon became involved with other high profile activists and continued her dual campaign from her home in Paris. She invited many world revolutionaries into her home, exchanging ideas with Lenin and assisting Savarkar to publish his book, The Indian War of Independence. As well as being a role model and illustrating the strength and determination of a woman through her actions, Bhikaji also contributed more directly to the suffragette movement. She spoke at a National Conference in Cairo in 1910, attended only by men stating that “the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that moulds the nation,” emphasising the role of women in their maternal role of shaping the nation.

Sophie Duleep Singh and Bhikaji Cama are both compelling examples of Asian women who played important parts in the suffragette movement in Britain in the early 20th century. Their direct contributions to the effort cannot be denied but their strength and outstanding courage in the face of great odds has allowed them to become powerful role models for women and girls all over the world.

Shahida _colour

Shahida is an author, writer and publisher, living in Cambridge.

Her first historical novel, Lascar was published in 2012. She wrote ‘The Integration of the Hijab into Police Uniforms,’ which was published in the ‘Behind the Hijab’ anthology, in March 2009. In 2009, she was commissioned to write a radio play for the Lascar Heritage Project for Silsila Productions.

Shahida is regular contributor to BBC Radio Cambridgeshire, Asian World newspaper and Sisters Magazine.

She is currently working on my second historical novel and a series of children’s books.