Shirin Fozdar (b. 1 March 1905, Bombay, India–d. 2 February 1992, Singapore) was a women’s rights pioneer.1 One of the founders of the Singapore Council of Women (SCW) in 1952, Fozdar was also a key figure in establishing the Muslim Syariah Court and the Women’s Charter.2
Born in Bombay (Mumbai), India, to Persian parents, Mehraban Khodabux Behjat and Dowlat, Fozdar studied at a Parsi school in Bombay and then at the St Joseph’s Convent boarding school in Panchgani, Maharashtra. After passing her Senior Cambridge examination at Elphinstone College, she enrolled at the Royal Institute of Science to study dentistry. There, she met and married her husband, Khodadad Muncherjee Fozdar, a doctor.3
Fozdar is best remembered as a fearless and outspoken advocate of women’s rights.4 Even in her early years, when she was still in school, she had already started making public speeches on social and women’s issues.5 In 1922, she was invited to speak on universal education at the Baha’is of India National Convention in Karachi, Pakistan. It was hailed as “the first time an Eastern woman had addressed a public gathering in the East”.
In 1931, Fozdar participated in the All-Asian Women’s Conference in Lahore, Pakistan. Three years later, the conference sent her to the League of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland to present on the topic, “Equality of Nationality for Women”. After the conference in Geneva, Fozdar accompanied her husband to London where he was taking a course, while she took up journalism. The couple returned to India a year later. Back in India she became a well-known public speaker, delivering numerous talks and lectures in different parts of India, and in neighbouring countries. In 1950, the Fozdars left India for Singapore.6
Women’s Charter of Singapore
Polygamy was a common and accepted custom in 1950 when the Fozdars arrived in Singapore. Fozdar recounted that prominent men would show off their fifth or sixth wife at parties, which appalled her. As many women and young girls were often left in distressing and unfortunate situations due to the lack of legal protection for women, Fozdar was motivated to take up the women’s cause and, in particular, to campaign against polygamy.7
In November 1951, a group of women activists in Singapore including Fozdar convened to discuss the formation of an umbrella organisation to provide a united voice for the various women’s organisations then existing in Singapore. Following this, the SCW was formed in April 1952, and Fozdar was elected its honorary secretary.8
Throughout the 1950s, the SCW focused on promoting women’s rights and campaigned actively against polygamy through radio talks and talks at various associations. Letters were also sent to government bodies and prominent community leaders.9 Fozdar also met political party leaders to lobby for the cause, and presented many talks over the radio and at various associations to raise public awareness of polygamy.10
The SCW’s efforts paid off when the People’s Action Party (PAP) included women’s rights in the party’s election manifesto for the 1959 general election, which it won. Following PAP’s victory, the Women’s Charter was passed in the Legislative Assembly in 1961, effectively outlawing polygamy for non-Muslims.11 The charter provides for the fundamental rights for women, such as ownership of properties, equal status in a marriage and fair treatment during a divorce.12
Other work for the women’s movement
In 1953, Fozdar initiated the establishment of Singapore’s first girls club at Joo Chiat Welfare Centre to teach women English, the vernacular languages, arithmetic, practical skills such as cooking and sewing, as well as the art of self-defence.13 She also played a key role in the establishment of the Syariah Court in 1958.14
At the same time, Fozdar 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, Sri Lanka, where she made a bold speech to the delegates that Singapore was being converted into “a big brothel” due to the ease in which “women were smuggled into the colony and traded”. The team also went to the Pan-Pacific and Southeast Asia Women’s Conference in Japan.15
By then, Fozdar had become well known in Asia and internationally for her work in the cause of women’s emancipation, and was frequently invited to speak at other countries. In 1959, she was invited by the United States government to speak on women’s rights and racial prejudice.16 That same year she was also invited by the National Women’s Federation of the Republic of China to spend three weeks in the country. The invitation had been issued in appreciation of the work the Singapore Council of Women had done in the campaign for women’s rights.17
With the aim of helping destitute women and young girls, Fozdar moved to Thailand in 1961. In Yasothon, a town in northeastern Thailand, she established a vocational school for young children and girls and named it Santitham (the abode of Peace). Besides nursery and kindergarten classes, sewing classes were also introduced to educate young village girls so that they could earn a living without turning to prostitution. Maintenance for the school was borne out of Fozdar’s savings, generous allowances from her five children, and donations from organisations, embassies, dignitaries and friends. After spending more than a decade in Thailand, Fozdar returned to Singapore in 1975.18
In 1988, Fozdar received an award from the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations on International Women’s Day for her contributions to the women’s movement.19
Besides contributing to the women’s movement in Singapore, Fozdar also played a pioneering role in the establishment of the Baha’i community in Singapore. Born into a family of the Baha’i faith, she left India with her husband in 1950 in response to a call from the leader of the Baha’i faith to spread its teachings.20 The Fozdars settled in Singapore to establish the religion here. From Singapore, they travelled frequently to peninsular Malaysia and other parts of Southeast Asia to share their knowledge on the Baha’i faith.21
Fozdar also believed that the spiritual wellbeing of criminals in prison should not be neglected. In 1957, she delivered the first of her talks to prisoners in Changi jail. Subsequently, despite death threats from some inmates, she taught the prisoners about comparative religion, as well as morality and ethics.22
Fozdar passed away on 2 February 1992 from cancer at the age of 87.23
In May 1993, to commemorate her and her contribution to the advancement of women’s rights, the Association of Women for Action and Research set up the 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 would fund facilities such as training centres, crisis centres, homes and shelters for needy women.24
Posthumously, Fozdar was inducted into the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame in 2014 in honour of her staunch advocacy of women’s rights in Singapore.25
Husband: Khodadad Muncherjee Fozdar (d. 26 April 1958)26
Children: Three sons and two daughters27
Lee-Khoo Guan Fong
1. Jenny Lam Lin, ed., Voices & Choices: The Women’s Movement in Singapore (Singapore: Singapore Council of Women’s Organisation and Singapore Baha’i Women’s Committee, 1993), 146–47 (Call no. RSING 305.42095957 VOI); “Pioneer of Women’s Rights Dies,” Straits Times, 6 February 1992, 16 (From NewspaperSG); Rose Ong, Shirin Fozdar: Asia’s Foremost Feminist (Singapore: Rose Ong, 2000), 5. (Call no. RSING 297.93092 ONG)
2. “Pioneer of Women’s Rights Dies”; Mandakini Arora, ed., Small Steps, Giant Leaps: A History of AWARE and the Women’s Movement in Singapore (Singapore: Association of Women for Action and Research, 2007), 56. (Call no. RSING 305.42095957 SMA)
3. Ong, Asia’s Foremost Feminist, 4–5, 8, 10–12.
4. Lam, Voices & Choices, 146–47.
5. “Shirin Fozdar Trust Fund,” High Networth 17, no. 3 (July–December 1993), 76. (Call no. RSING q332.605 HN)
6. Ong, Asia’s Foremost Feminist, 10–11, 15–17, 34, 36.
7. “One Man, One Wife – And One Grand Old Dame,” Straits Times, 9 August 1990, 78. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Lam, Voices & Choices, 90–97; Phyllis Ghim-Lian Chew, “The Emergence of the Baha’i Faith in Singapore (1950–1972),” The Singapore Bahai Studies Review 1, no. 1 (1996), 30–32. (Call no. RSING 297.9305 SBS)
9. Lam, Voices & Choices, 90–92; “One Man, One Wife.”
10. Ong, Asia’s Foremost Feminist, 36–37; Lam, Voices & Choices, 90–93; Chew, “Emergence of the Baha’i Faith” 31; “One Man, One Wife.”
11. Ong, Asia’s Foremost Feminist, 45, 48–49; Lam, Voices & Choices, 92; “One Man, One Wife.”
12. Leong wai Kum, “Fifty Years and More of the Women’s Charter of Singapore,” Singapore Journal of Legal Studies, (July 2008): 22–24 (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website); Legislative Assembly Singapore, Women’s Charter Bill, vol. 12 of Official Reports – Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), 6 April 1960, cols. 441–45; “Shirin Fozdar Trust Fund,” 76; Ong, Asia’s Foremost Feminist, 53.
13. Lam, Voices & Choices, 146; Ong, Asia’s Foremost Feminist, 51; Chew, “Emergence of the Baha’i Faith” 32.
14. “Ways to Reduce Polygamous Marriages,” Singapore Free Press, 13 August 1959, 11 (From NewspaperSG); “Pioneer of Women’s Rights Dies”; “Shirin Fozdar,” National Heritage Board, accessed 5 March 2020.
15. Lam, Voices & Choices, 92; Ong, Asia’s Foremost Feminist, 48; “Colony a Brothel? Yes, Says Delegate,” Straits Times, 8 March 1958, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Ong, Asia’s Foremost Feminist, 48; “Shirin Fozdar Trust Fund,” 76; Lam, Voices & Choices, 147.
17. “She’s Off to China to Talk of Peace,” Singapore Free Press, 8 August p. 8. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Lam, Voices & Choices, 146–47; Ong, Asia’s Foremost Feminist, 56; “Shirin Fozdar Trust Fund,” 76.
19. Lam, Voices & Choices, 147; National Heritage Board, “Shirin Fodzaar”; Indian Heritage Centre, “10 Star Artefacts of IHC. (From National Archives of Singapore)
20. The Spiritual Assembly of the Bahai's of Singapore, The Bahá’i Faith: 50 Years in Singapore (Singapore: The Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Singapore, 2000), 5–8 (Call no. RSING 297.93095957 BAH); “A Woman with a Message,” Straits Times, 15 September 1950, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Chew, “Emergence of the Baha’i Faith” 28–35, 38, 43–44; Ong, Asia’s Foremost Feminist, 38–40, 43–44.
22. Ong, Asia’s Foremost Feminist, 46; “Moral Instruction for Prisoners,” Singapore Free Press, 24 August 1957, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
23. “Pioneer of Women’s Rights Dies.”
24. “Trust Fund Set Up to Honour Late Woman Activist,” Straits Times, 16 May 1993, 26 (From NewspaperSG); “Shirin Fozdar Trust Fund,” 76.
25. “Shirin Fodzar,” Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations, accessed 5 March 2020.
26. Ong, Asia’s Foremost Feminist, 11, 45.
27. “A Woman with a Message”; “Shirin Fozdar Trust Fund,” 76.
Shirin Fozdar, “Message to the International Women’s Day Conference,” 6 March 1956.
Shirin Fodzar to David Marshall, 6 July 1955, Postcolonial Web.
Shirin Fozdar, “The Secretary’s Report to the General Meeting of the Singapore Council of Women Held at the Y.W.C.A,” 1 June 1957.
Shirin Fozdar, “Report on the Singapore Council of Women,” 1 December 1959.
The information in this article is valid as at March 2020 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.