Savitribai Phule: Because She Was… We Are

Savitribai Phule: Because She Was… We Are

January 3 was the birth anniversary of Savitribai Phule. The role of the Phules goes beyond the regional, and Savitribai should be up there along with other female role models

Deepa GahlotUpdated: Friday, January 12, 2024, 10:32 AM IST
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January 3 was the birth anniversary of Savitribai Phule. It was not a milestone year, and went mostly unnoticed outside of Maharashtra where the day is celebrated as Balika Diwas. There are functions in some schools and women’s organisations to commemorate her birth anniversary. Considering how important her contribution is to the progress of women’s education in Maharashtra — and India — she should be a bigger icon than she is. As the wife of social reformer Jyotirao Phule, she is seen as just a supporter of his causes, but keeping in mind the conservative attitude of Indian society back then (and even now to a large extent), her fight must have been more difficult.

Today, there are slogans like “Beti Padhao, Beti Bachao” and “Mulgi Shikli, Pragati Zhali” painted on walls and buses, but in the19th century, women’s education was not taken for granted. Child marriages were also common, and Savitribai, who was married to Jyotirao Phule at the age of nine, was illiterate. As a Dalit himself, he had problems accessing education too, but he managed to study and educated her and a cousin, Sagunabai Kshirsagar, at home. There were no schools for girls, and it was unthinkable for a girl to go to school along with boys. Later she enrolled herself in teacher training programs and is credited with being the first Indian female teacher in the country.

When it comes to women’s progress, all societies are resistant to change, and Indian society is more so. Jyotirao Phule’s father evicted the couple from his home, because of their reformist campaigns against casteism and sexism. When Savitribai stepped out of home to go to school, she was abused and had stones and dung routinely thrown at her. She simply carried an extra sari with her to change into when the one she wore was soiled. She persisted with the support of her husband. Unthinkable at that time, the Phules moves in with a Muslim friend, Usman Sheikh, whose sister Fatima became Savitri’s close friend and ally.

Jyotirao or Jyotiba as he is called, is quoted as having said in an interview published in the periodical Dnyanodaya, “It did occur to me that the improvement that comes about in a child due to the mother is very important and good. So those who are concerned with the happiness and welfare of this country should definitely pay attention to the condition of women and make every effort to impart knowledge to them if they want the country to progress. With this thought, I started the school for girls first. But my caste brethren did not like that I was educating girls and my own father threw us out of the house. Nobody was ready to give space for the school nor did we have money to build it. People were not willing to send their children to school but Lahuji Ragh Raut Mang and Ranba Mahar convinced their caste brethren about the benefits of getting educated.”

She did emerge from her husband’s shadow as an author and poet. She published Kavya Phule in 1854 and Bavan Kashi Subodh Ratnakar in 1892, and poems encouraging people to study. It was inevitable that her work for women’s education would lead to other causes like widow remarriage and rehabilitation of rape victims. Childless herself, she was also an anti-infanticide campaigner. She adopted Yashwant, the son of a Brahmin widow and he joined in their activism when he grew up and became a doctor. Savitribai and Yashwant opened a clinic for plague victims during an epidemic in 1897, and she contracted the disease herself and died on March 10, 1897. She had continued her husband’s work after his death in 1890 and managed his organisation, Satya Shodhak Samaj, established for the upliftment of the underprivileged. Unheard of at that time, she lit her husband’s funeral pyre.

The Phules, and Savitribai in particular, were sensitive to the plight of women in orthodox society. According to the website mahatmaphule.net, they opposed the awful practice of shaving the heads of widows, and organised a strike of barbers to persuade them to stop this custom. Coming across widows and rape victims attempting suicide or killing their illegitimate children, started the Balhatya Pratibandhak Griha, and looked after the children born to these women. Moved by the treatment of the untouchables, who were refused drinking water meant for the upper caste, the Phule couple opened the well in their own house for them in 1868. They were vocal against the practice of sati and the atrocities widows had to endure.

It was a life full of challenges and difficulties and the story of the Phules has been turned into plays, films and a TV series. Writer-director-actress Sushama Deshpande’s one-woman show Vhay, Mee Savitribai has travelled all over the country, and translated into other languages. She has given carte blanche to any woman or theatre group who wants to perform her play. Atul Pethe’s Satyashodhak, written by GP Deshpande, had in its cast members of the Pune Safai Karamchari Union — the class of people who had actually suffered the injustice and discrimination that the Phules were fighting against. Theatre activist Manjul Bharadwaj has a play Lok Shastra Savitribai, on the life of the great social crusader, that he stages regularly.

There have been many books and papers on her as well, since she is considered to be one of the earliest feminists in India. According to writer Tiffany Wayne quoted in the website, Savitribai was “one of the first-generation modern Indian feminists, and an important contributor to feminism in general, as she was both addressing and challenging not simply the question of gender in isolation but also issues related to caste and casteist patriarchy.”

Maharashtra has acknowledged the contribution of Jyotiba and Savitribai Phule — in 2015, the University of Pune was renamed Savitribai Phule Pune University in her honour and the campus had a 12.5-foot, life-size bronze metal statue of her installed in 2022. But the role of the Phules goes beyond the regional, and Savitribai should be up there along with other female role models. If it was not for the efforts and sacrifices of women like her, the progress of women in India would have been much slower.

Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic and author

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