Mahila Samaj

1970 –

Theme: Immigration and ethnicity

This essay written by Jacqueline Leckie was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993.

Update coming soon!

Mahila Samaj is a broad term which can refer to any Indian women's organisation. The Mahila Samaj in New Zealand were founded as an auxiliary wing of the larger regional Indian associations, most of which were incorporated societies affiliated to the New Zealand Indian Central Association, founded in 1926.

When the first Mahila Samaj in New Zealand was founded by eight women in Wellington in October 1970, there were about 2662 women of Indian descent recorded as resident in the country. About 818 lived in the Wellington region, and 1195 in central Auckland. The second Mahila Samaj began in Auckland in August 1971, and the third at Pukekohe in September 1976. [1] The establishment of separate women's organisations within the long-standing Indian associations reflected the growth of the New Zealand Indian community, and particularly the rise in the proportion of women within it. [2] Though immigrants came to New Zealand from India from the late nineteenth century, until after World War II the majority were men; the few women who did accompany their husbands led a hard-working life, with very limited contact with other Indian women. [3] As New Zealand's Indian population grew during the post-war years, women had greater opportunities to socialise, work and pray together in family and wider community activities.

Indian women's group

Alexander Turnbull Library, Dominion Post Collection (PAColl-7327), 2891/72.

These women were dressed in contemporary Indian garments for a fashion parade organised by Mahila Samaj, the women's group of the Wellington Indian Association, in 1972.

Membership of the Mahila Samaj, as of the Indian associations, was open to all women of Indian descent; but in practice, due to the early predominance of migrants from the state of Gujarat in Western India, in the early 1990s the majority were Gujaratis. The Auckland Mahila Samaj conducted its meetings in English; the Wellington group formerly used Gujarati, but by 1990, the increasing number of New Zealand born Indian women becoming active within it was leading to greater use of the English language in its proceedings.

Women's responsibility for the task of maintaining Indian culture was the main reason for the establishment of Mahila Samaj; its formation in Wellington was also related to women's involvement in the classes and cultural activities at the Wellington Gujarati language school. A male Gujarati teacher encouraged the women to form their own group, as he considered that they were more skilled than the men at organising cultural items for the association. In Auckland, Tara Satyanand suggested the formation of a women's committee to committee members of the Indian Association there as early as the 1950s, partly because of a need for Indian culture to have a visible presence in the wider community.

From the 1970s, as Pākehā New Zealanders slowly became more aware of the different ethnic groups here, individual New Zealand Indians and their associations were increasingly asked to perform cultural items or take part in multicultural events. This was an important but by no means primary activity of Mahila Samaj. More significant was their contribution to planning and organising cultural activities within their own Indian associations, as part of major Hindu religious festivals such as Navartri, Diwali and Janmastami, and for anniversary celebrations such as India's Republic Day (26 January) and Mahatma Gandhi's birthday (2 October). [4] Women participated in all the religious festivals, as well as preparing the hall and food and arranging cultural programmes. Mahila Samaj were also responsible for catering for large numbers of guests at special meetings, such as the annual national conferences of the New Zealand Indian Central Association.

In the early 1990s, the monthly meetings of Mahila Samaj were social gatherings with a range of activities, from speakers on women's health, stress management, yoga, floral arranging, knitting and sewing to demonstrations of Indian fashions and even Tupperware. As at many other women's meetings, food played a central part; cooking demonstrations proved popular, and the women in Auckland held an annual dinner. Depending on the programme, the number attending meetings fluctuated from a few to a hundred. Most of the women involved were married; younger or single women showed more enthusiasm for the Indian women's sports teams.

By 1993, Mahila Samaj committees could usually depend on a much greater number of women to assist in projects than when they began. Members played a significant role in fundraising, both within and outside the Indian associations. Cooking demonstrations and food stalls were often a successful way to do this. Wellington Mahila Samaj was active in raising funds for a new Indian community complex. Outside charities also benefited: for example, in 1973 Auckland Mahila Samaj members sold Indian food to raise money to help Lady Hillary equip a hospital in India, and in 1978 they donated money toward buying spices for recently arrived Ugandan refugees. Mahila Samaj throughout New Zealand also gave money collected from Navartri celebrations to local charities and to ashrams in India.

While serving a practical purpose and catering to specific needs within the Indian associations, Mahila Samaj also played a significant and active role in ensuring that Indian culture was retained in New Zealand, and in articulating Indian culture to other New Zealanders. They also enabled some women to build up confidence in public speaking and taking organisational responsibility, so that, despite some resistance, by 1993 there were now more women on the traditionally male-dominated executives of the Indian associations. Mahila Samaj members in Wellington, for example, were adamant that, through their activities, women in the 1990s had a more recognised involvement in the wider association than in the years before Mahila Samaj existed.

Jacqueline Leckie

Notes

[1] 1971 Census. Figures given are for persons of full Indian descent only. The first president of the Wellington Mahila Samaj was Deviben Ramabhai and the first secretary was Nimuben Somabhai. In Auckland, Lalitaben Chunilal was the first president and Manjulaben Mohanbhai the first secretary; in Pukekohe, Induben Panchia was the first president and Ratuben Patel was the first secretary.

[2] In 1916 the first Indian women were recorded in the census – five out of a total Indian population of 165. The 1991 census recorded 12,558 Indian women of full descent out of a total Indian population of 26,979.

[3] See Leckie, 1981, pp. 456–99.

[4] Navartri, 'the festival of nine nights', is celebrated with dancing, praying and singing during the period leading up to Diwali, the 'festival of lights' in October-November which, according to the Hindu calendar, marks the new year. Janmastami celebrates Lord Krishna's birthday.

Unpublished sources

Auckland Mahila Samaj minute book, 1971–1985, Auckland Indian Association, Auckland

Leckie, Jacqueline, interviews with members of the Auckland, Pukekohe and Wellington Mahila Samaj, in particular: Laxmiben Lala, Tara Satyanand, Shantiben Parbhu, Laxmiben Keshav, Auckland, 1992; Bhikiben Channa, Naniben Chhima, Ruxmani Kasanji, Sharda Patel, Parbhubhai Ratanji, Pushpa Wood, Wellington, 1992; Induben Panchia, Pukekohe, 1992

Leckie, Jacqueline, 'They Sleep Standing Up: Gujaratis in New Zealand to 1945', PhD thesis, University of Otago, 1981

Published sources

Leckie, Jacqueline, 'From Race Aliens to an Ethnic Group: Indians in New Zealand', in Michael C. Howard (ed.), Ethnicity and Nation-building in the Pacific, The United Nations University, Tokyo, 1985, pp. 169–97

Further information

Nancy Swarbrick, 'New Zealand Peoples: Indians', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand

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