Savitribai Phule who started the first girls’ school in India, faced many of the same challenges that Indian feminists do even today. It’s time to look at how tough her journey was.
On Jan 1, 1848 Savitribai Phule and Fatima Begum set up the first Indian girls school in Bhide Wada, Pune. It was the start of a new era when it came to girls’ education. The fact that the first girls school was started by two women tells us that these women had the grit and determination to think beyond their times and also put it into action. We can write a thousand words praising their efforts but what we must ask is this: was their journey a easy one?
Did they not face challenges, criticism and even threats against their endeavour? How many people actually came forward to support them or were they mocked for doing something against the culture of that time? How many times were they reminded that the education of girls is not very important especially under the British rule and that Indians should rather unitedly focus on fighting the bigger evil? Were they called British stooges working to destroy our culture by diverting attention to ‘small and irrelevant’ issues? Where they reminded about their ‘misplaced priorities’, to focus on running the house and taking care of children?
People used to throw dirt and mud on Savitribai, so she always kept an extra saree in her bag when she went to teach girls.
This was how they were treated when they started out. The very idea that girls needed a school must have been scandalous. It is important to be noted that she was encouraged and supported by her husband Jyoti Rao Phule who himself was a reformer. Jyoti Rao Phule first taught his young wife to read and write, and later helped her start the first girls school. Encouraged by her husband she ventured out with her friend Fatima Begum but their journey was not an easy one.
Every step had challenges and opppsition by the very people they were trying to help. They were isolated, mocked and called names. The situation worsened after the couple were felicitated by the colonial government of Bombay presidency in 1850. They were seen as working under the guidance of the colonial government, trying to destroy the culture of the native people. All the criticism and opposition only made them more committed to the cause and both the ladies continued their mission regardless of all the negativity .
Tiffany Wayne has described Phule as “one of the first-generation modern Indian feminists, and an important contributor to world feminism in general, as she was both addressing and challenging not simply the question of gender in isolation but also issues related to caste and casteist patriarchy.”
What if they had stopped after being intimidated? Would we be celebrating these women? Does their journey ring a bell? Aren’t feminists and social activists today facing similar challenges? Aren’t they told to focus on ‘more important’ issues or in other words to focus only on things approved by men/society and not to venture into new territory? Inspite of all advancements women still face the same restrictions, still have to ‘stay within limits’.
How dare they ask for entry into religious place of worship? Shouldn’t they be focusing on education of girls? As if in all these years the society was sleeping and only remembers the need for girls’ education now. Why can’t change happen in all fields simultaneously? Why wait for one task to be accomplished until we venture into another?
I am sure that Savitribai Phule and Fatima Begum were also told to focus on the freedom movement than on girls’ education. I wonder if they were also labelled as ‘liberals’ and mocked by the not-so-liberals (narrow minded is the apt word).
More importantly, how much have we progressed as a society when it comes to women ‘s issue or are we still stuck in a time wrap using culture and faith as an excuse?