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On the Legacies of Sophia Duleep Singh: A History of South Asian Women in the UK

By Avi Virdee

Indian suffragettes on the Women's Coronation Procession, London, 17th June 1911 (British Library)

For many in Britain, there is little knowledge of the role South Asian women have played throughout Britain’s history. Upon reading Anita Anand’s biography of Sophia Duleep Singh, a pioneer and key figure within the suffragette movement, I was astonished by the achievements of an Asian woman during a time when our place in society was accepted so reluctantly. Sophia Duleep Singh developed a social conscience on the back of the voter's rights movement to fight for female democracy, despite Britain’s treatment of her family.

Partition and Migration

Following the Partition of India and the end of the Second World War, Britain released India from its control. The aftermath of both events saw a surge in the number of migrants entering Britain, with the period of highest migration from India to England being 1955-1975. The severe labour shortages directly affected by the War in Britain culminated in the formation of the 1948 Act giving Commonwealth Citizens free entry into Britain. As a result, hundreds of thousands of migrants from India, Pakistan, Africa and the West Indies entered Britain, and with it changed the cultural and ethnic landscape for years to come. Whilst little is known about South Asian women at that time, interviews have been conducted to gain knowledge into their position upon entering Britain.

Journalist and activist Amrit Wilson published her novel "Finding a Voice: Asian Women in Britain" whereby she collected discussions and biographies, containing intimate one-to-one conversations with South Asian women. It explored the early struggles South Asian women faced in Britain: misogyny, racism, their place in society and the lingering trauma following the partition of India. Similarly, Sundari Anitha and Ruth Pearson’s ‘Striking Women: Struggle and Strategies of South Asian Women Workers from Grunwick to Gate Gourmet’, focuses on the political and personal agency of the female strikers themselves. In working on these, the authors gained insight into the early experiences of these women, the ‘intersecting dynamics’ of their situations and how they battled injustice and inequality. Having entered Britain without prior experience in the workplace, dealing with institutionalised racism and unprepared for the hostile environment that awaited them, they faced many challenges.

Sophia Duleep Singh

Although Sophia Duleep Singh’s experience took place in a very different and much earlier era, she too silently and purposefully fought for the rights of women. As the daughter of the last remaining Maharaja of Punjab, her role in Britain was established by her godmother, Queen Victoria to be present but hushed away; accepted by the upper class but deemed unfit for the purposes of marriage. In doing this it deepened the division between Sophia’s loyalty to the Royal family and cultivated in her initiating her own independence that fought the very government that had brought her family to England. After an eye-opening and forbidden trip to India in 1903, Sophia was simultaneously moved and horrified by the famine and suffering she witnessed at the hands of colonial rule.

Sophia was hit by the striking familiarity amongst the Indian people and recognised this in her return amongst the suffragettes. Both sets of people fighting for rights, struggling to rise against an oppressive government.

Sophia threw herself into the struggle for women’s rights, becoming a respected and close member of Emmaline Pankhurst’s inner circle. She defied court orders against her, refused to pay taxes and even publicly sold the suffragette newspaper outside Hampton Court. This echoed throughout her years when she led the Black Friday, March of 1910 alongside Pankhurst. Additionally, when entering her interests into ‘Who’s Who,’ a biographical collection of prominent figures, her answer was simply put as ‘the advancement of women.’ As a nation we commend the bravery and independence led by Pankhurst in our narrative, TV programmes and statues, however, Sophia’s role has often been overshadowed by her companions.

Princess Sophia Duleep Singh selling subscriptions for the Suffragette newspaper outside Hampton Court in London, April 1913. The British Library dates this image to 1910.

The Grunwick Strike

The work and legacies of women like Sophia are seen in various movements by South Asians in the UK after many people immigrated there from the sub-continent. In 1978, the Grunwick movement signalled a momentous moment in trade union history, whereby it interrogated the narrative of anti-racist policies, organised labour and migrant women workers. This historical crossover heralded broad support for South Asian women and the cause of migrant women workers. These remarkable and untold stories are interwoven into British history and showcase the spirit and vigour of South Asian Women in establishing their place in Britain.

The Grunwick Strike of 1976 marked a significant moment for South Asian women, whereby workers walked out in protest over poor working conditions, compulsory overtime and heavy-handed management. Whilst this movement escalated to a trade union dispute lasting two years and ultimately ended in defeat, it established awareness and support for the South Asian women fighting for their employer's rights. Furthermore, this support trickled to other organisations including the National Union of Mineworkers, and feminist and anti-racist groups. The Striking Women founders broadened their research by highlighting the personal circumstances of the strikers, whereby the strict management regime meant the hostile overtime collided with their cultural roles as wives and mothers. This imposed restrictive limitations, however, the strikers were determined to establish a trade union to ensure their livelihoods within the home were not compromised. Although they lost their dispute, the movement was iconic in recognising the rights of South Asian women and the subsequent mass response and support that followed.

Contemporary South Asian Women

In 2022, South Asian women feature in many prominent roles in today’s society: whether it be in politics, media or popular entertainment. The reach of South Asian women in UK culture has been profound. In politics, Priti Patel of Gujarati origin is the appointed Home Secretary and other notable MPs include Nadia Whittome, Zarah Sultana, Preet Gill, Naz Shah and Rupa Huq. On television, Anita Rani has become a popular and loved figure for her weekly Country File presenting and experimenting with programmes focusing on the Partition and the South Asian experience. Mishal Hussain and Riz Lateef have established themselves as respectable news presenters and featured heavily on the BBC. In law, Bobbie Cheema-Grubb is a judge of the Queen’s Bench Division and became the first Asian woman to serve as a high court judge in the UK. We forget that earlier South Asian figures forged the pathway for the success of South Asian women, by breaking the barriers and enabling the development of creatives, professionals, industry workers and entertainment figures. Without the spirit of our settled grandparents to encourage and shift the narrative, such progress would not have occurred.

South Asian women have gone beyond being the central figures of the home and playing a role focusing on motherhood and domesticity. Over the decades, women have pushed the boundaries, by breaking down patriarchal assumptions, gaining an education and even rejecting early marriages for a career. Rather, they constructed an independence, enabling South Asian women to prosper. Today there are several organisations, empowering women, tackling gender and race inequality and celebrating our place in society today. In doing this, we reflect upon the challenges we have faced and are still to come. At The Rights Collective, we believe we have a duty to navigate our path and continue to support South Asian women. Furthermore, remembering our collective past and the early struggles South Asian women faced empowers our own place in society today.


Editor's Note

This article was originally published on The Rights Collective’s blog, linked here. The Rights Collective has published a statement critiquing concerns and challenges held about the approaches taken towards the development and delivery of South Asian Heritage Month (SAHM), which can be found here, and is in no way associated with the organising body. The Lipstick Politico is also not affiliated with the official SAHM organisation and supports an environment of inclusivity and transparency.

About the author

Avi Virdee is currently working as an immigration paralegal at Mischon De Reya. Whilst studying English Literature at university, she explored and developed an interest in the South Asian Diaspora, and the cultural identity of women in Britain today.

The Rights Collective is a radical South Asian collective based in the U.K. They work to create space for resistance, solidarity and transformation towards collective liberation for our communities.


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