Born in 1885 into the affluent Sarabhai family of Ahmedabad, Anasuya Sarabhai lost both her parents when she was only nine. She and her two younger siblings were brought up by their father’s younger brother, Chimanbhai Sarabhai. At the age of 13, an unwilling Anasuya was married off by her uncle. Her marriage was brief and unhappy; Anasuya divorced her husband and returned to her own family.
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One morning, I was sitting outside in the compound combing out the children’s hair when I saw a group of 15 workers passing by as if in a trance. I called out to them, even though I did not know them well, and asked them, “What’s the matter? Why do you look so listless?’ They said, “Behen, we have just finished 36 straight hours of work. We have worked for two nights and a day without a break, and now we are on our way home.” These words filled me with horror. This was no different than the kind of slavery women faced! Shocked by what she had heard, Anasuya decided that she must do something to change this situation.
In 1914 Anasuya Sarabhai helped Ahmedabad’s weavers successfully organise their first strike for higher wages. In the years that followed, she went on to become their most vocal supporter, negotiating with mill owners – including her brother – for better working conditions. She was affectionately called “Motaben”, Gujarati for “elder sister”, by those she helped.
Anasuya Sarabhai returned to India in 1913 and started working for betterment of women and the poor. She also opened a school. She decided to get involved in the labour movement after witnessing exhausted female mill workers returning home after a 36-hour shift. She helped organise textile workers in a 1914 strike in Ahmedabad. She was also involved in a month-long strike in 1918, where weavers were asking for a 50 per cent increase in wages and were being offered 20 per cent. Mahatma Gandhi, a friend of the family, was by then acting as a mentor to Sarabhai. Gandhi began a hunger strike on the workers’ behalf, and the workers eventually obtained a 35 per cent increase. Following this, in 1920, the Ahmedabad Textile Labour Association (Majdoor Mahajan Sangha) was formed.