“A brown face in a sea of white…”* - Princess Sophia Alexandra Duleep Singh, a Sikh suffragette

By Tina Basi

Wait, what? A Sikh suffragette? Did I read that right? How had I missed this story? How had I not heard of this woman before? As a Sikh and a feminist, I felt I should know about all things related to Sikh feminism. Somewhere I had missed something.

At the start of this year, 2018, the centenary of (some) women getting the vote, two things coincided. The first was an event held at LSE where I teach. I had been invited to host an ‘in conversation with the author’ event to discuss The Good Immigrant with Nikesh Shukla. The second was an invitation to a recording of Deborah Francis-White’s The Guilty Feminist podcast, hosting a centenary celebration. At the second event I was introduced to Princess Sophia Duleep Singh.

Singh was the daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh, the last Sikh Maharaja: kidnapped, separated from his family, exiled to England at the age of 15, and forced to give up Punjab to the British. Queen Victoria also managed to get the Koh-i-Noor diamond off him.

Born in Belgravia in 1876, Singh and her siblings grew up in a house in Suffolk called Elveden, redesigned by her father to look rather more like a Mughal palace than a stately British home. Anita Anand’s book, Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary, describes Singh’s life as seemingly distinct chapters beginning with a childhood that was both tranquil but difficult with her father’s ill-fated attempt to return to India, followed by the death of both her parents when she and her sisters were offered a grace-and-favour home at Hampton Court by Queen Victoria where she enjoyed the life of a socialite.

Singh made two trips to India after her father died and became ignited by stories of her family that he been denied to her and of changes in India that were unfolding before her eyes. She returned to England and became involved in the suffrage movement, including marching to parliament on Black Friday. Anand uncovers evidence that shows even Winston Churchill was wound up by her activism, writing, “send no further reply to her.”

Anand’s unveiling of Singh’s contribution to the suffrage movement is significant. It not only holds a space for women of colour, for Indian women in particular, but it also spotlights the micro aggressions that occur as a consequence of the way in which we talk about and celebrate women’s suffrage today.

The Representation of the People Act of 1918 gave the vote to men over the age of 21, and women aged 30 and over that owned property. The Equal Franchise Act of 1928 was an expansion of the Act of 1918 and extended the vote to all women aged 21 and over, regardless of property ownership.

My evening with Shukla and the centenary celebration woke me up from a kind of slumber in which I had forgotten that I was not white. Sometimes, in an effort to fit in, we (well definitely me) try to forget that we are different. We do this because voicing our racialised experiences is sometimes misread as complaining about racism.

I can celebrate the centenary of the 2018 Act and the Vote100 campaign but only if you acknowledge with me that is an anniversary, not the anniversary. I hope you’ll celebrate twice as much with me on the 2nd of July 2028, the centenary of the Equal Franchise Act.

*The title is a quote from the documentary on Singh presented by Anita Anand for the Sikh Museum Initiative, first aired 22/11/2015 BBC1 https://youtu.be/dAH0MLNfK1U 

Anita Anand. https://anitaanand.net

The Guilty Feminist. http://guiltyfeminist.com

The Good Immigrant. https://unbound.com/books/the-good-immigrant/