Daily O

Why we need to know the story of Savitribai Phule, India's first feminist

[Book extract] Her life reads like an endlessly inspiring storybook; the stuff of legend.

It is the summer of 1851. Under the scorching, relentless sun, a woman walks the streets of Pune. In each lane she crosses, some people hurl abuses at her, “This woman is a curse to our religion,” while others fling dung and even stones. Undaunted, the woman walks on. Her sari is stained but she is prepared for such an eventuality. When Savitribai Phule, the first female teacher in British India, reaches school, she changes into a spare sari before beginning her class.

Savitribai was considered a threat by a number of her fellow citizens in the nineteenth century. Wife of the revolutionary Jotiba Phule, she championed the causes of women’s education and Dalit rights along with her husband. She not only wholeheartedly supported her husband’s charitable endeavours but also remained his friend and intellectual companion. A philanthropist and an educationist, Savitribai was a prolific Marathi writer as well.

Born in 1831 in Naigaon, a small hamlet in what is now Satara district in Maharashtra, Savitribai was the only daughter of the poor, low-caste family she was born into, and had three younger brothers. Her father, a peasant, had limited means but was a respectable man in the village. This was a time when educating a girl was frowned upon, and Savitribai was never sent to school. She spent most of her childhood at home helping her mother with household chores.

It is reasonable to assume that her family, like most others of its kind in nineteenth-century India, would have been routinely subjected to discrimination. Perhaps it was her own experience of discrimination coupled with the education she subsequently received that led to her becoming a radical non-conformist.

asha-book_031318045306.jpgEqual Halves: Famous Indian Wives, Edited by Annie Zaidi; Juggernaut Books; Rs 80

Savitribai married Jotirao Govindrao

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