I have often written in this space about ‘women warriors’. Women who have dreamed, and have made their dreams a reality, even in the face of adversity and opposition. These remarkable women are to be found in every age, and in every part of the world. And they continue to inspire, as well as to remind that what we take for granted today, was fought for, and achieved, by someone before us. One of these is the right of girls to education. This is a good week to remember a woman who paved the path for this—Savitribai Phule.
On 3 January 1831, a girl child was born in Naigaon village in Maharashtra. She was named Savitri. Her parents Lakshmi and Khandoji Neveshe Patil were Malis (traditionally vegetable growers and sellers), an economically and socially backward community. A girl child in such a community meant that she was not sent to school. The story goes that one day her father caught her leafing through the pages of an English language book and he was incensed; believing that only upper class males had this privilege. But this planted the seeds of the resolve in the young girl that she would, one day, learn to read and write.
Savitri was married off at the age of nine. Her husband, Jyotirao Phule, also from the same community, was only 13 years old himself, and he was studying in class three. But fate may have decided that this couple would one day change the way of things.
Savitribai entered her husband’s house as an illiterate child. Jyotirao, a man ahead of his times, believed that girls had an equal right to education. He himself began teaching his young wife at home, in the face of great disapproval from the family and the community. His friends Keshav Bhavalkar and Sakharam Paranjpe also contributed to her education. Perhaps it is these early mentors who inspired in Savitri the resolve to become a teacher herself. Jyotirao supported Savitri’s journey from becoming literate to getting higher education outside the home. She enrolled for teacher training programmes, first in Ahmednagar in an institution run by Cynthia Farrar who was one of the first unmarried American women sent overseas as a missionary, and who lived and worked in India from 1827 until her death in 1862. Savitri also trained at the Normal School in Pune. She was now ready to embark on her life’s mission of educating and empowering girls.
After completing her training she started teaching girls in Maharwada Pune. Not long after that, in 1848, Jyotirao and Savitri, along with Sagunabai, a revolutionary social reformist, opened a school for lower-caste girls in Bhidewada in Pune. The curriculum included traditional western mathematics, social studies and science, as well as vocational training. Savitribai was the teacher. It is believed that she was the first Indian woman teacher. The school had only nine students to begin with, and it was a struggle to keep them in school. Savitribai offered stipends as incentive, and held parent teacher meetings to encourage and support the parents.
In a time when it was not at all common to send girls to school, this was in itself a bold step. Opening a school for lower-caste girls invited huge backlash, especially from orthodox high castes. The Phules were undeterred and determined. Over the next few years, they opened a series of schools in the Pune area for girls and for lower-caste boys and girls. This raised more hostility, which even manifested itself in throwing of stones and dung at Savitri as she walked to school. It is said that she used to carry with her two sarees, so as to change out of her soiled clothes after she reached school. Jyotirao and Savitri, who until 1849, had lived with Jyotirao’s father, had to move away due to the strong opposition from the local community. But the couple courageously continued with their mission; going on to set up 18 such schools in the region.
It is believed that when they had to leave their home, the young couple was given refuge in the home of Usman Sheikh. His sister Fatima held the same views on education as Savitri and had also studied at the same teacher training institute. She started teaching with Savitribai, and is believed to be the first Muslim woman teacher of the nineteenth century. She continued to teach at the Phule’s schools all her life. The two women shared a long friendship based on mutual respect and synergy.
Education was not the only cause that drove Savitribai. Supporting Jyotirao’s strong crusade against the practice of Sati, child marriage, untouchability and other social evils, she also worked tirelessly for freeing women of many of the social fetters that bound them. She spoke up against the practice of widows having to shave their head. The Phules opened a care centre for widows, rape victims and their children, and girls who escaped female infanticide and sati. The Balhatya Pratibandhak Griha provided a refuge for them to live, and raise their children, in safety and dignity. Later the Phules adopted a boy from here as their son.
Savitribai expressed her views not only by her actions but also through her words. She wrote poems extolling education as a means to a life of dignity. One of her poems in Marathi with the title Go, Get Education urges “Sit idle no more, go, get education, end the misery of the oppressed and forsaken. You’ve got a golden chance to learn, so learn and break the chains of caste.” Her first anthology of poems Kavya Phule was published in 1854.
In 1897 the bubonic plague broke out around Pune. Savitribai and her adopted son Yashwant set up a clinic to take care of affected patients. While tending to the patients, Savitribai herself caught the infection, and succumbed to it on March 1 1897.
Savitribai’s life was a tale of true grit and perseverance, and she was a pioneering crusader for equality and justice, especially for women. Today she is described as “India’s first feminist icon”. An article in the Oikos Worldviews Journal sums up her contribution thus ‘Indian women owe her. For in today’s world, whether an Indian school girl reading English, an Indian woman who reads, an Indian woman who is educated, or an educated international desi woman, her education as an Indian female grows from the garden planted by Savitribai Phule’.