The Fierce Women who Paved the way for Women’s education in India

women pioneers in education, women's education in india

This teacher’s day, we celebrate the revolutionary women who fought for women’s education in India. For centuries women were constrained in the four walls of the house, and education was reserved for the upper caste men. The work of these educators and activists form the backbone for a more equitable world for women. A wider prevalence of women’s education didn’t just mean more women being educated, but it meant women entered the public sphere. It paved the way for women to be leaders, women in science, and a life of independence and dignity for them.

Savitirbai Phule

Savitri Phule was the first female teacher in the first school for girls in India. Along with her husband, Jyotirao Phule she worked throughout her life for the dignity of life for oppressed-caste people and women. After being married at 13, she was educated by her husband and other activists. Her role as a headmistress marked a monumental entry of women into the public sphere of modern India. Along with Fathima Sheikh, they started the first school for girls in 1948. By 1951 they had three similar schools running in Pune. In 1853, Savitribai and Jyotirao established an education society that opened more schools for girls and women from all classes, in surrounding villages. This was unprecedented as education was reserved for upper-caste men at this time. She also started Mahila Seva Mandal to educate women about their rights, dignity and social issues in 1952.

Savitribai Phule, Indian women pioneers in education
Savitribai’s struggle was fraught with many difficulties and despite that, she continued her work peacefully. Men would purposely wait in the streets and pass lewd remarks. They sometimes pelted stones and threw cow dung or mud. Along with her husband, she was ostracised for helping widows, providing shelter to rape victims and others that were marginalised by society. She is the mother of Indian Feminism, and her contributions towards women’s educations amongst her other fights for the oppressed castes and women leave an indelible mark in History.

Fathima Sheikh

Fathima Sheikh worked closely with Savitribai Phule for educating girls. She is widely regarded as the first female Muslim teacher in India.

Fatima Sheikh, Indian women pioneers in education
Fatima and her brother, Usman Sheikh, offered refuge to Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule when they were forced to leave their home in Pune for challenging the norm and educating Dalits and women. Here she also helped Savitribai set up their first girls’ school called “Indigenous Library”, in her own house in 1948. She challenged both upper-caste Hindu men and orthodox Muslims by going against the stringent patriarchy that existed at that time.

She enrolled in a teaching course with Savitribai Phule and taught Dalit, Shudra, Adivasi and female students until 1856. Her solidarity to the struggle of Jyotirao Phule and Savitribai Phule is noteworthy, as it came at a time when their own families and community had alienated them. Unfortunately, very little literature is available on the life and works of Fatima Sheikh.

Ramabai Ranade

Ramabai Ranade was one of the first women social workers and educators, born in 1863. She was married at the age of 11. Her husband, MG Ranade was a social and educational reformer, and one of the founders of the Prarthana Samaj. He encouraged her to get educated and tutored her in Marathi, English and the social sciences.

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Ranade quickly gained recognition for her oratory and leadership skills and started a Hindu Ladies Social Club that trained women in public speaking and handwork like knitting. She became actively involved in the Prarthana Samaj and also in the Seva Sadan. Here she emphasised on the need for women’s education and oversaw various programmes. She also organised vocational and professional training for poor women, widows and abandoned wives. Unlike other institutions of the time which focused on higher class women, her efforts were directed towards the working-class women. She balanced traditional aspects of Maharashtrian society with these reforms. While she was targeted by conservative men and women for her ventures, she successfully created a network for women to avail vocational training, healthcare information and established the first high school for women in India.

Chandraprabha Saikiani

Chandraprabha Saikiani was the pioneer of the women’s movement in Assam. She fought hard for her sister and herself to be educated. She travelled long distances every day to study at the Boys’ school, as there was no school for girls. Being educated herself, she started her first school at the age of 13, under a thatched hut, to ensure other girls too could be empowered. Receiving a scholarship to study at the Nagaon Mission School, she continued to strive for women’s education.

Fatima Sheikh, Indian women pioneers in education
She also fought to get hostel accommodation for all girls, even those that didn’t convert to Christianity. In 1921, she started the Asam Pradeshik Mahila Samity, which is still operational in Guwahati. The organisation aimed at spreading women’s education and then further employment. The forum provided a place for women to discuss and deliberate their own place in the social movement and also stressed on economic independence for women, by promoting handloom goods. The Tezpur University established a women’s centre in her name, Chandraprabha Saikiani Center for Women’s Studies (CSCWS) in 2009 for promoting women’s education in Northeast India.

Anutai Wagh

Anutai Wagh was one of the pioneers of preschool education in India. Her pedagogy focused on curriculum that was indigenous, used low-cost teaching aids and was aimed at the holistic development of the students.

Fatima Sheikh, Indian women pioneers in education
She stood first in the Vernacular Final exam in 1925. She then completed the Primary Teacher’s Certificate course at the Women’s Training College in Pune in 1929. She taught in a school in Chandwad Taluka in Nashik District where she faced a lot of backlash from conservatives groups for educating young girls. After coming up across a pamphlet on child education by Tarabai Modak she enrolled in a night school and completed her matriculation and graduation at the age of 51.

Anutai began her work in the Bordi – Kosbad area (in Dahanu taluka, Palghar). With Tarabai Modak, she set up a Balwadi (playschool) in a thickly forested tribal area in Bordi. There was no road, electricity or any kind of communication. There was hostility amongst the tribal people towards educated very small children, so she took up the responsibility of bringing them to school, washing them, feeding them and dropping them back home. Her work at the ‘Gram Bal Shiksha Kendra’ formed the basis for the development of preschool education – one that used storytelling, songs and was deeply intertwined with local and indigenous cultures.