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Shirin Fozdar (b. 1905, Bombay, India - d. 2 February 1992), was a pioneer of women's rights. She was one of the founders of the Singapore Council of Women in 1952, and a key figure in establishing the Muslim Syariah Court and the Women's Charter in 1961.
She was born in Bombay of Persian parents, Mehraban Khodabux Behjat and Dowlat. She first studied at a Parsi school in Bombay, then at St. Joseph's Convent boarding school in Panchgani, and later at Elphinstone College, where she passed her Senior Cambridge examination. She then enrolled at the Royal Institute of Science to study dentistry. Whilst studying, she met and married her husband, Khodadad Muncherjee Fozdar, a young doctor.
She is best remembered as a fearless and outspoken advocate of women's rights. Even in her early years, when she was still in school, she had already started making public speeches on social and women's issues. In 1922, she was invited to speak on "Universal Education" at the Baha'is of India National Convention in Karachi. It was hailed as "the first time an Eastern woman had addressed a public gathering in the East". In 1931, she participated in the All Asian Women's Conference in Lahore. In 1934, the Conference sent her to the League of Nations in Geneva to present on the topic of "Equality of Nationality for Women". After the Geneva conference, she accompanied her husband to London where he was on a study course, whilst she studied journalism. They returned to India a year later. Back in India, she became a well-known public speaker, giving numerous talks and lectures in different parts of India and in neighbouring countries. In 1950, she and her husband left India for Singapore.
The Women's Charter
When the Fozdars arrived in Singapore in 1950, polygamy was a common and accepted custom. In those days, at government parties, prominent men would proudly show off their fifth or sixth wife. This appalled Shirin Fozdar, and coupled by the fact that many women and young girls were often left in distressful and unfortunate situations because of lack of legal protection for women, prompted her to take up the women's cause and, in particular, to wage a campaign against polygamy. In November 1951, she and a group of women activists in Singapore met to discuss the formation of an umbrella organisation to provide a united voice for the various womens organisations then existing in Singapore. Following this, the Singapore Council of Women (SCW) was formed in April 1952, and Shirin Fozdar was elected the honorary secretary of the SCW. Throughout the 1950s, the SCW campaigned actively against polygamy, and as the honorary secretary of SCW, she wrote strongly to prominent community leaders and government officials in Singapore and to the colonial affairs office in London to fight for monogamous marriage law. She also met political party leaders to lobby for the cause and gave many talks over the radio and at various associations to raise the public's awareness of the issue of polygamy. The SCW's persistence paid off when the PAP included women's rights in the party's election manifesto in the 1959 election. After the PAP won the election, they passed the Women's Charter in the Legislative Assembly in 1961, effectively outlawing polygamy for non-Muslims. It also provided for certain fundamental rights for women.
In 1953, she initiated the establishment of Singapore's first girl club at Joo Chiat Welfare Centre to teach women English language and arithmetic. She also played a key role in the establishment of the Syariah Court in 1955. At the same time, she also led delegations to attend conferences and meetings on women's rights and issues. In 1958, she led the Singapore delegation to the Afro Asian Women's Conference in Colombo, and to the Pan Pacific and Southeast Asia Women's Conference in Japan. By then, she had become well known in Asia and internationally for her work in the cause of women's emancipation, and was frequently invited to visit other countries. In 1959, she was invited by the United States government to speak on women's rights and colour prejudice. In the same year, she was also invited by the All China Women's Federation to visit the country.
In 1961, she moved to Thailand to help destitute women and young girls. Using her own savings as well as donations from patrons, she built a school in the Yasothon town of Ubol province in north-eastern Thailand to educate young village girls so that they could earn a living without turning to prostitution. She spent more than a decade in Thailand and only returned to Singapore in 1975.
On 5 February 1988, she received an award from the Singapore Council of Womens Organisations (SCWO) on International Womens Day for her invaluable contributions to the womens movement.
Besides contributing to the women's movement in Singapore, she also played a pioneering role in the establishment of the Baha'i community in Singapore. She was born to a family of Baha'i faith, and she and her husband left India in 1950 in response to a call from the leader of the Baha'i faith to spread the Baha'i faith. The Fozdars settled in Singapore to establish the Baha'i faith here. From Singapore, they traveled frequently to peninsular Malaysia and other parts of Southeast Asia to give talks on the Baha'i faith.
Shirin Fozdar died on 2 February 1992 from cancer at the age of 87. In May 1993, to commemorate her and her contribution to the advancement of women's rights, the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) set up a Shirin Fozdar Trust Fund to facilitate the advancement of women in Singapore "so that they may collectively and individually contribute more fully to nation, community and family". Among other things, the fund helps run facilities such as training centres, crisis centres, homes and shelters for needy women.
Husband: Khodadad Muncherjee Fozdar (d. 1958).
Children: 3 sons and 2 daughters.
Lee-Khoo Guan Fong
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The information in this article is valid as at 2007 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
Fozdar, Shirin, 1905-1992
Women civic leaders--Singapore--Biography
Women civil rights workers--Singapore--Biography
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People and communities>>Social problems