Singaporean women against polygamy

The Singapore Council of Women, formed in 1952, was the first women’s organisation to explicitly critique the state of gender relations. In particular, they spoke out against polygamy, leading to the practice being outlawed for non-Muslims in 1961. 


The first women’s organisation in Singapore that explicitly critiqued the state of gender relations and called for change was the Singapore Council of Women. It was formed in 1952 by women such as Shirin Fozdar, Mrs George Lee and Zahara bte Noor Mohd., who were of different ethnic backgrounds and from various women’s organisations. The founding members decided that it was time to join forces and get to the root of the social evils that bogged women down. The SCW managed, against odds, to recruit 2,000 members. Recruitment was not easy since some women joined at the risk of displeasure from their friends and families. The ideas that the SCW espoused were radical for the time. 

The SCW was a multiracial organisation, and its first executive committee was made up of seven Chinese women, four Indians, two Malays, one Indonesian and one British woman. It engaged in community service tailored to the needs of women. In 1953 it set up the first girls’ club, at the Joo Chiat Welfare Centre. It also worked to encourage factories with a substantial number of women employees to set up on-site crèches. 

The SCW found its cause in the battle against polygamy. Mrs George Lee, first president of the organisation, remembered being devastated when, after fifteen years of marriage and nine children, her own husband took a concubine. Rather than succumb to the grief that overtook her, she channelled her energies into working to help other women who suffered in similar circumstances. During the 1950s, the SCW lobbied against polygamy and worked to better the lives of girls and women.

[…]

A pressing issue for women in Singapore [in the 1950s] was polygamy. Women whose husbands took second wives often suffered immensely. […] SCW lobbied the colonial government to outlaw polygamy and was an important force behind the introduction of the Women’s Charter, which outlawed polygamy for non-Muslims in 1961. 

Dr Mandakini Arora is an independent historian and writing consultant. She studied History at Duke University, and was a part-time lecturer at the National University of Singapore.

Arora, Mandakini, ed. Small Steps, Giant Leaps: A History of AWARE and the Women’s Movement in Singapore. Association of Women for Action and Research, 2007.

Featured Image of Shirin Fozdar: The Online Citizen

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