Dr. Rukhmabai Raut: The 19th Century Child Bride Who Fought To Become A Doctor

Posted: November 22, 2017

Today is Dr. Rukhmabai Raut’s birth anniversary. If you’ve seen the Google Doodle today, it pays a beautiful ode to India’s first practicing woman doctor – Dr. Rukhmabai*.

Dr. Rukhmabai Raut practiced for a good three decades, and moreover, played a big role in the age of consent for marriage being discussed at all in India. If you hover over the Google Doodle, it says – Rukhmabai Raut’s 153rd birthday.

Having read about her recently and having been left so inspired, I wanted to share her story with you all. What makes Dr. Rukhmabai’s story really great, was her strength and will to do it in some of the most hostile social circumstances – she was a child bride; a brave child bride who refused to live with her husband simply because she believed that she or any other girl for that matter shouldn’t be forced to marry and stay with a man against her own will. Isn’t that remarkable and brave for the 1880s, at a time when sati was still in practice?

She was born in (then) Bombay in 1864 to Janardhan and Jayantibai Save who came from the suthar (carpenter) community. Jayantibai was married at 14, gave birth to Rakhmabai at 15 and lost her husband at the age of 17. After six years, she married Dr. Sakharam Arjun Raut (who had lost his wife and had three sons from his first marriage). The remarriage of widows, surprising in such a patriarchal India, was allowed in the suthar community. Rukhmabai was then 8 and a half years old. Her mother Jayantibai transferred all her property obtained from her first marriage to Rukhmabai.

Her stepfather Dr. Sakharam was an eminent physician with Grant Medical College, and a social reformist; he was in fact one of the two people who founded the Bombay Natural History Society. He had a big role to play in Rukhmabai’s story. Two and a half years later, 11 year old Rukhmabai was married to 19 year old Dadaji Bhikaji, Sakharam’s cousin. Neither did Dadaji have an education or job, nor did he have the will to pursue the same. One may wonder why Sakharam arranged this marriage – was it social pressure, blind faith in time fixing everything, or no clear reason why? But the marriage happened.

It was arranged to have Dadaji as the gharjamai (a husband who moves in with his wife and her parents) of the house and that he would hopefully study and get settled months into the marriage. Rukhma reached puberty. You could imagine what this meant. This was usually followed by an event called garbhadan or the consummation ritual. Sakharam however refused to permit early consummation. Thank Goodness! Dadaji was asked to wait.

The dread Rukhma must have been filled with, I can almost feel a tremble in me. It did not go down well with Dadaji. Dadaji was getting impatient but somehow kept mum. His mother passed away and it was as if he was just waiting for one less person to ask him to work towards a good future. He dropped out of school, got into bad company and moved in with this uncle, Narayan Dhurmaji, a man of a questionable character himself. Dadaji continued his irresponsible ways and borrowed a lot of money from his uncle. Narayan Dhurmaji had a plan; he started instigating Dadaji to bring Rukhmabai into the house with obtaining her property as an ulterior motive behind the plan.

While this was happening, Rukhmabai evolved into an intelligent young woman. She would read books borrowed from the Free Church Mission Library. She would attend Prarthana Samaj and Arya Mahila Samaj meetings with her mother, interact with Europeans and other social reformers that her father knew and so on. Even in the most educated and modern families, a married daughter who was staying with her parents could not study without the permission of her in-laws. If Sakharam permitted Rakhmabai to study outside, the pressure to have her sent to Dadaji would have increased. Sad though about not being able to study at school, she did not give up and continued her self-education. Day by day, her love for education and social reform increased and her resolve to do something for her sisters in society became stronger.

In the next 10 years she saw her spouse go from bad to worse. Her aversion for him increased and the idea of marriage itself irked her. His ways remained the same, and his health deteriorated. Dadaji’s dependence on his uncle increased manifold. 11 years into marriage, she was 22, and Dadaji 30.

“I am not afraid” – Rukhmabai goes to court

Maybe money was a motivation; Dadaji filed a litigation in the Bombay High court in March 1884 and that was the beginning of a tumultuous period for Rukhmabai. Four painful years. But maybe it was all for the good. Dadaji lost the first stage of the case, when the British judge ruled that there was no marriage because it had not been consummated, and because his claim for ‘restitution of conjugal relations’ had no root in Hindu law. Dadaji appealed and won; the higher court found that while native law didn’t approve such a suit, it didn’t forbid it either.

Rukhmabai was ordered to go to her husband, or to jail for six months. Rakhmabai bravely declared that she would rather go to jail than move in with her husband. I could almost hear her utter in my mind, in Marathi, “me nahi ghabrat, me ladnaar pan kutlyahi paristhithith me tikde jaanar naahi”. (I am not afraid; I will not give up in any circumstances). Every court hearing, her heart would have been pounding, but she must have kept a brave front. Like the water rolling down from a lily pad.

During the period of the court cases, Rakhmabai wrote to the Times of India, a series of letters that became very popular, under the pseudonym of The Hindu Lady. She said in some of them, “I am one of those unfortunate Hindu women whose hard lot it is to suffer the unnameable miseries entailed by the custom of early marriage. This wicked practice has destroyed the happiness of my life, It comes between me and the thing which I prize above all others-study and mental cultivation.” and “Marriage does not interpose any insuperable obstacle in the course of their (men) studies. They can marry not only a second wife, on the death of the first, but have the right of marrying any number of wives at one and the same time, or any time they please.”

The case also gathered much attention in the British press, bringing the issue of child marriage and the rights of women to the forefront. A group of Indian reformers, including Behramji Malabari and Ramabai Ranade, formed the Rukhmabai Defence Committee to bring the case to public attention. Rakhmabai was only saved when Queen Victoria intervened and issued a proclamation dissolving her marriage and commuting the sentence. Dadaji accepted a monetary compensation of 2000 rupees in return for dissolution in 1888.

Victory and the future

The publicity of this case prompted the formation of the Age of Consent Act, 1891. The case was instrumental in raising the age from 10 to 12 – a modest step indeed but a beginning. It kept increasing and finally in 2013 it was raised from 16 to 18.

Rakhmabai was finally free to pursue her education after her court cases had concluded. Under the guidance and support of Edith Pechey Phipson, the British director of the Cama Hospital in Bombay, she went to England to study at the London School of Medicine for Women in 1889. As she set foot in London and inhaled the air for the first time, she must have tasted freedom, freedom to fulfil her dreams, freedom to do something good, freedom to live without fear. She graduated in 1894.

Rukhmabai Raut became the Chief Medical Officer of Hospitals in Surat and Rajkot, continuing to write against the harmful effects on women of purdah and life in the zenana. She never married again; her legal situation was neither married nor unmarried. She died in 1955, aged ninety one.

I have been thinking of her so much – the unpleasantness so early in her life somehow would have blocked out so many dreams and thoughts. The story just spoke to me – the Maharashtra connection (my hometown), my grandmother was married at 13, my mom got married to my dad at 16, had my brother at 17…of course that was 42 years ago. But things are still the same in many parts of country with cases of abuse, child marriage and all the other ills still rampant.

There is a Marathi movie by Anant Mahadevan, that is going to be released based on Rukhmabai’s story soon, which I hope to watch.

A quote to end with, a quote I came across while reading about her: “Within our reach lies every path we ever dream of taking. Within our power lies every step we ever dream of making. Within our range lies every joy we ever dream of seeing. Within ourselves lies everything we ever dream of being.”

*If you are thinking of Dr. Anandibai Joshi, yes she was India’s first Indian woman doctor trained in the USA, but unfortunately couldn’t practice because she died soon after her graduation.

Ramya believes that stories help us learn, grow and create, transform and heal. They motivate

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