A Page from Bahá'í Digest (1989)
SHIRIN FOZDAR: AN OUTSTANDING PIONEER
In the Indian context, it would only be appropriate to refer to Mrs. Shirin Fozdar as the mother of Counsellor Zena Sorabjee. Like mother, like the daughter. Born in Bombay, in 1905, into a Bahá'í family, Mrs. Fozdar has spent all the eighty five years of her life in serving the Cause of God, steadfastly and devotedly, both in India and abroad. At present she lives in Singapore, to which country she pioneered with her husband in 1950 in response to the call of the beloved Guardian.
Petite, white-haired and sari-clad she evokes the image of a typical Indian grandmother, but the zeal and enthusiasm of her youth have not left her. Apart from her hours of prayers and study of Holy writings most of her day is spent in teaching the Faith and attending various national and international gatherings where her presence is an unfailing source of inspiration for every one. She visits Thailand once in three months to supervise the rural Bahá'í school which she established in that country thirty years ago. What is the secret of her unlimited energy at this age? "Faith followed by action." she says simply. "If you are active, you have no time to get old."
She learned to stand on her feet at an early age, but it was 'Abdu'l-Bahŕ who held her hand and taught her to walk when she was eleven months old and was taken by her parents on their pilgrimage to Holy Land in 1906. Greatly influenced by Bahá'í Convention held in Karachi. This was way back in 1922. In those days both Bahá'ís and non-Bahá'ís were invited to attend the Convention. At times, the Convention would even be chaired by a non-Bahá'í dignitary, generally a sympathizer of the Faith. Another feature of the Convention was that participants were mostly men.
In a glaring departure from the past, Shirin Fozdar was asked to speak at the Convention as she was an outstanding young believer at that time and a student of Elihinstone College in Bombay. Her father's first reaction, when approached for his permission, was: "Are all our men dead that women must speak?" However, after some persuasion, he agreed to let her speak. She left for Karachi by ship in the company of a large group of Bombay Bahá'í which this time, included a few Bahá'í women.
Shirin Fozdar's speech in Karachi centered on a translated talk of Abdu'l-Bahŕ on the equality of men and women which she was to quote from memory. Her talk was scrutinized and approved by a committee consisting of eminent Bahá'ís such as Dr. Bhargava, Prof. Pritam Singh and Mr. Hishmatu'llah Qurayshi. The Convention was being held at the Khalikdina Hall and presided over by the Mayor of Karachi.
Those were politically turbulent days, there was general unrest and Mahatma Gandhi had ordered all foreign clothes to be burnt.
When the opening prayers and bhajans were over, Shirin began her talk. In the absence of loudspeakers her voice could not be heard very well and people sitting in the front rows picked up their chairs to move forward. Shirin thought that the crowd was going to attack her, because she was wearing a foreign silk sari. In her confusion she forgot her speech. The Mayor signaled the musicians to play a tune until Shirin was ready to continue her talk. The next day the press was full of praise for the daring step a young lady had taken, in giving a public talk. The Marathi newspaper published a cartoon about the event which depicted Shirin flying up and exhorting other women to follow her. Till this day Mrs. Fozdar remembers this one incident as the most moving in her whole Bahá'í career.
Besides her early involvement in activities to raise the status of women, Mrs. Fozdar served as a member of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of India from 1936 to 1951. Her main area of work from 1925 to 1950 was in a large community of Untouchables in Ahmedabad. To help them, she had converted a portion of her house into a school where about a hundred children belonging to this community were provided basic education. The school is still being run by her eldest daughter Mona.
In 1950, after her wonderful services in India, Mrs. Fozdar and her husband Dr. K. M. Fozdar volunteered to go to Singapore (then a part of the Federation of Malaya) to fulfill the desire of the beloved Guardian to open South East Asia to the Faith. Dr. Fozdar who was then a Medical Officer in the State Railways, resigned from his post four years before the day of his retirement and the couple left for their pioneering post trusting wholly in God. The first Local Spiritual Assembly in South East Asia was formed in Singapore in 1952, exactly two years after their arrival. In 1954, the first Local Spiritual Assembly of Malaysia was formed at Seremban with the help of the first Chinese believer from Malaya, Yan Kee Leong. In February 1954, Mrs. Fozdar went to Saigon and Cambodia to establish the Faith there and received a gold medal from Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia for her inspiring lectures.
Apart from her Bahá'í activities Mrs. Fozdar closely associated herself with women's activities where ever she went. Eight years after she arrived in Singapore, she founded the Singapore Council of Women, with a membership of two thousand. The Council actively fought against all forms of repression, especially polygamy. For her work, she was held in high esteem by Prime Minister Tungku Abdu'l Rehman who regarded her as a fighter for women's rights in Malaya. She was a guest of honors at most State Functions, including the ceremony, on August 31,1957 when Singapore and Malaya ceased to be colonies of the British Government.
In a recent tribute to Mrs. Fozdar by Singapore Women's Organist ions, it was noted that: "Her contribution is all the more remarkable when viewed against the political socio-economic background of the 1950s......... (when) Communist agents were active in Singapore ............. There was social unrest, unemployment, labour strikes, inadequate schools, and a desperate housing shortage. Against this background very few dared to speak out for fear of being branded left wing and therefore Communist."
Although living in Singapore, Dr. Fozdar was working as a physician in the General Hospital at Johore Bahru. He suddenly passed away on April 26,1958. Mrs. Fozdar was now on her own because her children had already pioneered to different countries Dr. John Fozdar had gone to Brunei, Jamshed Fozdar was in Vietnam and Minoo Fozdar in Cocoas Island.
Alone, but undaunted. Mrs. Fozdar continued her work of giving the healing message of Bahŕ'u'llŕh to the generality of mankind. On the request of the hands of the cause she went to Thailand to teach the Buddhists there and brought about mass enrolment in that country. Thereafter Indonesia, Hong-Kong, Malaysia- in fact the whole of South East Asia, became her home. And till this day she keeps visiting her friends in all these countries, the early believers and the new ones-guiding them and deepening them in the Faith. Many of the believers she has taught have become members of Local and National Assemblies. Auxiliary Board Members and Counselors.
Ardent champion of women's rights, influential women's leader, idealist, tireless social worker, trouble maker, interfering foreigner, publicity hound, are some of the titles which have been attached to the name of Mrs. Fozdar over the past few decades. The Bahá'ís however call her by the simple and loving title of 'Mummy'.
Mrs. Fozdar had been a Bahá'í for almost a century when I met her in Singapore recently. I could not resist asking her what she thought were the best features of the Bahá'í Faith. "You can mix with the people of all religions," she replied unhesitatingly, "whereas, if a Buddhist becomes a Christian, he is forbidden to show respect to his own religion. He even has to discard his own people."
The message of Mrs. Fozdar is the message of love. Commenting on the role of women in modern society, she says that their main task should be to train their children to be good citizens, to raise their moral standards and contribute in general towards the removal of prejudices. She says, it is sad. They talk of equality, and then they drink, smoke, indulge in free sex. Obviously, Mrs. Fozdar's idea of equal rights for women is an ideal far removed from the common concept of some other women and is based on a saner, healthier attitude to life. According to her the sexes should stop competing and start complementing each other.
Though living out of the country of her birth for four decades now, the love of Mrs. Fozdar for India has not lessened in any way. Apart from the manner in which she dresses, a visit to her home in Singapore reveals a warm Indian set-up where you are offered traditional Indian hospitality and at times, meals specially cooked for you by 'Mummy' Fozdar. There you also hear her speaking naturally and in chaste Hindi of the wonderful achievements of the Bahá'í Community in India and of its glorious destiny. And as you listen to her passionate voice and watch her face aglow with the light of divine love, you feel as if you were once again a suckling bade at the breast of your mother.
© Prof. Anil Sarwal