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Asian suffragettes – hidden histories talk at Asia House puts role centre stage as Shahida Rahman and Dr Helen Pankhurst debate…

Asian suffragettes – hidden histories talk at Asia House puts role centre stage as Shahida Rahman and Dr Helen Pankhurst debate…

February 28 Asia House has announced this event has been postponed due to adverse weather conditions – if you have a ticket contact organisers

Largely forgotten and left behind by both suffragette and anti-colonial history, two present-day voices and authors for change assess the impact of two remarkable 20th century women and look at their impact and what lessons they may hold for us today…

PRINCESS Sophia Duleep Singh and Bhikaiji Cama were prominent figures in the suffragette movement a hundred years ago but their contributions have mostly been erased by (British) history until recently.
Marking a 100 years of the suffragette movement in Britain, and looking ahead to March 8, and UN International Women’s Day, Asia House, the London-based business and cultural centre focused on the continent, invites two prominent campaigners and women’s champions to assess the role of Asian suffragettes.
On Thursday March 1, Asia House will welcome writer and campaigner Shahida Rahman and human rights activist and academic Dr Helen Pankhurst to discuss the roles of the Asian suffragettes and whether there are lessons to be learnt from Singh’s and Cama’s hidden histories.
At a time when women did not have the vote, the suffragettes were a movement dedicated to equality and spearheaded a partially successful campaign to secure the vote for women (those who had property and were over 30 obtained the vote in 2018, universal women’s suffrage for women over 21 came in 1928).

In a special preview, both answered some questions from about current debates surrounding women’s rights and how South Asian women might seek to get involved, inspired by some of the earliest recognised campaigners. (ACV): Not enough people really know about the role of Asian suffragettes, why do you think their contribution has been neglected, especially until quite recently?

Shahida Rahman

Shahida Rahman (SR): The vital role that Asian women played in the feminist movement in early 20th century England has gone largely unnoticed. These hidden histories are emerging from centenary celebrations. The centenary of the Great War in 2014 helped bring out the history of the Indian contribution to the war effort.
Similarly, Sophia Duleep Singh and Bhikaiji Cama are both compelling examples of Asian women who played important parts in the suffragette movement in Britain. During this time British colonialism was at its height and many Asian women found themselves adrift within British society. Sophia became a prominent figure within the British suffragette movement and an icon to all Asian women living both in Britain and in India. She was a champion in the cause of women’s rights. Her causes were also the struggle for Indian independence; she was a voice for South Asian seamen and Indian soldiers, as well as women’s right to vote. Sophia was a passionate supporter of suffrage for all women whatever their status.


ACV: There were some differences in strategy among the Suffragettes themselves. Some famously were opposed to Indian Independence and believed in Empire and votes only for certain groups of women – how do we reconcile these ideas with the more general call for equality in the 21st century?

Dr Helen Pankhurst (©Guy Bell/CARE)

Dr Helen Pankhurst (Dr HP): My great-grandmother Emmeline and great Aunt Christabel both believed that the vote should be for all women in the end, but that the strategy of focusing on wealthier women and gaining franchise for some women was tactically the best way forward.
My grandmother, Sylvia disagreed with them believing the most important focus should be on working women and those most disadvantaged. The family was split by these and other differences, including to the war and ideas around the legitimacy or otherwise of the empire. In one family we see mirrored the schisms of the movement then, with many issues echoing through to the feminist movement today.

ACV: Is it important to build an inclusive women’s movement today and how do you think this can be achieved? And how do we get more Asian women to be active?

DR HP: It’s not just important it is imperative. At the end of the day we are challenging unaccountable privilege and the abuse of power wherever it takes place. An intersectional approach means sensitivity to double and triple discrimination, creating fora that gives a voice to all. It also needs a global perspective as women’s rights in the UK do not exist in a vacuum.

SR: We still have a long way to go, despite women being given the vote 100 years ago. Older generations in Asian families had clear-cut roles for men and women. These generations accepted men to be the breadwinners of the family for the most part. Women were expected to stay at home. The employment prospects for some Asian women would look promising if it wasn’t for two things – the male dominated society and the prejudice in our society and the cultural beliefs too. However, we are seeing a change, as a new wave of young, well-read generation takes the reigns, it will take conscious effort to break stigma particularly in the Asian community.

ACV: What are the possible strategies and how do you see the future? Where does motherhood fit into this debate?

DR HP: My book ‘Deeds Not Words, the Story of Women’s Rights, Then and Now’, explores this question (of strategy) in great detail but in summary, although my findings are that violence against women is the area where we have made the least progress in terms of women’s lives and is the area that pulls all other gains down, I also think the solution is not sectoral but around changing social norms – across the board.

SR: It (motherhood) is the hardest job in the world! Allow me to focus on my own community. I am of Bangladeshi origin. Women of all are expected to juggle between demanding household tasks, in many cases children and work life. In some cases, the in-laws of married women place restrictions on their freedom, not allowing them to pursue their career. We do need to have a wider debate on equality and gender too, and this needs to involve men too. These are not just women’s issues. It’s happening in all communities. Older generations in all families had clear-cut roles for men and women. These generations accepted men to be the breadwinners of the family for the most part. Women were expected to stay at home.

Thursday, March 1 6.45pm-9pm
The crucial role of the Asian suffragette – Shahida Rahman and Dr Helen Pankhurst
Asia House, 63 New Cavendish St W1G 7LP United Kingdom

Shahida Rahman’s acclaimed first novel ‘Lascar’ deals with Asian seafarers who came to Britain at the turn of the last century and found themselves at huge disadvantage, despite being loyal servants of the Empire. She is an author and campaigner. You can follow her on Twitter
Her novel:

Dr Helen Pankhurst is the great granddaughter of a prominent suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst and is a women’s rights activist, an advisor to charities and a senior visiting fellow at the LSE and a visiting professor of Manchester Metropolitan University.
You can follow her on Twitter:
Her new book has just been published, ‘Deeds Not Words, the Story of Women’s Rights, Then and Now’ –

Photograph of Indian suffragettes on the Women’s Coronation Procession, 17 June 1911. To mark the coronation of King George V, a huge march through London was arranged demanding votes for women in Coronation year. Led by suffragettes dressed as powerful women from the past, the march of 40,000 women was watched by crowds, some on specially erected stands. Indian suffragettes, including Mrs Roy, Mrs Mukerjea and Mrs Bhola Nauth marched in the Empire Pageant section of the procession along with representatives from New Zealand, South Africa and the West Indies.

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture