“You owe her. But do you know her? Savitribai Phule, the Mother of modern education. If you are an Indian woman who reads, you owe her. If you are an educated Indian woman, you owe her. If you are an Indian schoolgirl reading this chapter in English, you owe her. If you are an educated international desi woman, you owe her.” - Savitribai and India’s Conversation on Education (2008), by Thom Wolf and Suzana Andrade.
At a time when the thought of educating girls was considered absurd, and a shudras’ shadow touching you would require a person to undertake several purification rituals, Savirtribai Phule triggered an incredible revolution against this male-dominated casteist ideology that ran her society. Hailed as the mother of modern Indian feminism and despite her several accomplishments, history books seem to have conveniently glossed over her immense contributions in the struggles against the discrimination of women, dalits, tribals and religious minorities. Though it did take a long time, her husband Jyotirao Phule got belated recognition as the father of India’s social revolution. She has long remained in the shadows of obscurity, a secondary statement and supporting act of sorts, to the work of Jyotirao. The questions around her unrecognized historical status could perhaps be answered by Braj Ranjan Mani’s comment in his book A Forgotten Liberator: The Life and Struggle of Savitribai Phule, which states, “meta-narratives of the past and present by the marginalised majority — dalits, adivasis, other backward classes (OBCs), Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, and other suppressed ethnic and regional communities — remain confined to the margins, while brahminical hegemony continues to overwhelm the intellectual domain.” While several voices of the subaltern are left unheard, even distorted through the years, we take a look at the deeds of the remarkable woman that Savitribai was; we have a lot to be appreciative and grateful for. Without her, the position and life of Indian women, as well as other minority groups, may have been very different today, and not in a good way.
Born into a farming family of Naigaon, in Maharashtra, Savitribai wed Jyotirao Phule at the delicate age of 9. She lived at a time where girls would be married off at a young age, and with the high mortality rates that existed, many young girls would be rendered windows early in their life. Widows held a highly downtrodden position in society, forced to shave their heads as a symbol of this new status, they were dictated to live ‘simple’ lives of austerity. The plight of the widows, the prevailing prejudices and discrimination was frightening for Savitribai. It took some convincing, and with the help of her husband she was successful in organising a barber’s strike in Mumbai and Pune as a social stand against the practice of shaving widow’s heads.
In traditional Indian society, a woman is under possession of her father first and then following her marriage, her husband. A husbands ‘duty’ is to protect his wife, as her duties dictate living in his service. With the death of the husband, deemed weak and unprotected, widows would on several occasions fall prey to sexual exploitation by other men, even those of the extended family, and become pregnant. Pregnancy would only heighten the existing social stigma that they lived with, causing many of these women to commit suicide or kill the child because of this fear of increasing their social ostracism. For these victims of rape, Savitribai established the Balhatya Pratibandhak Griha, the first infanticide prohibition house of sorts, in India. The establishment served as a safe home for the young widows and helped them deliver and raise their babies without fear and discrimination.
While the Brahminical hegemony in society had a misogynistic stance against the education of women, Jyotirao encouraged his wife’s education. After training, in time she became the first women teacher in the country and started the first school for girls in 1847. In 1852, she opened a school that was exclusively for girls belonging to the section of ‘untouchables’ who faced a double-discrimination of caste and gender. Savitribai started the Mahila Seva Mandal to mobilise and empower women, and make them aware of their rights. Dalits lived on the fringes of society; confined to menial tasks, considered ‘impure,’ any physical contact would require rituals of purification. The lower caste was refused access to the community wells— exclusively for members of the upper caste —Savitribai opened up the well in her house in 1868, allowing them to freely drink water. Belonging to lower castes themselves, the Phule’s understood and pressed the need for education as a method of empowerment. In partnership, they were architects for revolution, determined to break the shackles of this social enslavement, a fight that was unthinkable and horrifying for the rest of the traditional society.
A wordsmith, Savitribai penned a collection of poems titled Kavya Phule, and Bavan Kashi Subodh Ratnakar, as well as essays such as Karz that focused on debt. Her literary work documents the socio-political climate of the time, touching on issues such as education, caste, and the liberation of untouchables.
Having founded Satyashodhak Samaj or the ‘society of seekers of truth,’ in 1873, the fight against the unjust exploitation and oppression based on caste and gender continued, and it was carried on after Jyotirao’s death in 1890 by his wife. Savitribai led the funeral procession, and as stated by Meenakshi Bali, social activist and president of the Pragnya Kanunu Salaha Samiti, made history by becoming the first woman to light her husband’s pyre, a taboo in Hindu customs. The Phule’s were visionaries who spent most of their lives serving society, fighting the good fight. While Jyotirao has been bestowed with the title of Mahatma and recognised as a prominent figure in the 19th century social reform movement in Maharashtra, it was after almost a century of her passing that the University of Pune was renamed the Savitribai Phule University of Pune, in March 2015; the Maharashtra government also introduced an award in her name for the recognition of fellow female social reformers. Her contributions towards the liberation of minorities from intricate caste politics was honoured by the government of India in 1998 with the release of a stamp. But, her courage in opposing such strong forces of society, in an age where women were expected to be confined to their homes deserves a lot more celebration.
In the words of Braj Ranjan Mani, “Savitribai Phule (1831-97), struggled and suffered with her revolutionary husband in an equal measure, but remains obscured due to casteist and sexist negligence. Apart from her identity as Jotirao Phule’s wife, she is little known even in academia. Modern India’s first woman teacher, a radical exponent of mass and female education, a champion of women’s liberation, a pioneer of engaged poetry, a courageous mass leader who took on the forces of caste and patriarchy certainly had her independent identity and contribution. It is indeed a measure of the ruthlessness of elite-controlled knowledge-production that a figure as important as Savitribai Phule fails to find any mention in the history of modern India. Her life and struggle deserves to be appreciated by a wider spectrum, and made known to non-Marathi people as well.”