The next time you doubt if you can make a difference, remember Shirin Fozdar and her message of gender equality and societal unity. Clad in a sari and with a beatific smile, she was ever ready to upset long-held notions of male superiority.
Picture a town hall in Karachi, Pakistan, in 1922. The crowd is impatient, eager to see and hear a curiosity of the time and place – a female public speaker. Shirin, all of 17 years, is about to give her maiden speech on universal education when she sees the audience surge forward towards the stage. Afraid that her audience has become a mob, she disappears behind the curtain.
Karachi’s mayor assures her that the people are simply keen to hear her. The teenaged Shirin steps back onto the stage and begins to speak. After that, “there was no stopping her,” her son Jamshed Fozdar recalls.
In 1950, Shirin moved to Singapore with her husband Khodadad Fozdar, a medical doctor, to spread their Baha’i faith. Her faith underpinned her ideals of equality and unity. From her faith, Shirin drew energy to right the wrongs she came across.
One injustice was particularly glaring. Wealthy men would acquire and discard wives as if they were mere possessions. Divorce laws were weighted heavily in the men’s favour, and wives had few rights. Hence, many wives were easily abandoned and some men would buy a letter of divorce at the same time they obtained their marriage certificate. Some girls had already been divorced several times before they were 18.
As Shirin said in a newspaper interview: “When I first came here, the rates of polygamy and easy divorce were alarming. Marriage laws were lax. Women suffered all kinds of atrocities because men held the belief that women were the weaker sex.”
Infuriated at the men who would flaunt their multiple wives at society dinners, Shirin co-founded the Singapore Council of Women (SCW) in April 1952. As the SCW’s general secretary, she wrote to newspapers, lobbied government officials and made the plight of women in Singapore and Malaya known to members of Parliament in England. At every speech she made, Shirin pressed home the point: “One man, one wife”.
Such was her impact that Shirin received death threats from those who were determined not to relinquish their grip on women. “She was threatened as far as her ideals were concerned, in Malaysia and Singapore,” says Jamshed.
“The funny thing is, human beings think that by chopping off a person’s head, that they can stop the ideals that motivated the person. She didn’t care, she just went up there on the stage (and continued to spread her message of equality).”
To overcome the barriers of culture and religion, Shirin drew upon her deep knowledge of other religions in order to connect with their followers, and challenged religious authorities to justify the oppression of women with content from their own holy books. While she was relentless in her quest, Shirin never harangued her opponents or lost her cool with them.
Her first success came with the establishment of the Syariah Court in 1955, which provided Muslim women with some rights in divorce. Within a few years, the Muslim divorce rate of over 50% had been halved. Then the People’s Action Party (PAP) adopted Shirin’s clarion call of “One man, one wife”, and included it in its election manifesto in 1959.
Through the SCW, Shirin proposed a charter of rights for women and submitted it to the PAP in 1959. After they came into government, the PAP moved for the legislation of the Women’s Charter. It was a truly momentous point in Singapore’s history: for non-Muslims, only monogamous marriages were legal, bigamy was an offence, and wives were provided maintenance in the case of divorce. The Charter also provided for other offences against women and girls, including pimping. Shirin proclaimed herself “the happiest woman on earth”.
Besides campaigning against polygamy, Shirin was an advocate for female education, and spoke out against the trafficking of girls and forced prostitution.
To encapsulate how her ideals led her along an extraordinary life, one can look to a poem she wrote in 1992:
O my dear passerby,
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 another’s good.
Then you’ll not regret your past,
For you have done the best you could.
By Alvin Chua
Video filmed by Alvin Chua and edited by Tok Swee Geok