Born 3rd January 1831 in Maharashtra in India, Savitribai Phule was a pioneering icon of the anti-caste movement and Indian feminism. Savitri was an educationist, social reformer, philanthropist, poet, anti-infanticide activist and liberationist. Her insurmountable contribution to anti-caste feminist politics, academia and Indian feminism is seemingly absent from mainstream South Asian feminist narratives. No surprise there. Little hope then for her story and vast contribution to history to enter into white and new feminist spaces.
At the age of nine she was married to her husband Jyotiroa Phule. He was thirteen years old at the time. The couple went on to challenge social injustices and caste inequity together and in doing so leave behind a remarkable legacy, one that continues to be overlooked by many historians in India and beyond. Born into the mali caste, the couple were considered shudra (of low caste status) and thus expected to meet the demands of their caste as labourers picking fruit and vegetable on the farms of landowners. Given that men of low caste and class status were prevented from accessing education, the suggestion that a woman from the shudra community would aspire to educate herself was considered an inconceivable concept to those of dominant castes.
Education was a privilege afforded to the Brahmin male and with some adjustments then given to the female brahmin counterparts. Savitri’s husband, Jyotirao Phule (better known as Jyotiba), was forced out of school as a child because of this reason. He did however later enrol into a Scottish missionary school through encouragement from friends with some social authority at the time. He studied here up to the seventh grade. Savitri on the other hand was not educated at the time of her marriage to him due to gender and caste oppression. With tuition and guidance from Jyotirao, Savitri soon received her primary education from him.
Having witnessed ample mistreatment of people from untouchable and low caste communities Jyotiroa decided to do something about it. Accused of polluting the dominant castes with their shadow, he watched on as people considered untouchable (or dalits) attached a broom to their backs to wipe clear the path on which they had travelled. Jyotirao witnessed the heinous culture of forcing young women to shave their heads in an attempt to ‘erase’ their beauty, thereby refraining women from seeking another partner and preventing them from accessing any sort of joy in life after the death of their husband. He painfully noticed how dalit women had been forced to dance naked for the entertainment and pleasure of lustful upper caste men and so he decided to work towards educating women, the shudras and the dalits. His efforts were to stop the social evils that cheered on the abuse of power and social inequality that these communities faced. He began by working with his wife.
Every afternoon, after returning from the farms where they worked as landless labourers, Jyotirao sat with his wife Savitribai Phule and educated her at home. Jyotirao encouraged his wife to continue with her education and to gain further training at a school and so she did.
Once Savitri’s primary education was completed, additional learning began with two of Jyotiroa’s trusted friends Sakharam Yeshwant Paranjpe and Keshav Shivram Bhavalkar. Fierce in resolve and inspired by the will to be educated, Savitri enrolled herself onto two teacher training programs: one in Ahmednagar and the other Pune, India.
Her vision was one where caste would no longer prevent Savitribai and other girls and women from reading books and attaining knowledge. They strived for a school without any admission restrictions on the grounds of class, caste, ethnicity or religious status for girls.
With extensive training in education, the couple soon opened India’s first school for girls in Bhide wada, Pune in 1848.
As such, and in 19th century India, Savitri was now the first female teacher and headmistress of the school. A remarkable and revolutionary feat for its time, especially where gender and caste are concerned!
Now armed with education, knowledge and determination Savitri set out to transform the face of education in India despite knowing she would be face-to-face with the wrath of brahmin hegemony and the patriarchy of her times. As expected, Savitri was faced with a cruel and vehement opposition.
It is well documented in dalit activism and further noted by writer and dalit activist Divya Kandukuri that Savitribai often travelled to her school carrying an extra sari on her daily commute to the schools she taught in. Attacked by an angry mob of upper-caste and hetero-patriarchal opposition, Savitri was frequently pelted with stones, had cow dung thrown at her and received verbal abuse as she walked on. One step ahead of her abusers and in anticipation of the violent resistance, Savitri would factor in the time it took to walk through this abuse and then to change and clean up once at the school. She did this everyday refusing to give in to the ignorance and hatred of her abusers and the upper-caste men committed to hindering her pursuit to educate shudra and dalit girls.
The Phule’s school curriculum included traditional western teachings on mathematics, science and social studies and this was taught to a high standard. Divya Kandukuri writes that Phule’s style of teaching was considered superior to those used by government schools and that as a result of this reputation, the number of girls receiving their education at the Phule’s schools outnumbered the number of boys enrolled in government schools at the time.
By the end of 1851, Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule were running three different schools for girls in Pune with a combined attendance across the three schools of approximately one hundred and fifty students enrolled. The couple opened a total of eighteen schools in their lifetime.
As the opposition against them continued to strengthen, the couple were forced to move out of Jyotirao’s father’s home and into a new place of residence where Savitribai met Fatima Sheikh. Fatima would become the first Muslim teacher in the Phule’s school in India and a life-long companion and confidant of Savitribai.
Together, Savitribai and Fatima worked to educate and uplift women, girls and people from marginalised castes. Savitri’s legacy is an example of unity offering inspiration to intersectional feminists and advocates working for a more inclusive, just and equal world.
During the third global pandemic of the bubonic plague Savitribai died from this illness on March 10 1897. She had contracted the disease from a sick child whom she famously carried on her back to a medical clinic in an act of compassion. She wanted to ensure that the child rightfully gained access to medical care in his hour of need. The clinic had been opened by Savitri for those affected by the pandemic and was based on the outskirts of Pune in an area free from the plague. In the process of carrying the boy to the clinic, she sadly caught the plague herself, passing away on the same day. Savitri lived morally and died fighting for morality.
Savitri dedicated her lifetime to educating and emancipating people from marginalised castes and genders. She believed in fighting an unforgiving patriarchy for the rights of widowed women and girls. She spoke up for rape victims (many of whom were shudra and dalit) and against female infanticide. She spoke up against victims of poverty who consequently experienced plague and illnesses that could have been prevented in an equitable society, she opened a well for dalit girls to drink clean water from in her village and she did not stop there. Savitri extended her advocacy work towards other parts of social injustice.
Despite this legacy and despite being considered by many as the mother of Indian feminism for her philanthropy and revolutionary efforts to making education accessible to the Indian girl child, South Asian feminists beyond caste studies fail to commemorate and honour her legacy in the way that other predominantly upper caste feminist figures are.
Why is that?
If Savitribai Phule was a brahmin, a rajput or a jatt, would you have known about her legacy sooner? Something for the community to seriously and critically think about; if you care to, that is.
Featured image: Siddhesh Gautam/@bakeryprasad
NB: Jyotiba is credited with introducing the Marathi word dalit meaning broken or oppressed as a replacement for untouchable. A term used to describe people who were outside the traditional varna system. The terminology was later popularised in the 1970s by the Dalit Panthers and has since been in use in social, political and academic debates on caste.