Savitribai Phule was among the first women to set up schools for the education of Dalits and the underprivileged in modern India.
By Aparna Jain
Savitri was getting married to Jotirao Phule, who like her was from the Shudra community.
The Shudras were considered to be ‘low caste’ and were shunned and discriminated against by the other castes. Shudras rarely had the opportunity to study, but Jotirao’s mother had insisted he get an education. He, in turn, insisted that Savitri should study too. For six years, he was her teacher. Subsequently she went to a school in Pune.
A few years later, the Phules set up their own school. In the courtyard of their house, they held night classes for the workers in their neighbourhood. Their friend Fatima Shaikh joined them, and together they taught blacksmiths, cobblers, labourers and vessel makers.
In 1848, they started a school for girls in Bhidewada, Pune. There were just nine students in the first class, and they were all from the Shudra-Atishudra community.
Every day, as young Savitribai walked to school, people would throw cow dung and mud at her. They were angry that she was teaching young girls from the ‘lower castes’. In their view, these communities did not deserve an education. Savitribai started carrying an extra sari to change into when she reached school.
Before going home, she would change back into the dirty sari. In those days, if a woman’s husband died, her head was shaved so she could be identified as a widow. Even little girls whose husbands had died had to get their heads shaved. Savitribai campaigned for an end to this practice and organised a barbers’ strike in Pune and Bombay. Infanticide or the killing of babies at birth was another age-old evil. If a woman gave birth after she became a widow, her baby was killed.
Savitribai started a home to provide shelter to widows so they could deliver their babies safely. Thirty-five babies were born in the home which was later converted to a hospital. Savitribai and Jotirao themselves adopted a Brahmin widow’s child. That boy grew up to marry a girl from the Mali community.
It was probably one of the earliest inter-caste marriages recorded in British India. Upon Jotirao’s death, their son Yashwant insisted his mother light the pyre. Another act that defied tradition. Savitribai died of the plague at the age of sixty-six. There are many who feel that her birthday—3 January—should be celebrated as Teachers’ Day. After all, she was among the first women to set up schools for the education of Dalits and the underprivileged in modern India.
(Excerpted with permission from Like A Girl by Aparna Jain, published by Westland/Context, June 2018.)