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New novel by Cambridge author Shahida Rahman looks at the unknown women of the Suffragette movement

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Cambridge author Shahida Rahman has just had her second novel – a work of historical fiction – published.

Shahida Rahman. Picture: Keith Heppell
Shahida Rahman. Picture: Keith Heppell

An Ayah’s Choice, published on March 29 by Onwe, is an historical novel exploring themes of feminism, race, independence and coming-of-age against a backdrop of the Suffragette movement in the early 20th century.

Beginning in a small Indian village in 1900, the novel tells the story of aspiring artist Jaya Devani, a young woman who yearns for freedom. After starting a relationship with her British colonial employer, William Edmundson, she launches herself on course for a new life as an ayah – a nanny – in London.

“It’s been a few years in the making,” says Shahida, an author of historical fiction, non-fiction and children’s stories, who was born in Cambridge to Bangladeshi parents. “I wrote the first draft in 2014 and I sat on it for a while and ended up doing other things, but I think the lockdown finally pushed me to complete it, the final edits, and then I got an offer last year. So it worked out really well for me.”

Expanding on the story, Shahida says: “Ayahs were Indian women who were domestic servants and they were nannies for British children in the 19th and 20th centuries. Basically it came about because in 2014, I attended the centenary of the East London Suffragette Festival, and there I met Helen Pankhurst who is the great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst.

“She was a very notable figure back in the early 20s, and that sort of instigated me to find out about Indian women who were actually involved in the Suffragette movement. I think these women were sort of hidden. They weren’t really recognised, and some of these women who came as ayahs were abandoned and dismissed so they had very, very difficult lives.

“That’s when they got involved in the Suffragette movement, looking for independence and freedom. At that time that’s what was going on in India so with the Suffragette movement here they were looking for

a woman’s right to vote – and that’s where these women come in. They were silent in the background but they were making a contribution to that movement.”

And they would have had more of a voice here than they had in India? “Yes, I think so,” says Shahida, “but there still was racism at that time, and that was quite normal in those days. But these women had a place to go to – they were taken under the wings of the Suffragette movement.

“We don’t hear too much about them. It’s not widely recognised, but through the research that I’ve done over the years, I think slowly people are starting to know that there were Indian women involved in the movement.”

An Ayah's Choice book cover
An Ayah's Choice book cover

Shahida, whose first book was published 10 years ago, notes that An Ayah’s Choice is based in reality. “It’s a historical fiction novel,” she explains, “I focused on an Indian ayah, she worked for a British family in India and then she travelled with them and settled in London.

“The story is she wanted to look for her own freedom and she fell in love with her employer, William, who she was working for – and you did hear stories about that where these relationships happened. But then she realised that she could do better than that; she wanted that independence and she wanted to forge her own path. So that’s where she left the family and got involved with the Suffragette movement.”

The novel has already received fulsome praise. Helen Pankhurst called it “a page turner”, American writer AJ Gnuse said it was “tender and thrilling”, and best-selling author Kate Quinn hailed it as “a rare jewel”.

“I got an official endorsement from Helen Pankhurst, which is absolutely amazing,” says Shahida, who is extremely grateful for all the positive comments. She adds: “I wouldn’t say it’s been an easy journey, as with any book to get published...

“It was a long process; it’s very challenging even to get an offer of publication – it took me about seven months from the time I started to approach publishers. I didn’t want to give up. I believed that I could do this second time round.”

An Ayah’s Choice is available now. For more on Shahida, visit shahidarahman.co.uk.

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