Shahida's Blog

Just another site

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.

Leave a comment »


6th February 2014 marked the 90th anniversary of the building of the Lascar Memorial. Image

I would like to revive this story, which is not widely recognised.

 In 1924, in Kolkata (also known as Calcutta), Englishman William Ingram Keir built and erected the Indo-Mogul style monument to remember the 896 Bengali Lascars who perished in the Great War from 1914-18. Lascars were Asian seamen who worked aboard British steamships and, for over 350 years, they played a crucial role in ensuring goods from India reached British ports safely in times of peace and war.  On 6 February 1924, the monument was unveiled by Lord Lytton, then Governor of Bengal.

 William Keir also designed Kidderpore Bridge, buildings at Bengal Engineering and Science University in Shibpur, the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur and Islamia College, all in India.  He also replaced the spire of St Paul’s Cathedral in Kolkata, which was damaged in an earthquake in 1934.  He also designed a number of mosques, temples and gurdwaras in the city and the state.  In 1920, Keir won an award of 500 Rupees for designing the monument.

 By the eve of the First World War, there were over 50,000 lascars in Britain, many of whom had been abandoned or else had jumped ship.  Many had no choice but to become involved in the war effort, comprising 20 percent of the British maritime labour force. Their loyalty was surprising, considering that lascars were fighting for a nation that didn’t embrace them.

 In 1994, the abandoned monument, which is approximately 100ft tall, was renovated by a retired Indian army officer – Commodore Bibhu Mohanti – who noticed the neglected memorial.  He collected funds for the renovation, which took a year to complete.  In December 1995, the monument was illuminated for the first time.

 Mohanti was born in Orissa and was commissioned in to the Indian Navy in 1963. Mohanti served at the Bay of Bengal in 1971, during the Indo-Pak War, which saw the independence of Bangladesh.  In May 1997, he retired from service in Calcutta.

 William’s son, James Keir, was born and educated in Darjeeling, (then British India.) He is now retired and lives in Hong Kong. He said, “It is a pity I did not pay much attention to my father’s works when growing up, nor did he talk much about them. The original memorial had a gold dome, which is now painted pink. I remember my father saying that the shiny dome came into view as the boats came up the Hooghly and that it pointed to Mecca. He would always say, ‘I am a foreigner in India but a stranger everywhere else.’ He died three months after he left India in 1967.” James and Commodore Mohanti met for the first time in November 2012.

 2014 marks the commemoration of the centenary of the Great War. The event this year is not a celebration of the event, but rather an acknowledgement and remembering of the sacrifices made.

 Every year on 4 November, National Navy Day of India is celebrated at the Lascar War Memorial.

Published in the Asian World, February 2014.

Leave a comment »