Today when Indian women cast votes and contest elections, not even in their distant imagination they pay gratitude to the women who fought for their right to vote. The right is taken as granted for. In fact, there is a history of a struggle led by Begum Jahanara Shahnawaz.
Begum Jahanara Shahnawaz was one of the two women representatives at the First Round Table Conference(RTC), one of the three women representatives at the Second RTC and the only women at the Third RTC. Later on, when the Joint Select Committee was formed to finalize the Government of India Act, 1935, Jahanara was the only woman member of it.
One question which one may ask is, how is Jahanara responsible for the voting rights of the Indian women? The Indian women were living a life of second grade citizens when the Simon Commision, in 1927, came to India. Jahanara, as a member of All India Women’s Commision (AIWC), argued in front of it that the Indian women should get a reservation in assemblies and voting rights. Though, it led Simon to write that ‘future of India lies in the hands of women’ but still the Government of India Despatch recommended, “No special provision should be made for women”. SInce the Indians were protesting against the Simon Commision report, the RTCs were organized to give Indians a chance to put their grievances in front of the British Government. Jahanara was chosen to represent the 160 million Indian women at these conferences.
At the First RTC, Jahanara spoke that in India people were talking of “the liberty of their motherland” and this national aspirations could not be checked by the British. She further argued that there should be special provisions for the women and it should be declared that women would get equal voting rights. Jahanara did not fail to acknowledge that it was “the first time that women have been admitted to such a gathering”.
During her stay in England, Jahanara lobbied hard to gather the support for enfranchisement of the Indian women.
After the all three RTC were concluded a Select Committee was formed in 1933 and she was included in that. She met leading women activists in London like Lady Reading, Lady Astor, Lady Pethwick Lawrence, Miss Rathbone and others, in order to form a public opinion in England in support of the voting rights and reservation to the Indian women.
When the Government of India Act 1935 was finally published it gave voting rights to almost 600,000 women and provided for reservation in the Legislative Assemblies. Though, it was still less than the demand of Universal Adult Franchise made by Jahanara but still it was a huge victory for the Indian women. As a result of reservation, 80 women members were elected to the Provincial Legislative Assemblies in 1937 elections. The history had been made.
This is not the only gift of Jahanara to the nation. She rallied hard when Harbilas Sarda introduced a bill in the Central Legislative Assembly to raise the minimum legal age for marriage in 1927. From 1927 till 1929, the bill was kept with a committee to ponder upon it. It was Jahanara along with other women activists of AICW who formed a popular public opinion in the country to support the bill. Interestingly, except Mian Shahnawaz all the Muslim members in the committee opposed the bill. Shahnawaz, husband of Jahanara, was mocked for his ‘betrayal’ and accusations were made that he was under the ‘influence’ of his wife. The bill was passed as Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929, which fixed the minimum age for marriage for women at 14 and for men at 18.
In 1937, Jahanara was elected to the Punjab Legislative Assembly and appointed the Parliamentary Secretary. In this capacity she focused on the health issues and low age expectancy among women.
After the Partition of India, Jahanara lived in Pakistan and in 1948 successfully led a movement to get Right to inherit the property of deceased parents. It was her efforts that the Pakistani women could get the right to inheritance.
In a nutshell, Begum Jahanara Shahnawaz is another woman whom our male centric society has forgotten. Maybe this is the price a woman had to pay to fight against the patriarchy to snatch the rights for herself and other women.
(Author is a well known historian)