Commemorating Zoroastrian and Indian women in the British Suffrage movement


October 13, 2018

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Our dear friend Shazneen Y Munshi wrote a report on the event that commemorated Zoroastrian and Indian women in the British Suffrage movement. This was initially shared by Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe on their mailing list, and has been published here with permission from ZTFE.

Commemorating Zoroastrian and Indian women in the British Suffrage movement

House of Lords Wednesday 12th September 2018

Report by Shazneen Y Munshi

ZTFE Jt. YZ Coordinator & Jt. Communications Officer

imageOn Wednesday 12th September 2018, the Zoroastrian All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) held an event at the House of Lords to commemorate Zoroastrian and Indian women involved the British Suffrage (votes for women) movement. Hosted by Gareth Thomas MP (Harrow West), in association with the Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe (ZTFE), the event was attended by 50 people comprising of parliamentarians, civil servants, academics, faith leaders, inter faith friends, and the Zoroastrian community. Amongst the Parliamentarians were Gareth Thomas MP (Chair of Zoroastrian APPG), Virendra Sharma MP (Vice Chair Zoroastrian APPG), Lord Dholakia (Vice Chair Zoroastrian APPG) accompanied by Lady Dholakia, Stephen Pound MP (Secretary Zoroastrian APPG), Liz McInnes MP, Lord Loomba, Lord Alton and Baroness Nicholson.


Gareth Thomas MP, started proceedings, reflecting on how the Zoroastrian APPG, founded in October 2013, has been wonderful for both Parliament and the Zoroastrian community by increasing public and parliamentary awareness of our religion, history, culture and achievements. Gareth Thomas introduced our special guest speaker, Dr Sumita Mukherjee, Historian and Senior Lecturer at University of Bristol. She has carried out in depth research on the mobility of South Asians in the 19th and 20th centuries and authored, Indian Suffragettes: Female Identities and Transnational Networks, published Oxford University Press (2018).


Group photo of Zoroastrian APPG event by Raj Bakrania


Malcolm Deboo, ZTFE President, then read out the message from Lord Billimoria (Co- Chair of Zoroastrian APPG) conveying his apologies. Lord Billimoria was extremely sorry and disappointed to be unable to attend the event as a result of an emergency spinal operation and was currently under forced recuperation at home . In his message to the group, Lord Billimoria paid tribute to Parsi women, stating that they have led the way and have played a prominent role in the Indian Suffragette movement, as they have done in every field of endeavour.

Dr Sumita Mukherjee presenting her book to ZTFE President Malcolm M Deboo. Photo by Raj Bakrania

Dr Mukherjee began her fascinating presentation by providing an overview of what was happening in Britain in the early twentieth century. At the time, there were hundreds of Indian women living in Britain and a few of those were involved in the British suffrage movement.


The most notable was Princess Sophia Alexandra Duleep Singh, goddaughter of Queen Victoria and daughter of a last Sikh Maharaja Duleep Singh, who presented the Kohinoor diamond to Queen Victoria. She participated in a number of key demonstrations and protests including the famous Black Friday protest which led to police assault and media condemnation of the government. Princess Sophia Duleep Singh was also a very prominent member of the Women’s Tax Resistance League, an organization which argued that if the government was not obliged to give women the vote, then women were not obliged to pay taxes to that same government. As a result, Princess Sophia refused to pay tax on certain goods and was fined. She was also an active member of the the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and sold copies of the weekly Suffragette newspaper in South West London. In 1911, Princess Sophia refused to sign the census, defacing the form with ‘No Vote, No Census’ as women had no say in politics. There are only a few other traces of Indian women involved with suffrage activity in Britain including Lolita Roy, who was involved in the Suffrage Procession in June 1911 and gave women’s rights speeches around London.

Indian Suffragettes at the Empire Pageant, June 2011

Dr Mukherjee explained that it was finally when The Representation of the People Act 1918 was passed that women in the UK over 30 years old or with a particular graduate qualification had the right to vote. However, the British suffrage movement did not discuss the rights of Indian or other ethnic minority women in Britain or abroad. Following British suffrage, Indian women in the UK turned their attention to the campaigns that were ongoing for women’s votes in India. Dr Mukherjee described that it was most notably, two Parsi women, Herabai and her daughter Mithan Tata, who played a crucial role to get women the right to vote in India when they came to Britain in 1919.

The name Herabai Ardeshir Tata is not known by most Zoroastrians and Indians, even though she an important role in ensuring that women have the right to vote in India! As the Secretary of the Bombay branch of the Women’s Indian Association (WIA) in the early

1900s, she was a central figure in the fight for Indian women’s franchise, the right to vote. Herabai Tata was born in Bombay in 1879. At 16 she married industrialist Ardeshir Bejonji

Tata, member of the well known Tata family of industrialists, and she gave birth to her

daughter, Mithan, a year later in 1898. Mithan attended Elphinstone College from 1914, one of only fifteen women enrolled in the school. She graduated with a first in Economics, and

was awarded the Cobden Club medal for the highest marks. Herabai’s interest in a public

role to advance the rights of women was aroused by a chance meeting with Princess Sophia in Kashmir, when she saw the ‘votes for women’ badge she was wearing. Princess Sophia told Herabai and Mithan about the suffrage fight in Britain and from then on Herabai was became a firm advocate for women’s rights.

In 1917, the Viceroy of India started to implement the idea of a democratic assembly, as there was none before then in India, as it was a British colony. The question was who would get the right to vote. A delegation of women urged the Viceroy to include women in the franchise but the Government of India decided against it and specifically excluded women from the right to vote. It was decided by a Bombay group of women, led by Mrs Jaiji Jamshed Petit who was a leading figure in Bombay Women’s Suffrage Union and well known to Mahatma Gandhi, that Herabai and Mithan Tata should be sent to London to submit a memorandum urging that Indian women should be given the right to vote. On their arrival in the UK, they submitted the statement to a Select Committee and then embarked on a three month tour visiting various towns and cities to get more support for the Indian women’s cause. In the Joint Statement, Herabai and Mithan Tata sent to the Government, they described themselves as ‘Bombay women’. They argued that India women were treated equally pre-colonisation, re-iterating that Indian women were capable of voting with the rise of female education, and vehemently challenged prejudices and stereotypes about women’s inferiority and education. They also pointed out that many Indian women were demonstrating a keen interest in political affairs and conceding the vote to women would progress female empowerment. Mithan Tata wrote a number of articles in journals and newspapers to get public support, highlighting that Indian men and women should be receiving the same democratic rights together.

However, there was opposition to the vote for women from some critics. Cornelia Sorabji, the first women in the world to study Law at Oxford University, argued that Indian women were not yet equal to English women, and that education and other social issues were more pressing than the vote. Mithan who in 1923 became the first woman called to the bar, however, responded by arguing that in ‘olden days’, Indian women were rulers, philosophers and took part in village councils. Although some people have also described Madame Bhikaiji Cama, Indian revolutionist and freedom fighter, as a suffragette, she was more nationalist in her approach, considering that women would have eventually acquired rights through the campaign for India’s freedom and independence.

Herabai and Mithan Tata sent regular letters to Bombay about her activities in Britain. These recount the numerous letters of support from various women’s organisations all over the UK and show the great support she received from the public. It is certain to say that she made her presence felt beyond London and encouraged the British people to think about this issue to further women’s rights.


Mother and daughter Herabai and Mithan Ardeshir Tata

Apart from encouraging UK individuals and organizations to petition the India Office, Herabai was keen to persuade MPs in the House of Commons to pass an amendment to the Government of India Bill to remove any discrimination against women in the franchise. However, the majority of MPs felt they did not know enough about India and so wanted to leave the decision of enfranchising women up to Indian men! An amendment was passed that allowed Indian provinces to decide if they wanted to give women the right to vote. This was seen as a good concession by Herabai and Mithan Tata. The first province in India to franchise women was Madras and then Bombay, following campaigns in London by Herabai, which meant that women could vote in state and national elections. This was a great victory, and other provinces followed suit. By 1935 all the provinces in British India had given the right to women to vote, on the same terms as men. The only drawback was that women were able to vote if they owned property but only 5% of Indian women had property due to inheritance laws. Herabai’s campaign continued until Independence in 1947, when all men and women could vote without property qualifications.

In 1923 Mithan Tata became first woman called to the bar by Lincoln’s Inn and the first practising Indian woman barrister. She would have been remarkable in any era, but for those times she was extraordinary. She practiced at the Bombay High Court and was Professor of Social Legislation. Mithan married Jamshed Sorab Lam, a well known Indian lawyer. Under her married name Mithan Lam JP, she held many important appointments, including the first woman Sheriff of Mumbai, the first Indian woman barrister, first Indian woman lawyer at the Bombay High Court, Chairperson of Women’s Committee on Relief and Rehabilitation of Refugees from Pakistan and the Indian delegate to the UN Commission on the Status of Women in 1957.



Mithan Jamshed Lam (nee Tata) PC Purnima Raval

Dr Mukherjee also mentioned other Parsi women who were heavily involved in the Indian suffrage fight. They include most notably Mrs Hilla Rustomji Faridoonji and Avabai Bomanji Wadia (née Mehta). Mrs Hilla Rustomji Faridoonji was another high profile Parsi suffragette and was vice-president of the All-India Women’s Conference.

At age 15, Avabai moved to England in 1928 with her mother Phirojbai Dorabji Mehta and completed her schooling at Brondesbury and Kilburn High School, London. Later she joined the Inns of Court, becoming the first Sri Lankan woman to succeed in the bar examinations and was called to the Bar in 1934. Avabai was a member of the London branch of the Women’s Indian Association and dedicated her service to women’s rights, paying particular attention to issues of family planning after 1949. She was a pioneer of the sexual and reproductive health and family planning movement in India and globally, a founder member of the International Planned Parenthood Federation and the Family Planning Association of India.

Dr Mukherjee concluded by reflecting that Indian women have played an important leading role in shaping British social history and politics which is something to be proud of and that Parsi women have made a huge contribution to the suffrage movement both in the UK and India. A question and answer session followed during which it was suggested by Stephen Pound MP to have a potential campaign to get a new statue in London of a Parsi suffragette! Since Herabai and Mithan Tata resided for four years at 16 Tavistock Square, London WC1H, 9BQ, thus it was suggested that their statues should be put up next to statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Tavistock Square. He commented that this is a hidden history and we need to raise awareness of the strong contribution of Indian and Parsi women in politics. Lord Dholakia commented on the importance of encouraging Zoroastrian and Indian youth to participate in British politics. Malcolm M Deboo agreed and also commented that we need to encourage the Zoroastrian youth to get involved in social sciences, humanities, arts as the next generation of academics to keep our heritage alive. The event concluded with


Zoroastrian APPG Co Chair Gareth Thomas MP presenting Dr Mukherjee with a copy of, ‘ASHAVANS: A Legacy of Zoroastrian Leadership’ by Meher Bhesania on 101 prominent Zoroastrian leaders and Malcolm M Deboo presenting a copy of the ZTFE Sesquicentennial Commemorative Booklet.


Zoroastrian APPG Chair Gareth Thomas MP presenting ASHAVANS to Dr Sumita Mukherjee. Photo by Raj Bakrania, Zoroastrian APPG event photo by Raj Bakrania


Group photo of Dr Sumita Mukerjee with Zoroastrian women at the Zoroastrian APPG event by Raj Bakrania

Left to Right: Dr Sumita Mukerjee, Shazneen Munshi, Farah Doctor, Dr Roshan Dalal and Scheherazade Dubash

PC Purnima Raval, kindly took the Young Zoroastrians on an exclusive tour. She was one of the first Indian women graduates to join the Metropolitan Police and has given over 20 years of service at the Houses of Parliament. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity for the YZs who learnt about influential leaders and were captivated by the majestic surroundings.

The gathering was the twelfth official event of the Zoroastrian APPG. It was a great opportunity to celebrate the work of our extraordinary Zoroastrian women who can only be described as spirited and plucky, an old fashioned word for courageous and determined, which sums them up perfectly! Their pioneering spirit, involvement at the heart of social movements and achievements have guaranteed our freedoms. They have done all of this with dignity, style and grace. As Young Zoroastrian women, the Parsi suffragettes are truly a strong inspiration and we hope we can do them proud in the future.