200 Years Later, Why Savitribai Phule May Still be India’s Most Kickass Feminist!

Posted by Abhishek Jha in Society
January 3, 2017

Savitribai Phule was a leading social reformer of her time credited with starting the first school for women. A believer in equal rights for men and women – she advocated changes in Indian society considered by many as way ahead of her time. India’s feminists in fact owe a lot to this radical social reformer whose 186th birthday is being celebrated today in the country.

For those who want to work towards building a truly feminist world, learning from this feminist reformer, educationist, and poet can be truly instructive. Here are some changes Savitribai Phule worked towards and advocated in the 1800’s in India:

1. She Started India’s First School For Women’s Education: Savitribai Phule along with her associate Fatima Sheikh and husband Jyotirao Phule found the first school for women’s education in pre-Independence India in 1848 in Bhide Wada in Pune. She started teaching when she was 17 years old and many academics in fact argue that she could have been possibly the first Indian woman teacher.

2. She Practised Intersectionality Before India Knew What It Meant: While the school was started for Dalit-Muslim women, Phule was also aware of the exploitation of women in the Brahminical system. Phule, along with her husband Jyotirao Phule also started a ‘Home for the Prevention of Infanticide’ in 1863 for the safety of pregnant, exploited Brahmin widows.

3. She Fought For The Rights Of Widows: At a time when practices like Sati were in force, Savitribai was organising widow remarriages and opposing child marriages. Savitribai is also credited as the inspiration behind a barber’s strike in 1890 wherein barbers in Bombay decided that they would not shave the heads of Brahmin widows.

4. She Promoted Inter-caste Marriages And Marriages Without Dowry: As part of the Satyashodhak Samaj (The Truth-Seeker’s Society), the Phule couple organised marriages without a priest, without dowry, and at a minimum cost. The wedding vows in these marriages were the pledges taken by both the bride and the bridegroom. The marriage of the adopted son of Savitribai Phule and Jyotiba Phule is considered the first inter-caste marriage. Savitribai Phule continued to work with the Society after Jyotiba Phule’s death. She also ensured that her daughter-in-law was educated.

5. She Was Also A Prolific Author: Phule was also a prolific poet. Her book of poems ‘Kavyaphule’ (1854) was, in fact, published an year before her husband’s first book. The book had 41 poems, which dwelt on nature, education, and the caste system. She also edited a book of speeches by Jyotirao and wrote his biography titled ‘Bavankashi Subodharatnakar’ (The Ocean of Pure Gems). The biography was written in verse.

6. In An Era When Men Had All Agency, She Charted Her Own Path: While her husband is given credit for educating her, Savitribai herself started several projects. Expenses for the first marriage conducted by the Satyashodhak Samaj, for instance, were borne by Savitribai herself. After Jyotiba’s death in 1890, she led the Society till her death. The Home for the Prevention of Infanticide is also known to be Savitribai’s initiative.

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons