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Mahila Samaj

1970 –

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

1970 – 1993

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
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

1994 – 2019

The 2015 census showed that the number of Indian women in New Zealand had risen considerably, to around 75,000. Many of these were fairly recent arrivals, from Fiji as well as India. In 2015 over 75 percent of the Indian population living in New Zealand had been born overseas, although many had emigrated to New Zealand long before the 1990s. [5]

Although it is difficult to track the ongoing commitment to Mahila Samaj by Indian women in the period 1993–2019, it is possible that this lessened, for a number of reasons. For example, Indian women's participation in the paid workforce outside their family business greatly increased over this period. Far more women obtained tertiary education and were participating in public life, so it is likely that their range of activities outside traditional organisations became much wider. 

Within their own communities, Indian women also made significant strides in holding official positions within the Indian Associations. Empowering women was set down as a core goal of the New Zealand Indian Central Association, and its women’s forum was holding annual conferences. [6] Other kinds of Indian associations for women also emerged, for example Shanti Niwas, for older men and women, Shakti, which supports migrant and refugee women and families of Asian, African and Middle Eastern origin who suffer domestic violence and other issues, and specific organisations for women from India’s ethnic and religious groups, such as the New Zealand Sikh Women’s Association, formed in Auckland in 2002.

Nevertheless, the Mahila Samaj groups around the country continued to play a vital role in their Indian communities.  In this period the vast majority of Indian people lived in Auckland, and the Auckland Mahila Samaj group appears to have been the most active. As it evolved and grew, addressing issues and topics relevant to contemporary women was seen to be vital. When Bhanu Dhaji, who had joined Mahila Samaj in 1976, became president in 1998, she and her committee set out to empower women by concentrating on a range of issues that would attract them to the organisation. [7]

Health was an important focus at monthly meetings, with a broad range of health professionals speaking on topics such as diabetes and breast cancer. Ayurvedic doctors were also invited, to teach about holistic medicines.

There were frequent outings for the elderly, and floral art sessions were popular. Flowers also provided a way to raise much needed funds – Bhanu Dhaji recalled selling pot plants she grew at home, as well as providing them for raffle prizes.

Cooking demonstrations attracted by far the most women to the monthly meetings. Combining food with a social occasion was a useful way to bring in funds: tickets sold well to the end of year luncheon with a guest speaker, so annual dinners also began to be held. The first, in 1999, with David Lange as guest speaker, raised enough money to buy a refrigerator and a stove for Radha Krishna Mandir, the newly opened Hindu religious centre inNew North Road.

By 2002 the profile of Mahila Samaj was clearly rising. Over the next few years it became renowned for its activities in the Auckland region, not only as a group of ladies having monthly meetings on women's issues, but also for its participation and assistance in the wider community. In 2018, for example, the organisation held a successful fundraising event for the Auckland Starship Hospital, attended by 300 people: the 22 women of Mahila Samaj spread themselves across different tables at the event, according to their field of expertise, in order to speak to the attendees at each table about initiatives that could assist the community. [8]

Its impact was also spreading to other regions. The annual report for 2002/3 pointed out that:

The Auckland Mahila Samaj has been recognised for its activities by other branches of the New Zealand Indian Central Association (NZICA) and it is heartening to know NZICA is encouraging other branches to have active women's groups and also encouraging women to participate in their own branch organisations. [9]

In addition to their own Mahila Samaj activities, the Auckland group continued to work closely with the Auckland Indian Association, with members regularly assisting the catering committee during Navratri and weddings, as well as dinners. It also assisted with other events and meetings hosted by the association at the Mahatma Gandhi Centre in Mount Eden, such as the Auckland Indian Association’s 90th birthday, when it organised a special dinner for all those in the community aged 90 and over. The group also reached out to other communities, for example visiting the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Temple in 2008. In 2016 Vanita B. Patel became president of the Auckland Mahila Samaj, having been an active member for around twelve years, including as treasurer. [10]

The Wellington branch also continued its work, celebrating its 45th anniversary in 2016. The 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand in 2018 was marked with a morning tea attended by nearly 90 women, at which the national president of the National Council of Women, Vanisa Dhiru, spoke about her career. The following year, the branch held a fundraising breakfast for the Mary Potter Hospice. [11]

Indian women's group
Ruxmani Kasanji of Mahila Samaj, with Governor General Patsy Reddy, at her investiture as a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to the Indian community, in May 2019.

Ruxmani Kasanji, who had played a key role in establishing Mahila Samaj in Wellington, was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (MNZM) for her services to the Indian community in 2019. She had earlier been made a Life Member of the Wellington Indian Association, one of only two women in its history to receive this recognition. [12] In April 2019 Manisha Morar, an active member of the Wellington branch, became the first female General Secretary of the Indian Central Association.

Elizabeth Cox and Anne Else


[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.

[5] 2015 census. Figures given are for those identifying with the Indian ethnic group.

[6] ‘Indian women chart their course for larger involvement’, 28 Sept 2018, Indian Newslink,

[7] Bhanu Dhaji, personal communication, 2019.

[8] ‘Auckland Indian Association Mahila Samaj host Fundraising Dinner’, 27 November 2018, The Indian Weekender,

[9] Auckland Mahila Samaj Annual Report, 2002/2003.

[10] Vanita B. Patel, personal communication, 2019; ‘Auckland Indian Association commemorates 90 years of community service’, The Indian Weekender, 23 June 2016,; Auckland Mahila Samaj Facebook Page 2016–2019,

[11] Wellington Indian Association Facebook page, 2016–2019,

[12] ‘Three Kiwi-Indians named in the New Zealand New Years Honours List 2019', The Indian Weekender, 31 Dec. 2018,

Unpublished sources

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

Auckland Mahila Samaj, annual reports, 2002–2018

Auckland Mahila Samaj, list of activities, 2009–2013

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

Leckie, Jacqueline, personal communications, 2019

Dhaji, Bhanu, personal communications, 2019

Morar, Manisha, personal communications, 2019

Patel, Vanita B., personal communications, 2019

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