Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Remembering an unsung heroine of our modern history

She was tiny, not quite 5ft tall and almost always in a sari and cardi, carrying a plastic handbag and a coat that couldn't possibly have kept her warm

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Mix the heady defiance and ire of Boadicea with Gandhi's steely obstinacy and sense of injustice and you get Mrs Jayaben Desai, the British Asian woman who back in 1976 became the most improbable icon and voice of the Labour movement in this country – a working-class warrior who led the resistance to yet another boss, George Ward (backed by the right-wing Tory fraternity), who bloated his profits through paying pitifully low wages. She died last week, aged 77, and needs to be honoured by those of us who knew her and all the others who can never forget the long strike she led on behalf of her co-workers and the wider blue-collar collective. Much such authentic history is deleted from our speedy lives and national memory is, as we know, selective and manipulated. In today's Britain, the "working classes" have been recast as white, unhappy and anti-immigrant – a fictionalised narrative of conflict that discards the truth with shocking carelessness because it suits the politics and dramas of our times.

So, Mrs Desai's story first. She was tiny, not quite 5ft tall and almost always in a sari and cardi, carrying a plastic handbag and a coat that couldn't possibly have kept her warm. Her hair was tied in a plait or a bun and between her brows was her tikka, a dot worn by Hindu women. I interviewed her several times – she reminded me of my mum, short too, who wore saris with cardis. Both taught themselves functional English and then used the language, freely and imaginatively, like a rebellious artist does his colour palette. Both had arrived here from East Africa and had Indian ancestry. Like other exiles, they had to do stuff they had never done before, adjust to life in a cold climate and the poverty faced by involuntary migrants. They had to toughen up.

Mrs Desai worked for Ward's mail-order photo-developing company Grunwick, which employed mostly female Asian immigrants who were desperate for jobs. Before the strike, Desai claimed they worked long hours, took home a third of the average factory pay and were forbidden union membership. One woman was sacked for objecting and a handful of her mates walked out in protest, starting a two-year strike that pulled in support from miners, postal workers, MPs, trades unionists and young people. Desai said Grunwick was not a factory but a "zoo". Night after night she was on our screens holding placards calling for worker solidarity and rights. Paramilitary police units used extreme force – not since 1926 had such brutality been seen against strikers. The cowardly TUC betrayed the strikers and Margaret Thatcher, understanding the power of moral outrage, set about slowly castrating legitimate union activity until it was only a memory and never a real threat again.

We are entering those times once more, and it feels as if her gods took Mrs Desai away before she was forced to inhabit a country where workers count for nothing and must know that.

Other Asian women, too, before and after Desai, have taken up big causes, showing grit and tenacity. Britons know about the brave souls who help victims of evil practices within their families and communities – like the counsellors running the Muslim Women's Helpline and the undaunted activists at Southall Black Sisters. But ask most of our citizens about the campaigners who fought for universal rights, access and fairness, and most will not know any of the names or stories.

Take Cornelia Sorabji, an Indian woman of great beauty and intellect, the first woman ever to study law at Oxford (in 1889) and later successfully to challenge the discriminatory rules that forbade women entry to the Bar. She enlisted the support of influential men and lobbied with sharp arguments and charm, and forced open the heavy doors guarding the most forbidding and masculine professions of this land. I wonder how many female barristers know of this pioneer who always wore beautiful saris.

In 1910, there was Princess Sophia Singh, the half-Indian daughter of the Maharajah Duleep Singh, who was deposed from his throne by the British when a boy prince, exiled to this country, obliged to hand over the Koh-i-Noor diamond to the Queen who was fond of the chap and ensured he had money and palatial homes here. Sophia turned her back on all that and joined the Pankhursts and other leading suffragettes to fight for votes for all. She was behind the Women's Tax Resistance League urging women to withhold taxes until they had the vote. She was frequently in the courts herself, refusing to pay and making stirring speeches that gained wide publicity.

Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan is better known – but again, not widely so. Her Indian father was a Sufi teacher in London and her white mother was related to the founder of Christian Science. They fled to France to escape the racism they faced in Britain as a mixed-race family, and Khan was raised and educated in Paris. In 1939, the family returned to England. She trained as a wireless operator and was recruited into the British secret service and sent back to France. She was thought to be unusually gutsy and quietly efficient. She transmitted information until she was betrayed in 1943, and captured by the Gestapo. For a year she was tortured and in 1944 shot in Dachau. She never broke, she never told. Posthumously she was praised for her distinguished service to this country. She could have returned to London after her early stints, but understood her looks and gentility made her a good spy and chose dangerous service instead.

There are others – and today's example might be the indefatigable Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty – fighting day and night to keep safe our sacred and eternal rights and protections. Like Mrs Desai, her struggles are for all of us, for a better future than we might have if did nothing.

Asian women in the public imagination are docile, obliging, adorned, full of sexy secrets, veiled, afraid, obedient, keepers of home and hearth, or part of the furniture. But provoked, they become lions, said Mrs Desai to her boss, and then there is no stopping their moral passion. Remember that – and them. The sinewy Michael Gove bends history to his will, part of his re-education programme. I don't expect he will want these stories included – these women represent defiance and we don't want that, do we, in Compliant Britain?


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