Before it became a norm for girls to become doctors and boys to become engineers, there was a time when medicine too, like any other profession in India, was a men-only job.
This changed when Rukhmabai became the first woman to practise medicine in India and paved paths for generations to come.
Born in 1846, Rukhmabai was married off to a 19-year-old Dadaji Bhikaji, when she was only 11-years-old. She grew up around her stepfather, Dr. Sakharam Arjun, a noted physician in Bombay under whom she educated herself. With aspirations to study further, Rukhmabai refused to go to her husband’s house to live with him. The case was brought to the court and a case filed against Rukhmabai. This restitution of conjugal rights case, filed in the Bombay High Court, is now known to be one of the most publicised court cases in Indian history. A child-bride refusing to stay with her husband was something India hadn’t heard of before.
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The case was dismissed on the grounds that it was not maintainable — first because restitution cannot be claimed where no conjugal relations had occurred and second because such claims had no foundation in Hindu Law. But the court later ordered Rukhmabai to either pay a fine or face imprisonment. Rukhmabai stated that she would rather go to jail than stay in a marriage she didn’t want.
The case brought together many child marriage activists and reformers who supported Rukhmabai. A committee was formed, called the Rukhmabai Defense Committee, and Pandita Ramabai wrote, “The government advocated education and emancipation but when a woman refused to “be a slave” the government comes to break her spirit, allowing its law to become instrument for riveting her chains.”
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Ramabai was not just enraged with the colonial rulers but also the society which agreed upon sending Rukhmabai to her husband’s house. The news made headlines in London as well and arguments went on for months on whether or not English laws should override Hindu laws.
Cama Women’s Hospital in Mumbai helped raise funds for Rukhmabai’s further education from the London School of Medicine for Women. She returned to India and became the first ever woman to practise medicine in India. She continued to spread awareness against the effects of child marriage and other social evils in India. Rukhmabai died in 1955 at the age of 91.
“I am one of those unfortunate Hindu women whose hard lot is to suffer the unnamable miseries entailed by the custom of early marriage. This wicked practice of child marriage has destroyed the happiness of my life. It comes between me and the things which I prize above all others — study and mental cultivation. Without the least fault of mine, I am doomed to seclusion; every aspiration of mine to rise above my ignorant sisters is looked down upon with suspicion and is interpreted in the most uncharitable manner.”
Extract from Rukhmabai’s letter to Times of India on June 26. 1885.