The Myth of the Passive Asian Woman

We live in an age of change. Good. But change makes some people hold on to prevailing orthodoxies, no matter how oppressive or downright false they may be.

History documents the stories of men, rarely stories of women. Rarer still is there a documented history of spirited women who fought battles or were a thorn in the side of the powerful. Add race into that equation and it gets even more toxic. “Asian women are supposed to be passive!” comes the defensive reply.

Well I have news for you …

I’m going to celebrate some amazing Asian women. These are women that I have always had some sort of connection with, whether as inspiration or something more.

Punjab: The Land of Five Rivers. It’s a region of the world that once ran from the borders of modern Afghanistan to Kashmir (taking up most of what is now modern Pakistan), and in the south, to Rajasthan. In European terms, it’s a land area about the size of Germany.

The Punjab sat at the crossroads of trade – from India across land to the silk roads; from Europe, Persia, China and the Asian Steppe into India. Alluvial soils enabled varied and rich agriculture, supplemented and managed by extensive canalisation and tree planting schemes over the centuries. It was a part of the world that was once the cradle of civilisation, Mohenjo Daro and its satellites spread into India, with sites being found in the Punjab and Gujarat. It was here that the Aryan invaders from the Asian Steppe supplanted Dravidian culture, grafting their own to the roots as celebrated in the Mahabharata, and growing what we now think of as ‘Indian’ culture. It was here that Alexander’s armies met Buddhism at Taxila and created the syncretic Ghandhara culture symbolised by the Bamyan rock sculptures famously destroyed by Afghanistan Taliban. It was through here that Zoroastrians fleeing their Persian homelands, brought with them the idea of a monotheistic god, a counterpart to the focus on the ‘self’ developed by Buddhism which some argue together helped inform early Christian theology and the idea of a single ‘god’.

Punjabis were rich, and they were fighters too. They had to be. From the dawn of time, everyone wanted a slice of their pie.

Imagine for a moment being a passive cypher in that context?

No way – not an option.

Alongside men, Punjabi women ran farms, developed agriculture, fought to defend what they had, and built communities, trades, cities and kingdoms. They had to in the face of all that coveting on all sides. Perhaps that’s why Sikhism developed there in the way that it did in the 15th and 16th centuries; a faith system with equality at its heart. It’s little coincidence therefore that Sikh women play a big part in this list of amazing women.

So, in no particular order, here goes:

Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, India’s minister of welfare and health, is shown in a speedboat on Lake Mendota with Dean John Z. Bowers, of the University of Wisconsin Medical School.

Amrit Kaur. Born a princess of the Kapurthala royal family in 1889, she chose a very different path to the one planned for her at birth. She excelled at her boarding school, Sherbourne in Dorset, and then at Oxford.

She was a skilled tennis player shocking Edwardian society with her competitive ‘play to win’ style.

After befriending Gandhi and supporting India’s drive to freedom from British rules, Amrit Kaur was appointed Independent India’s first Health Minister. Later in her career, she became the World Health Assembly’s first Female and Asian leader, pioneering in both roles some of the earliest effective campaigns against malaria.

There’s more about here, and her New York Times obituary is here.



Next up, Amrita Sher-Gil, described as no less than …

“one of the greatest avant-garde women artists of the early 20th century”.

Trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris Sher-Gil used her brush to depict the daily lives of Indian women in the 1930s.

Sher-Gil was born in Budapest on Jan. 30, 1913, to the Hungarian-Jewish opera singer Marie Antoinette Gottesmann and Umrao Singh Sher-Gil Majithia, a Sikh aristocrat and a scholar of Persian and Sanskrit. She began taking formal art lessons at age 8, when her family moved to Summer Hill, Shimla, in northern India.

Amrita’s work at the Beaux-Arts, notably Young Girls (1932), earned her both a gold medal, and a spot as an associate of Paris’ 1933 Grand Salon. It would have been impressive for anyone her age, 19. Considering her gender and ethnic background, it’s even more remarkable. Amrita was the toast of the town, and her piercing self-portraits became one of her staples. She moved to India, and carried on painting, focusing on local subjects, particularly documenting the lives of women.

She died in Lahore (then in India) in 1941, aged just 28. Her legacy is more than 200 works of art which shine a light on the lives of women in Paris and in India; drawing parallels and challenging stereotypes.

There’s more about her remarkable, yet short, life here, here, and here, and also here.

Let’s flip back in time

We’re now in the 18th Century. Sada Kaur, mother-in-law to the Emperor of the Sikhs, Ranjit Singh, and following her husband’s death also the leader of the Kanhaiya misl ( a sovereign state within the Sikh Confederacy in 18th century Punjab). Sada Kaur was Ranjit Singh’s sole regent after his parents died, and the chief architect of his rise to power..

It was Kaur’s sound counsel and material resources that helped the young Ranjit Singh defeat his rivals and assume the title of Maharaja, uniting the quarrelsome confederacy of the Punjab into one-nation. And Sada Kaur achieved this by leading armies alongside Ranjit Singh, and negotiating at diplomatic tables.

Afghan records described her as:

“one of the greatest generals …”

There’s more on this remarkable character, here.

Now, spin forward to today

There is a small but strong population of Sikhs in Afghanistan. Some went to Afghanistan as traders, others as invaders under British command, and still more were there as part of the forces guarding the border established by Ranjit Singh (and his Mother in Law, Sada Kaur).

Today, Anarkali Kaur Honaryar, a descendant of those pioneers is the first non-Muslim member of the National Assembly (Parliament).

In a country where women are discouraged from holding public office, she not only does, but supports schemes to educate young women and girls, and campaigns for women to be doctors, lawyers, educators, and engineers.

There’s more about her here, and also here.

Beauty and rebellion?

Jind Kaur (pictured above) was renowned for her beauty and strength of purpose. However, her fame is derived chiefly from the fear she engendered in the British in India, who described her as:

“the Messalina of the Punjab”

They saw her as a seductress, too rebellious to be controlled. “Asian women are supposed to be passive!” Right? Wrong!

In the chaos of the rapidly dissolving Sikh Empire following her husband, Ranjit Singh’s death, Jind Kaur became a formidable regent, fighting for her son Duleep Singh’s right to take the throne. And she succeeded after all his rivals died or were killed in the chaos of that imploding state.

Jind Kaur provided a focus for the court, encouraged the Sikh nobles to take up arms against the fast encroaching British. She wanted to secure her son’s legacy, and she had a fierce mistrust of the new power.

Her story, and her son’s is an epic one. There’s more on Jind Kaur’s remarkable life here, and also here.

Last but by no means least …

A Sikh princess, a god-daughter of Queen Victoria, a pioneering suffragette, a style icon and fashion plate, a free spirit, and an indomitable force, Princess Sophia Alexandrovna Duleep Singh. Hers was a British aristocrat’s upbringing, horses, shooting, and in her case being taught to be good marriage material. Except, she was her father’s daughter, and he was quite the rebel.

Sophia’s father Duleep Singh was the last Emperor of the Sikhs, his mother had been Jind Kaur and his father Ranjit Singh. He was forced to abdicate as a child, his state and treasures confiscated (described by the British at the time as one of the largest transfers of wealth they had experienced, and running into £billions). After a forced conversion to Christianity, the boy king was settled in various places, finally landing in England as a young teenager, where he spent most of the rest of his life in quite some luxury with a pension of more than £5million in today’s value, was friends with the Prince of Wales, had one of the country’s largest private estates, and was ranked its fourth best shot – until he rediscovered his Sikh roots, and got angry. This was the world Sophia grew up in.

During a 1907 trip to India, she visited Amritsar and Lahore and met her relatives. This visit was a turning point in her life, as she faced turning 30, seeing poverty and also what her family had lost by surrendering to the British government. The experience undoubtedly led to her becoming an even more passionate Suffragette.

She refused to pay taxes on her return to England, frustrating the government; King George V asked in exasperation:

“Have we no hold on her?”

Singh authorised an auction of her belongings, with proceeds benefiting the Women’s Tax Resistance League. She solicited subscriptions to the cause, and was famously photographed selling The Suffragette newspaper outside her home at Hampton Court Palace.

Despite Singh’s activism as a suffragette, she was never arrested; although her activities were watched by the administration, they were reluctant to make a martyr of her.

During World War I, Singh volunteered as a Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse. Sikh soldiers could hardly believe “that the granddaughter of Ranjit Singh sat by their bedsides in a nurse’s uniform”.

After the 1918 enactment of the Representation of the People Act, allowing women over age 30 to vote, Singh joined the Suffragette Fellowship and remained a member until her death.

Her arrangement of a flag day that year for Indian troops generated shock waves in England and New Delhi.

In September 1919 Singh hosted the Indian soldiers of the peace contingent at Faraday House, her grace and favour mansion at Hampton Court.

Five years later, she made her second visit to India with Princess Bamba (her sister) and Colonel Sutherland. On that visit Singh travelled to Kashmir, Lahore, Amritsar, and Murre, where they were mobbed by crowds who came to see their former maharaja’s daughters. Her visit boosted the cause of female suffrage in India.

Singh finally received a place of honour in the suffragette movement alongside Emmeline Pankhurst. Her sole aim in life, which she attained, was the advancement of women.

A postage stamp featuring prominent Suffragette Princess Sophia Duleep Singh was issued on the 15th February 2018, as part of the 100th Year commemorations of women’s right to vote.

Is that it?

No, there’s much more. There’s the inspiring, if tragic, story of Noor Inayat Khan, Tipu Sultan’s great niece, who was a Special Agent covertly working behind enemy lines against the Nazis during World War 2 and who held on to her values to the last. There’s the example of women like Jayaben Desai who went on strike against degrading working conditions and won, and in doing so also challenged the conception of the ‘working class’.

Desai’s manager goaded her at one point, saying he was not running “a zoo”. She replied:

“What you are running here is not a factory, it is a zoo. In a zoo there are many types of animal. Some are monkeys who dance to your tune; others are lions who can bite your head off. We are the lions, Mr Manager.”

I look at my Mother’s remarkable if too short life. A life which taught me how to live each day like it was your last, wear clothes with style, the value of people, life, and the good things in it, like food. I look to my Aunt, the first Asian woman to join the hallowed Muthaiga Club in Kenya, previously reserved for white men only.

I look to my sister, my cousins, and their children, all living lives across borders, outside bubbles, pioneering and building bridges. I look to my niece, already carving out an international career in tech. I look to friends with flourishing broadcast careers being needlessly pilloried for calling out racism.

I look to all those Brown and Black people I’m connected to across increasingly irrelevant norms and boundaries.

And inwardly I do sigh a little as I see the country I call home, The UK, implode as a series of bigoted white men indulge their fantasies of power while demonising me and my Brown and Black brothers and sisters.

Perhaps we need a wave of Brown and Black sisters to help drive through the changes we all want. I’m there, at the barricades, ready to help my Brown and Black sisters. The rest can wait – because that’s all they’ve ever told me to do.