Princess Sophia Duleep Singh ~ Asian Suffragette

A variety of Asian communities have played a prevalent role in shaping Britain, making it a diverse and culturally exciting place to live. Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, an influential British Asian woman, dedicated a lifetime to improving the lives of women. Her activism helped to shape the beginnings of Desi-feminism.

Princess Sophia Duleep Singh ~ Asian Suffragette

"When the women of England are enfranchised I shall pay my taxes willingly."

Britain has evolved dramatically ever since the burst of South Asian culture introduced during the 19th Century. Citizens from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India brought new skills overseas to Britain, alongside diverse cultural perspectives.

The Second World War contributed to a further population increase of men in search of employment. Women and children later joined them during the wake of the Commonwealth Immigration Act.

This new enlightening identity provided new shops, foods and familiarised different cultural and religious organisations. Britain was changing.

Asian women noticed the importance of campaigning within feminist and anti-racist groups alongside British women within the country they now called home. Sophia Duleep Singh is arguably the most prominent Asian Suffragette in history.

It is easy to take for granted the women who fought for equal rights between the sexes. Many Suffragettes ended up in prison and some even lost their lives. Emily Davison became the first British Suffragette martyr in 1913 after being fatally injured at the Epsom racecourse.

Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, born in 1876 was the daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh, the last Maharaja of the Sikh empire. Goddaughter to Queen Victoria, Sophia was headstrong and independent. She grew up at Elveden Hall in Suffolk, while her father was in exile.

It was during a trip to India that a young Sophia grew a considerable social conscience that would transform her outlook forever more. It was at this point that when Sophia returned to England that she joined the suffragette cause.

Despite being born into considerable wealth, Sophia was no stranger to hard work. During the First World War, she fundraised for Indian soldiers who did not have full uniforms. She also volunteered as a nurse and travelled to Brighton to care for wounded Indian soldiers.

She was often spotted selling The Suffragette newspaper outside of Hampton Court House. Her commitment to the Women’s Social and Political Union was in no doubt a key factor in the eventual improvement of how women live.

Although she wasn’t the only Indian Suffragette, she was the most widely recognised, eventually becoming president of the Committee of the Suffragette Fellowship. It is thought that Emmeline Pankhurst used the Princess as a propaganda tool to recruit others to the cause.

Sophia took part in the infamous ‘Black Friday’ protest in 1910. Led by 400 to demonstrate outside parliament, the day resulted in 150 women being physically assaulted. This police brutality highlighted the immense pressure felt by the authorities during this time.

But what has changed for South Asian women today? Although it is true that time has evolved since then, a patriarchal society still has a very strong influence.

Even within more westernised countries, there is still pressure from families to adhere to strict cultural traditions such as arranged marriages. Only within the past 20 years have new freedoms been experienced. Most can now choose a partner, further their education and focus on a career.

These women are becoming more confident in voicing opinions despite their previous fears of oppression. This has welcomed DESI-feminism, which fights for those rights of women originating from South Asia. Feminism isn’t a word you may associate with these women, who are often stereotypically depicted as subservient and obedient. However, times appear to be changing.

Abha Bhaiya set up the feminist organisation Jagori in Delhi back in 1984. She helped tackle a variety of issues that Desi women face, including domestic violence sanctioned by religion. Support to victims of sexual abuse has also been given, helping women who are usually wrongly blamed for these attacks.

A Fourth Wave of Feminism has emerged and is encouraging women to speak out once again, using technology as its weapon of choice. With the number of Asian female bloggers built for this very purpose, it appears that although the work of Sophia evidently helped to change society, Asian women still have a tough deal in striving for equality.

When remembering the life of Sophia, it is important to recall the work she attributed to the Women’s Tax Resistance League. This is arguably what she is best known for. The “No Vote, No Tax” policy of the group led Sophia to face several prosecutions and even to have some of her most personal possessions impounded, including a highly valuable diamond ring. This, however, did not deter her in her ongoing fight for justice.

Sophia has been quoted to justify her actions by saying: “When the women of England are enfranchised I shall pay my taxes willingly. If I am not a person for the purpose of representation, why should I be a fit person for taxation?”

Fortunately, Sophia lived to see women finally win their right to vote in 1928. After a long, yet worthwhile struggle that she had been such a huge part of, she eventually died in 1948.

Sarah Parker, curator of Hampton Court Palace, when remembering Sophia’s hard work within the female community commented:

“Sophia Duleep Singh was a very determined lady and she decided that her job was not done until every woman, regardless of their status was actually able to vote.”

The radical royal who spent much of her life fighting for women’s suffrage is one of eight women being honoured with a prestigious stamp to mark the 100 years of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which gave women the right to vote.

Also on the 100th anniversary of the suffragette victory, many are calling for those women who were jailed during their long fight for justice (more than 1,000) to be pardoned.

Asian contribution within Britain has undoubtedly resulted in some life-altering changes. Many women, just like Sophia Duleep Singh, fought alongside British women for a better, brighter future. Although her high societal status may have inaccurately represented working-class Asian women of this time, it is evident that her kindness helped to impact their lives in a positive way.

Is there still a need to fight today? Asian women have struggled through racist and sexist limitations for generations. Although improvements have been made, there is still work to be done. It is incredibly inspiring to see a continuation of the work that Sophia began all those years ago through young Desi-feminist’s today.

Laura is an avid writer with a particular interest in writing from a feminist perspective regarding a variety of social and cultural issues. Her passion lies within journalism. Her motto is: “If there's no chocolate then what is the point?”

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