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Asian Suffragettes: Women Who Positively Impacted Society

12/10/2015 11:41 BST | Updated 11/10/2016 10:12 BST

The film 'Suffragette' is released on 12th October 2015. It has come under fire for the non-diverse portrayal of the movement. Asian women also played a vital role in the Suffragette movement in early 20th century England and it has gone largely unnoticed.

With anti-immigration rhetoric being broadcast prolifically on a daily basis, it is important to highlight the valuable contribution that immigrants have made to Britain and its economy. Since the mid-19th century, Asian business professionals, lascars (seamen) and tradespeople have offered diverse skills that have helped shape our nation. We must also not forget the huge contribution that Indian soldiers made during both world wars.

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

Ayahs (nannies) from India were some of the earliest female immigrants and were viewed as crucial in the care of children from wealthy English families. When some of them were subsequently abandoned, with no means of support and no passage home, they became proactive in seeking alternative employment and some of them joined the suffragette movement.

However, the crucial role that Asian women played in the feminist movement in early 20th century England has rarely been acknowledged.

Because women were perceived as the weaker, but morally superior sex, it was assumed that they would be home carers who would raise children. Consequently, feminists were accused of abandoning their maternal duties during their battle for equality. Their reaction to this negativity was to find a plausible reason to pursue their goal.

In October 1903, the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) was founded in Manchester, with the aim of fighting for the rights of all women, regardless of their nationality.

During this turbulent period and at the height of British colonisation, many Asian women found themselves destitute. Some high society British feminists made it their mission to rescue their Indian sisters, focusing their cause not just on stranded Ayahs, but to oppressed women still living in Asia.

Asian women became stronger and more forthright, both in Britain and India. By 1905, they publicly began to support political activities, challenging traditional female roles and exploitation and helping to forge respect. Two particularly influential Asian women - Sophia Duleep Singh and Bhikaiji Cama - became prominent suffragettes, campaigning for Asian women and Indian independence.

Sophia Duleep Singh, was born into Indian royalty and raised in Suffolk. Her mother died from Typhoid and her father left her and her siblings with foster parents. As a young woman, she became involved in the suffragette movement, was a member of the Women's Tax Resistance League and appeared in court numerous times for non-payment of taxes. She disagreed with paying taxes when women were unable to vote or voice express an opinion as to how those taxes were spent.

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Sophia Duleep Singh selling The Suffragette in 1913.

Sophia also participated in many acts of civil disobedience. In 1910, she headed the 'Black Friday' deputation to the Houses of Parliament, protesting about the delays involved in reading a bill in Parliament that would permit women to vote. Tragically, this protest resulted in police violence and the death of two suffragettes.

On 17 July 1915, Sophie also joined the Women's War Work procession to demonstrate women's desire to contribute to the war effort and were received in the private room of the Minister of Munitions.

Born in Bombay in 1861 to a wealthy Parsi family, Bhikaiji Cama was another prominent suffragette who campaigned for gender equality and Indian independence. As a young woman in an unhappy marriage, Bhikaiji became involved in social work and helping the underprivileged.

In 1902, Bhikaiji helped Bubonic Plague victims, contracting the disease herself, which left her physically weak. Whilst recuperating in London, she became involved with the suffragette movement. This inspired her to continue campaigning for a free India. She held regular meetings at Hyde Park and India House (the headquarters of revolutionaries in England), becoming a role model for other suffragettes and free India activists.

While in London, Bhikaiji was informed that unless she ceased her nationalist activities, she would not be permitted to return India. She ignored this threat and was consequently extradited to Paris, where she continued her campaigns and connected with other high profile activists. She welcomed other world revolutionaries into her Paris home, exchanged ideas with Lenin and assisted Savarkar in publishing his book, The Indian War of Independence. In 1910, Bhikaiji also spoke at a male-dominated National Conference in Cairo, stating that: "the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that moulds the nation."

Sophia Duleep Singh and Bhikaiji Cama are examples of Asian women who demonstrated great strength and determination and played vital roles parts in the British suffragette movement in the early 20th century. Their outstanding courage in the face of great odds has made them inspirational role models for women of all ages worldwide.