How Indian women contributed to the suffrage movement

Historian Sumita Mukherjee on the contribution of South Asian women to British women's suffrage battle 100 years ago.

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    How Indian women contributed to the suffrage movement
    Indian suffragettes in the Women's Coronation Procession, London, on June 17, 1911 [Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images]

    100 years ago, British women won the right to vote, after decades of resistance.

    The Representation of the People Act 1918 granted women older than 30 and with property the right to cast the ballot. 

    But as Emmeline Pankhurst and Millicent Fawcett were lionised as leaders, the contribution of working-class women and women of colour was barely acknowledged.

    South Asian women, for instance, played a seminal role.

    Al Jazeera spoke to Sumita Mukherjee, an historian of the British Empire and Indian subcontinent, on the contribution of women of Indian descent to British women's suffrage movement.

    The Representation of the People Act 1918 finally granted British women over 30 with property the right to cast the ballot [Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images]

    Al Jazeera: How important was the role of Sophia Duleep Singh?

    Mukherjee: She was the most prominent woman of Indian heritage in the British suffragette movement.

    She was the daughter of an exiled Indian Prince, Maharaja Duleep Singh, who was a favourite of Queen Victoria. She herself was the goddaughter of Queen Victoria.

    Sophia became involved in the women's Tax Resistance League, an association that refused to pay their taxes, arguing as women didn't have the vote, they shouldn't have to pay their taxes. Their rallying cry was: "No taxation without representation."

    In Sophia's case, bailiffs came on a number of occasions to her property and impounded her goods, which they would then sell off at auction.

    The women's Tax Resistance League members would go to those auctions and buy back her property, which gave publicity to their campaign slogans and the general campaign for women's votes.

    Sophia also led one of the big suffrage demonstrations in 1910, known as Black Friday, with Emmeline Pankhurst, along with some other demonstrations.

    Her older sister, Catherine, also had suffragette sympathies. She was involved with the peaceful suffrage campaigners, but she lived in Germany so she was not as heavily involved.

    Al Jazeera: Did she face any barriers?

    Mukherjee: Sophia was an exception in a lot of ways. Because of her aristocratic, royal background, she was very privileged. She was wealthy, so she was able to refuse to pay taxes.

    Because of her royal background, we know she was treated quite well by the police and other authorities, which was true for most middle-class suffragists at the time. Her class and her wealth almost trumped her race.

    Women voted for the first time on December 14, 1918 [Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images]

    Al Jazeera: How did imperialism influence the British suffrage movement, and how did this impact the intersection of class and race?

    Mukherjee: There were very few women of colour who were involved with the movement, and that is primarily because British suffrage campaigners did not think about including women of colour into conversations and debates around citizenship, and the right to participate in the democratic structures of the nation.

    A lot of this is rooted in ideas of empire and colonialism.

    Considering the history of imperialism and colonialism, I think it is really important to be cautious about how we think about Indian women involved in the British suffragette movement.

    Sophia Duleep Singh was someone who had a voice. But the other Indian women who were involved, they did not have a voice.

    In June 1911, for example, there was a suffrage coronation procession through London where some Indian women were invited to take part, and encouraged to wear their national dress, saris.

    These women were objectified by British women who wanted to throw in a bit of colour to the campaign and draw attention to tokenistic attempts of being diverse.

    Al Jazeera: How would you describe the portrayal of women of colour associated with the movement, according to evidence?

    This relates to a lot of work by the historian Antoinette Burton, who looked at British suffrage newspapers and periodicals.

    [When] Indian women are discussed, the narrative is usually centred on depicting them as victims in need of reform.

    Rather than giving any agency or a voice to Indian women, it was very much about British imperial intervention into Indian women's lives.

     

    The issue with race was that British women, up until 1918 and even beyond, were campaigning for a vote in an imperial parliament that would give them a say over what happened in the Empire.

    They argued that by securing the domestic vote, women would have an influence on issues like education, healthcare and women's issues, and that's why that "feminine voice" was required in politics.

    Rather than giving any agency or a voice to Indian women, it was very much about British imperial intervention into Indian women's lives.

    India was, after all, the crowning jewel of the Empire which captured the imagination of British campaigners, and so this paternalistic idea emerged that British women would "uplift" Indian women.

    Suffragettes help the cause by carrying umbrellas with the slogan 'No Vote, no Tax' in London's Hyde Park [Hulton Archive/Getty Images]

    Al Jazeera: How did women's suffrage embed itself into anticolonial struggles around the world?

    Mukherjee: In other parts of the Empire, women were campaigning for greater economic rights, the right to own property, the right to have a voice within these limited democratic institutions.

    But that's not to say that the demands for the vote were not also being pushed for, at the same time as anticolonial struggles.

    In India, there were women doing both, women who took that so-called peaceful, democratic route fighting for the vote, but at the same time, were also caught in the unrest around the nationalist struggle for emancipation from imperial powers.

    Indian women were campaigning for the vote from 1917 onwards, because they fundamentally disagreed that women should be excluded from the limited democratic right to vote, that was given to some Indian men under colonial rule.

    Sarojini Naidu's legacy, alongside that of other, Indian women, are a powerful corrective to the idea that the fight for female suffrage was a purely Western phenomenon.

     

    Sarojini Naidu, a prominent Indian poet, female activist and close political ally of Mahatma Ghandi, campaigned for women's rights and engaged in anticolonial struggles.

    She was arrested a number of times for her role in nationalist activities, and was at the forefront of the suffrage movement in India, petitioning the Indian government, meeting with politicians and demanding that women get the vote.

    Her legacy, alongside that of other Indian women, are a powerful corrective to the idea that the fight for female suffrage was a purely Western phenomenon.

    Why not draw inspiration from women in India campaigning for the right to vote? From women in South Africa? We don't necessarily have to always be Anglocentric. Whatever our backgrounds are, we can find role models and inspiring figures in other parts of the world.

     

    Sophia Duleep Singh, too, visited India on a number of occasions, lending her support to the anticolonial struggle and the Indian women's suffrage movement.

    Sophia identified as British, but she also identified with her Indian heritage, especially because of the royal links her family had on her father's side.

    She encouraged Indian women to campaign for their rights in India and take up the mantle of the suffrage campaign there as well.

    Al Jazeera: Why is it important to bring this dimension of the suffrage movement to light?

    Mukherjee: It's important to think about whether some of those who are British today feel excluded from these conversations and this commemoration.

    There aren't very many women of African origin at all in the movement, for instance, so we need to think not only about questions around why that is, but also to broaden our search.

    Why not draw inspiration from women in India campaigning for the right to vote? From women in South Africa? We don't necessarily have to always be Anglocentric. Whatever our backgrounds are, we can find role models and inspiring figures in other parts of the world.

    This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

    Mukherjee, an historian of the British Empire and Indian subcontinent, says inspiration should also be drawn from suffrage movements in other countries [Hulton Archive/Getty Images]

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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