Savitri Bai Phule was one of the first-generation modern Indian feminists

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On 1 January, 1848 Savitri Bai Phule and Fatima Begum had set up the first girls school in Bhide Wada in Pune. It was a start of a new era particularly in the field of education for girls.

The fact that the first girls school was started by two women tells us about the grit and determination shown by these two intrepid women to think beyond their times and work towards bringing their vision to fruition. We can write endlessly to praise their effort but what we must ask is if their journey was an easy one? Did they not face challenges, criticism and even threats for their endeveours.

Savitri Bai Phule

How many people came forward to support them or weren’t they mocked for doing something against the culture of that time? How many times were they reminded that education of girls was not very important especially under the British rule and Indians should unitedly focus on fighting bigger evil instead. Were they called as British stooges working to destroy our culture and diverting the attention by ‘small and irrelevant’ issues? Were they reminded about misplaced priorities to focus on running the house and taking care of children. 

People used to throw dirt and mud on Savitri Bai. It’s said that she always kept an extra saree in her bag when she went to teach girls.

This was how she and her friend were treated when they first embarked on their visionary journey. The very idea that girls needed a school must have been scandalous then. It’s important to note here that she was encouraged and supported by her husband Jyoti Rao Phule who himself was a ‘reformer.’ JyotiRao Phule first taught his young wife to read and write before helping her start the first girls’ school. Encouraged by her husband, she ventured out with her friend Fatima Begum, but their journey was not an easy one. 

Every step had challenges and opposition by the very people they were trying to help. They were isolated, mocked and called names. Their situation worsened after the couple were felicitated by colonial government of Bombay Presidency in 1850. They were seen as working under the guidance of the colonial government trying to destroy the culture of the natives. All the criticism and opposition only made them more committed to the cause and both the women continued with their mission regardless of all the negativity.

Tiffany Wayne has described Phule as “one of the first-generation modern Indian feminists, and an important contributor to world 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.”

What if they had stopped after being intimidated? Would we be celebrating these women? Aren’t feminist and social activists today are facing similar challenges? Aren’t they told to focus on ‘more important’ issues or, in other words, to focus on things only approved by men in our society. In spite of all advancements, women still face the same restrictions and they still have to be within their ‘limits.’

How dare they ask for entry into religious places of worship? Shouldn’t they be focusing on education of girls? As if all these years the society was sleeping and only remembers about girls’ education now. Why can’t change happen in all fields simultaneously and why wait for one task to be accomplished until we venture into another? 

I am Sure Savitri Bai and Fatima Begum were also told to focus on freedom movement than on girl’s education. I wonder if they were also labelled as ‘liberals’ and mocked by the not so liberals (narrow minded is the apt word).

More importantly how much have we progressed as a society when it comes to women’s issues or are we still stuck up in a time wrap using culture & faith as an excuse? 

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