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3rd January 2021 was the 190th birth anniversary of Savitribai Phule, a true pioneer in empowering Indian women. A tribute.
“Go, Get Education…” was Savitribai Phule’s appeal to women in particular and also to people of the DBA communities to get education as a means to break free from the shackles of socially constructed discriminatory practices.
Savitribai Phule was born on 03 January 1831 in Naigaon, a village in Maharashtra. She is formally recognized as India’s first female teacher.
When women’s rights were never heard of, Savitribai played a pivotal role in their empowerment, by taking it as the mission of her life, with the support of her husband Jyotirao Phule (Jyotiba), a passionate social reformer who worked tirelessly to abolish discriminations based on caste and gender.
Born in a family of ‘socially backward’ Mali community, Savitribai was illiterate when she married Jyotiba at the tender age of 9. Fortunately, Jyotiba strongly believed in the power of education in removing social inequalities. Accordingly, he decided to start this revolution at home by teaching his wife to read and write, much against the family dictate.
Initially, he taught her when she brought lunch for him in the field. Later, Jyotiba admitted Savitribai to a Teacher’s Training Institute in Pune. After the training, Savitribai started teaching girls at Maharwada in Pune. Here, Sagunabai, Jyotiba’s mentor and also an activist, supported Savitribai’s efforts in this direction. Later, the couple along with Sagunabai, started their own school at Bhide Wada which became India’s first girl’s school run by Indians. The school started with the enrolment of 9 girls, but the number increased to 25 gradually. Afterwards, 3 more schools were opened for girls in Pune, with the enrolment of nearly 150 students altogether.
The couple introduced a number of innovative measures in teaching with special focus on curriculum and teaching methods.
They introduced stipends for students to motivate them to attend schools. Also, regular parent-teacher meetings were arranged to educate parents on the importance of education. Special emphasis was given to subjects like English, science, mathematics and social studies. Consequently, the number of girls in their schools became higher than the boys enrolled in government schools in Pune.
However, the enrolment of students from DBA communities, deemed ‘untouchables’, angered orthodox upper caste Hindus. So, they tried to close these schools.
First, they spread rumours about Savitribai; said her husband would die prematurely due to her schooling, that her food is changing into worms, and also that educated women start writing letters to unknown men.
When these tales didn’t discourage Savitribai, they started attacking her directly on her way to the school by throwing cow dung, eggs, tomatoes and stones at her. Undeterred, Jyotiba advised her to carry an extra sari in her bag, so that she can wear a fresh one while teaching in the school. Gradually, Savitribai gained courage to respond to these insults, saying, “Your efforts inspire me to continue my work. May god bless you.” However, this public hooliganism stopped one day after Savitribai slapped a trouble monger and this act of her became sensational news across Pune.
Still, the conservative minds found another way to stop the couple. They put pressure on Jyotiba’s father to throw them out of the house. According to them, it was a ‘sin’ to educate women and the children of ‘backward castes’, as written in holy scriptures.
Out on the streets, the couple were accommodated by a close friend, Usman Sheikh and his family. His sister, Fatima Begum Sheikh was already a literate. Encouraged by her brother, Fatima accompanied Savitribai in enrolling for another teacher training programme. Later, Fatima went on to become India’s first Muslim woman teacher. After the training, both of them started a school at Usman Sheikh’s residence.
Encouraged by improved enrolment, the couple opened a total of 18 schools for girls across Maharashtra from 1848 to 1852. Recognizing this feat, the British government honoured them for their contribution to the field of education, and also felicitated Savitribai as a great teacher. Afterwards, the couple opened a night school for women and children of the working class community. Also, they set up 52 free hostels for poor students across Maharashtra to help their studies.
Besides education, the couple involved themselves in a number of social service activities. On 24 September, 1873, they set up ‘Satya Shodhaka Samaja’ a platform which was open to all, irrespective of their caste, religion or class hierarchies, with the sole motto to bring social equity. As an extension, they started, ‘Satya Shodhaka Marriage’ where the marrying couple have to take a pledge to promote education and equality. Likewise, widow re-marriage was also encouraged. Similarly, simple marriages without the priests solemnizing the wedding was conducted. Awareness programmes against dowry were also organized. They also dug a well at their courtyard for untouchables, who had no access to public drinking water facilities.
Savitribai, a true feminist, set up ‘Mahila Seva Mandali’ to raise awareness among women against child marriage, female foeticide and the sati system. During her times, widows were often sexually exploited and pregnant widows suffered even more physical abuse and humiliation. To address this problem, the couple set up ‘Balhatya Pratibandak Gruha’, a childcare centre for the protection of pregnant widows and rape victims. Savitribai also encouraged adoption of children borne out of such sexual abuse. She opened an ashram for widows and orphans. She organized a boycott by barbers against the tradition of head tonsuring of widows.
Savitribai appealed to women to come out of the caste barriers and encouraged them to sit together at her meetings. This childless couple adopted Yashwant Rao, a son of a widow and educated him to be a doctor.
When Jyotiba died in 1890, Savitribai set a new precedence by lighting her husband\’s pyre, amidst all oppositions. After his death, she dedicated all her time and efforts for the activities of Satya Shodhaka Samaja.
Savitribai was a renowned poet too and she published two poetic collections, Kavya Phule and Bhavan Kashi Subodh Ratnakar. Besides this, she edited Jyotiba’s speeches into a volume and published it in 1856.
In 1897, when Maharashtra was hit by Bubonic Plague, she responded quickly by setting up a clinic for patients with the support of her son, a medical professional. She dedicated all her time and resources at their service and also served free meals daily to nearly 2000 children of the affected families. One such day, when she physically carried an infested child to the hospital, she too got infected. Consequently, Savitribai died on March 10 of the same year.
In commemoration of Savitribai, the University of Pune was renamed as Savitribai Phule Pune University in 2015. Her birthday is celebrated as ‘Balika Din’ in Maharashtra every year.
Lastly, complete women empowerment is still a distant dream in India. However, Savitribai Phule’s contribution in creating awareness about women rights and fighting for them is highly commendable. While celebrating her legacy, we must also remember the contributions of her husband Jyotiba, who dreamt of equity for women and people of the DBA communities, as well as Fatima Begum Sheikh, her friend and colleague and Sagunabai, Jyotiba’s mentor for their wholehearted support.
First published here.
Image source: YouTube
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