In this special series done in partnership with activist and doodler Kirthi Jayakumar, we celebrate women from India history whose stories need to be told as often as possible.
Savitribai Phule is often hailed as the mother of Indian feminism. In fact, many call her modern India’s first feminist. She is known for her contribution to women’s education in India, including the construction of the first school for women. Along with her husband Jyotibha Phule, she dedicated herself to the cause of women empowerment. Here’s what you must know about this formidable activist, educationist, and feminist.
Why We Should Know Her
Savitribai Phule is remembered even today for her immense contributions to social reforms in the country. As a social activist, she worked not only for gender-related issues but also against caste discrimination. She came from a lower caste and faced a lot of discrimination due to it. However, she not just fought against social injustice, but her work in the field of women’s education paved the way for generations of women to seek knowledge and economic independence that education brings. Phule opened the first school for girls in this country, in Pune in 1848. As such, she is also touted to be India’s first female teacher.
Not only did she establish schools but also a care center called Balhatya Pratibandhak Griha for pregnant rape victims.
What Makes Her Badass
Along with her husband, Savitribai Phule opened at least 18 schools across the nation. In an unprecedented move, she taught children of all castes. Her fight against caste-discrimination is as important as her work towards women’s empowerment. Not only did she establish schools but also a care center called Balhatya Pratibandhak Griha for pregnant rape victims. She also opened a clinic to treat those affected by the worldwide third pandemic of the bubonic plague in 1897.
The Phules, for a while, lived with Jyotiba’s friend Usman. It was there that Savitribai met Fatima Begum Sheikh. Fatima and Savitribai Phule both graduated together. The former went on to become the first Muslim woman teacher of India. Fatima and Savitribai opened a school in 1849. The seeds of what we call intersectional feminism were sowed all the way back then by these two women.
Biggest Battles She Fought
Savitribai Phule often travelled to her school carrying an extra sari because she would be assailed by her conservative opposition with stones, dung, and verbal abuse.
Savitribai Phule did not have an easy life. Her efforts towards building a just society were met with criticism and abuse. She was a victim of child marriage. Married off to a thirteen-year-old at the age of nine, she was not educated. As a woman belonging to a lower caste, education was not considered suited for her. However, she rose above adversity. When she and her husband began to educate girls, people did not look upon them favourably. They had to deal with a lot of resistance from people who had conservative views. They even faced abuse from the very marginalized community to which they belonged. Savitribai Phule often travelled to her school carrying an extra sari because she would be assailed by her conservative opposition with stones, dung, and verbal abuse.
The couple was ultimately asked to leave the house by Savitribai’s father-in-law because he considered their work to be a sin and against the Brahmanical code of conduct.
Life Lessons We Can Learn From Her
Savitribai Phule spent her whole life voicing protest against caste and gender discrimination. She fought for everyone’s right to education. Phule also condemned caste-based killings, which we see even today. Savitribai always talked about how important education is. She wanted every man and woman to educate and liberate. Despite opposition from society, she knew that education was the only way to achieve independence. Savitribai Phule’s most notable ideas were about caste-equality. She was progressive and beyond her times. When she saw a pregnant woman about to commit suicide, she decided to adopt the child and raise him as her own. Even in the 1800s, she was a woman with determination, courage and inspiring qualities.
Her struggles inspire us all to work towards a better, more equal society. Especially in today’s time, many urban millennials seem to have forgotten that casteism is not obsolete in this country. Many of such seemingly outdated issues continue to prevail in India, that Savitribai Phule fought and wanted to eliminate. It is our duty to carry on with her fights until we are all free from these social inequalities. The world will forever remember her contributions to social reform.
She died on March 10, 1897. She was trying to save a 10-year-old boy from plague by carrying him to the hospital. That’s when she contracted the disease and died.
Picture Credit: Kirthi Jayakumar
Prapti is an intern with SheThePeople.TV. The doodles for this series have been provided by Kirthi Jayakumar.