Perin Ferrao: Activist refused to accept a woman’s lot in India

Even as a youngster Perin Ferrao never accepted the conventional view in her native India that women were subordinate to men. Committed all her life to the emancipation of women, the Montreal teacher and former international secretary of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) was 80 when she died at her home in Dollard des Ormeaux on April 14.

“She was a rebel, a non-conformist,” said her daughter, Majella Castellano.

“She was a real advocate for poor, impoverished women. She worked in India and in Canada to educate and inspire women so they might become independent, support themselves and have better lives. She really wanted women to be empowered.”

Perin Surty was born in Badnara, India, near Mumbai, Dec. 25, 1926, into a high caste Parsee family. Her father drove a train and she was one of eight children raised as Zoroastrians. Even as a child, Perin had a mind of her own and was sent to a Catholic boarding school to be disciplined. It didn’t work.

There, she met and fell in love with Augustus Ferrao, a pharmaceutical salesman who was a Catholic. Because an inter-faith marriage was out of the question while her father was alive, she studied. She obtained her BA from Nagpur University in 1950, her BEd from Osmania University in 1952 and her master’s degree in Applied Psychology from Saugar University.

Only after her father died in 1954 did she convert and become a Catholic to marry Ferrao.

“She had a tremendous amount of culture and religion bottled up inside her,” her daughter said.

“Because she worked with the poor and the hungry in India, her views and the views of organized religion didn’t always coincide. She felt religion should have no borders and that people created them.”

Ferrao opened her own Montessori School in Nagpur in 1958, worked with juvenile and delinquent children, and started her own dispensary for poor women. She also was headmistress at Nutan Bal Vihar experimental school in Nagpur. In 1960, she joined AIDWA, a left-wing feminist organization.

Active with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, she submitted a nuanced argument on the legalization of abortions to a UN conference in India in 1967. The following year as an observer with the World Union of Catholic Womens’ Organizations, she came to a meeting in Quebec City and decided to stay.

“She told my father back in India that she would rather be a third-class citizen in a first-rate country than a first-class citizen in a Third World country,” her daughter said.

Ferrao was hired by the Montreal Catholic School Commission to teach elementary school. She left an impression on Josie Pina, a student who had recently come from Italy.

“She was there for me when I needed her as a child straight from Italy, exposed to a new world with different language,” Pina said.

“I did not understand the language she spoke, but understood the love and caring she had for every one of the children she taught.”

It took Ferrao eight months to persuade her husband, who she left behind in India, to join her in Montreal. Her school and dispensary in India were turned over to The Missionaries of Charity, the order founded by Mother Teresa.

“My parents never enjoyed the same standard of living in Canada that they left behind in India,” Castellano said.

“But that didn’t matter. My mother continued to bridge differences and to help people find God in one another. She never took time to relax, never took time for herself. She never looked in a mirror to see what she looked like. There was never a moment that she wasn’t working, helping others, or doing something, organizing retreats or working very hard to help women learn how to support themselves so they could lead better lives.”

A Catholic priest and a Parsee dastoor, or priest, offered prayers before the funeral Thursday at St. Luke’s Catholic Church. She is survived by a son and two daughters.

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