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Reasons for Asian Women to Vote

I would like to invite Asian women to embrace the right to vote.

Voting is a privilege that we, as women – as Asian women, haven’t always enjoyed.

When British colonialism was at its height in the early 1900s, many Asian women came here as Ayahs – or nannies – taking care of English children on the passage from India to Britain. When they arrived in England Ayahs were often dismissed. Returning to India was difficult for them, sometimes impossible, and these young women had to remain in this foreign country.

They’d lost their homes, their lives and their freedom to choose.

But things began to change.

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.

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 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. 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.

Bhikaji Cama, born in Bombay, was also a prominent suffragette and ardent socialist, actively campaigning for gender equality and Indian independence. 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.

While Sophie Duleep Singh and Bhikaji Cama were battling for gender equality and the right to vote, other suffragettes were imprisoned for speaking out. They often went on hunger strikes but weren’t allowed to be force fed as it was too similar to the way people in institutions were handled. So the women were allowed to go hungry. They let them starve themselves in prison until they were too weak to protest and then sent them into the streets. Many died. But that seemed acceptable, as long as they didn’t die within the confines of the prison.

The work of all these women illustrates the intensity of their commitment to gain their right to voice an opinion. It also illustrates the commitment of the men in that period to thwart this attempt.

But we won. We all won.

Women’s Coronation Procession, 17 June 1911, courtesy of the Museum of London

Women’s Coronation Procession, 17 June 1911, courtesy of the Museum of London

The Equal Franchise Act was passed in 1928 and, finally, women were granted the same voting rights as men.

The women who struggled and sacrificed for us are part of our history. They fought for freedom and rights for all women, whatever their nationality.  Due to the courage, persistence and dedication of the suffragettes, we have been given the right to cast our votes and shape our countries.

So, with this in mind, as women – as Asian women – we ask: Why did they fight so hard? And why should we vote today?

There are many reasons but I will stick with eight.

  1. We live in a democracy. This means that we can voice our opinions, we can challenge the politicians in power, as we are the ones who put them there. They work for us. A democracy only works if we all speak up .
  2. Our votes, particularly as a minority, will create a balance We are all equal but we all have different inherent strengths. We, as Asian women, need to bring our strengths on voting day to balance the decisions made in our communities and in our country.
  3. We need to have a say in decisions that will affect our children’s future.
  4. We obey the laws of this country. As this is the case, shouldn’t we be able to have a say in making them? Voting gives you the opportunity to do this.
  5. Voting is anonymous. Some of us have the opportunity and ability to state our opinions in front of a camera or on a stage. Others do not. Voting is a powerful way to state your beliefs quietly but effectively.
  6. We pay taxes. By voting we can have a say in how those taxes are spent.
  7. Voting allows us to have a say in our future. When we’re unhappy with a decision or policy we all say “they should do this” or “they shouldn’t do that.” You have every right to complain if you have voted. But if you haven’t … maybe you should have. Maybe your votes could have pushed the decision the way you wanted it to go.
  8. The more people who vote, the more honest the representation of the population we will have. We live in a democracy. Let’s make it work.

It is not only your right and a privilege, as a woman and as a citizen of this country to vote, it is your responsibility.

Women fought for us. They fought for women of all colours and from all backgrounds and countries. They lost their lives and their homes for our right to have a say.

Let’s make their struggle worth it.

Please vote.

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