Pioneering women’s rights activist
Shirin Fozdar, one of the most prominent advocates of women’s rights in Singapore during the 1950s, played a key role in securing better legal protection for women. Her activism led to the establishment of the Syariah Court in 1958 and the Women’s Charter in 1961.
Born in India in 1905 to Persian parents of the Baha’I faith, Shirin began speaking out about women’s rights as a schoolgirl in Bombay. At 16, Shirin delivered her maiden public speech on the topic of universal education in the Town Hall of Karachi; it was the first time an Eastern woman had addressed a public gathering in the East. In 1931 she took part in the All Asian Women’s Conference in Lahore, where polygamy and child marriage were discussed. She became a well-known public speaker in India and other parts of Asia.
In 1950, Shirin and her husband Khodadad Fozdar, a doctor, moved to Singapore to spread the Baha’i faith. Polygamy was common in Singapore then and successful men often showed off their latest wife at society events. In the Malay community, the divorce rate was 60% because men could arbitrarily divorce their wives.
Shirin was appalled by this, and by lack of legal protection for women and young girls. In November 1951, she invited some 20 women activists, whom she described as ‘progressive and enlightened’ individuals, to her house to discuss the setting up of an organisation to look into women’s issues, especially the factors that were hindering their emancipation. In 1952, the Singapore Council of Women (SCW) was formed. Within a few months it had 800 members from all walks of life.
Throughout the 1950s the SCW campaigned for a ban on polygamy and for better legal protection for women. As its honorary secretary, Shirin was especially active, writing letters to community leaders and government officials, giving talks over the radio and at associations, and lobbying political leaders.
By her correspondence with the then chief minister David Marshall on the subject of easy divorces, the Syariah Court was set up in 1958. The divorce procedures put in place led to a dramatic fall in the divorce rate in the Muslim community. In 1959, the People’s Action Party included women’s rights in its election manifesto. Upon winning the election, the PAP drafted the Women’s Charter, which among other things outlawed polygamy for non-Muslims. This became law in 1961.
Following her husband’s death in 1958, Shirin moved to Thailand to help destitute women and girls. She built a school in the impoverished north-eastern region to educate girls and give them a chance to earn a living without turning to prostitution. She spent more than a decade in Thailand and was honoured by the kings of both Cambodia and Thailand. Returning to Singapore in 1975, she continued to write for the mass media and also visited countries such as Australia, Britain and the USA to talk on the Baha’i faith’s teaching for inter-religious understanding and amity. She died of cancer, aged 87, in 1992.
O my dear passer-by
As you are now, so once was I
As I am now, so will you be
As you pass by, remember me
Life is precious, help it last
Use it for some other’s good
Then you’ll not regret your past
For you have done the best you could
A poem Shirin wrote for use on her headstone