Turbulent Londoners: Mala Sen, 1947-2011

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who played a part in the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. Today it is the turn of Mala Sen, writer and human rights activist.


Mala Sen

Mala Sen, 1947-2011 (Source: The Guardian)

Racism, and prejudice are still  very real issues in modern Britain. Often, discrimination can compound other issues such as employment and housing. Indian activist and writer Mala Sen saw the intersection of these problems when she moved to Britain in the late 1960s, and fought to make them better. She is part of the reason that Brick Lane in East London is home to a thriving Bangladeshi community to this day.

Mala Sen was born on the 3rd of June 1947 in Uttarakhand in northern India. Her parents divorced when she was 6, after which she was raised by her father. She moved to Mumbai to study Home Sciences, where she met and fell in love with Farrukh Dhondy. In 1965, aged 17, Mala moved to the UK to be with Dhondy. They married in 1968, and although they divorced in 1976 they remained close.

In the UK, Mala worked as a seamstress. She quickly became aware the severe racial inequality and prejudice in the UK, and started to get involved in race relations. In one of her first experiences of activism, she fought for the rights of Indian factory workers in Leicester. Mala was an early member of the Race Today Collective, a leading voice in Black politics in Britain. She wrote for their magazine, Race Today, about the condition of Bangladeshi sweatshop workers in the East End of London. They lived in crowded dormitories where beds were shared around the clock by workers on different shifts. Many of the workers had left their families behind in Bangladesh, so were not entitled to housing benefit.

Spurred on by these dreadful living conditions, Mala was a founding member of the Bengali Housing Action Group (BHAG). In the early 1970s, the Bengali community in East London was growing rapidly but faced racism and discrimination. BHAG sourced council houses and squatted empty buildings for the Bengali community to live in. BHAG’s activities eventually led to the establishment of Brick Lane as a safe living area for the Bangladeshi community.

Mala Sen Mural

A mural in brick Lane depicting Mala Sen by artist Jasmin Kaur Sehra, part of a series commissioned by the Tate Collective to celebrate the contributions of ‘unknown’ women in 2018 (Source: Kevin Lake).

Mala was also an active member of the British Black Panthers (BBP), which was based in Brixton. Less militant than the American Blank Panthers, the BBP believed in educating black people about their history and giving them a voice. This chimed with Mala’s own philosophy; she argued that supporting people to empower themselves was the best form of activism. Later on, Mala became a researcher for television documentaries. This led to her researching and writing about women in rural India, many of whom were treated very poorly. Her best known book, India’s Bandit Queen: The True Story of Phoolan Devi, took 8 years to research.

In her later years, Mala became disillusioned with British and Indian politics, the feminist movement and the East End Bangladeshi community. She died in Mumbai on the 27th of May 2011, aged 63. Although she lost faith in the causes she fought for, that does not diminish her contribution to them, nor make her any less worthy of remembrance.

Sources and Further Reading

Bayley, Bruno. “The Amazing Lost Legacy of the British Black Panthers.” Vice. Last modified 10th August 2013, accessed 18th September 2019. Available at https://www.vice.com/sv/article/9bz5ee/neil-kenlocks-photos-give-the-british-black-panthers-the-legacy-they-deserve

Jackson, Sarah. “Mala Sen: Writer and Race Equality Activist.” East End Women’s Museum. Last modified 18th July 2016, accessed 18th September 2019. Available at https://eastendwomensmuseum.org/blog/mala-sen-writer-and-race-equality-activist?rq=mala%20sen

Kotak, Ash. “Mala Sen Obituary.” The Guardian. Last modified 13th June 2011, accessed 18th September 2019. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/jun/13/mala-sen-obituary

The Telegraph. ” Mala Sen.” Last modified 30th May 2011, accessed 18th September 2019. Available at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/culture-obituaries/books-obituaries/8546445/Mala-Sen.html

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