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Here’s How Anandi Gopal Became India’s First Woman Doctor

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I heard about Anandi Gopal when the discussion of a possible outbreak of war between India and Pakistan was raging; right after an attack on the Indian border at Pulwama in February 2019. However, as I walked home from the theatre that evening after watching a movie, my thoughts drifted far away from the suspense of war and strife that had, till then, enveloped my mind like everybody else’s.

Plenty of information is already available on Dr Anandibai Gopalrao Joshi, India’s first female doctor who travelled to America to obtain her degree in medicine. She is further immortalised by a book (bearing the same name as the movie) written on her life by an S J Joshi. The filmmakers say that they have based the film on the story drawn from the letters exchanged between her and her husband while she was studying abroad, and not from the book, which is a fictionalised account of her life, thus, giving a better claim to authenticity to the film.

The movie shares all of this information about her life that we already know of, tracing her story from the time she got married to Gopalrao Joshi, who was more than 15 years senior to her. So, what is it in the film that one should watch it, you may ask.

I recommend the film not for the information that one may obtain about an important chapter in women’s history, but for the portrayal of the couple and their extraordinary journey that wrote this chapter. Yes, the film is about their personal journey together! It does not seek to intrigue you with dramatised versions of history. Unnecessary anecdotes to make the story interesting or historical figures popping in without relevance to the main plot are also absent.

The story flows from one scene to the other like a long fabric — carefully woven together, gently taking you back into the time when Anandibai lived, studied, struggled and died for a cause that could not have been completed in her lifetime.

Let us start with the portrayal of Gopalrao Joshi in the film. It is a known fact from the book Anandi Gopal that Gopalrao Joshi was an eccentric, domineering man with an iron will to teach his wife. The movie portrays him with the same shade but also, somehow humanises his eccentricities and gives a deeper insight into his personality (Here, I wish I had read the book to make a better comparison).

His treatment towards Anandibai when she was unable to comply with his demands of studying as hard as he wished was excessive, even brutal. And yet, the belief he had in her worthiness or rather in the worthiness of knowledge that could liberate a woman also cannot be missed in his bantering.

I am not defending him, and he does not represent any ideal in the list of reformers. He was not the visionary that Mahatma Phule and Justice Ranade were when they taught their wives. He never had a definite plan about how Anandibai should use her education. And yet, his determination to challenge the repressive societal norms and his unwavering commitment to his wife’s education did place him in a different league from others in his community, actively sought to oppose the efforts of the reformers.

He was an unstable, bitter man, an imperfect husband, imperfect teacher; and yet, he did open the gates of learning for his wife and led her to the unthinkable. I would like to believe that he himself evolved as a better man and a better husband with Anandibai’s growth, at least as shown to us in the film.

One scene that stands out in the film is Gopalrao waving to Anandibai, shouting to her to write letters about her good health with a lump in the throat, as her boat sets in the sea to take her to the ship that will sail to America.

Because history is often written from the versions that emerge from male-dominated perspectives, Anandibai’s overarching achievement is always clouded by the fact that it is her husband who made it possible.  The movie, however, makes it very clear that the wish to study medicine was solely and entirely Anandibai’s, a resolve that was shaped after the sudden demise of their first born and their inability to care for him.

In the scene, where they mourn for their dead child, she asks Gopalrao “How could you (as someone more knowledgeable than her) not realise that our child is dying?”. This was her first realisation, that her husband is not all-knowing and that she now needs to move beyond his tutelage to attain the knowledge that she lacks. Somehow, that levels their relationship. From then on, he ceases to be her teacher and becomes her ally.

Her resistance when Gopalrao drags her to the Church to convert her to Christianity in a desperate attempt to clear the obstacles between her travelling abroad for education epitomises this fact. She refuses to let go of her faith, and not because she was a fundamentalist for whom following different religions was abhorrent. It was her conviction that it will be hard work alone that will lead her to her destination, and not the conditions laid down by her ‘benevolent’ Christian benefactors.

Another point worth highlighting is the gradual change in the attitude of Gopalrao’s mother-in-law (from his first marriage), who comes to live with the couple after the death of her husband. Hostile, reluctant and non-accepting of the unconventional path Anandibai is treading in the beginning, she later gives away the jewels of her late daughter to fund Anandibai’s education abroad.

More often, such small things that break the mould are ignored in the light of huge revolutions. In one scene, when the mother-in-law is sweeping the porch littered with garbage by their neighbours in a bid to humiliate and discourage Anandibai from going to school, her saree slips away, displaying her shaved head — a cruel mark of widowhood in Maharashtra during the time. But she continues sweeping, literally and figuratively, unmindful of her social appearance, to clear the path for Anandibai’s education.

As the film moves ahead, it also features the ‘famous’ exchange of letters between Gopalrao and Anandibai — and we get a glimpse of the experience she had at the University. His objection to her saree padar slipping down from her shoulder in a carefree, happy moment captured in a photograph she shares with him is also mentioned, but the movie chooses not to dwell on it.

Instead, we learn about her distaste for boiled potatoes, the joy she experiences in making friends with people she had nothing in common with, except the desire to study medicine, her amazement after learning about smalls things of human anatomy, and the illness that took a toll on her body and mind.

“I am afraid that death will come if I close my eyes. I try to remain awake as much as it is possible for me, and see our dreams fulfilled with open eyes,” she wrote in one such letter to her husband.

In the end, we see her at her convocation ceremony where Gopalrao also manages to attend as a surprise to her (again, I am not sure if this happened, but I’m glad the film took the liberty to show it). When he takes her degree in his hand, he ecstatically proclaims to everyone listening to him, “She is the first.”

Yes, indeed, she is the first. She is the beginning of a journey of women’s liberation that knows no end.

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By Youth Action Hub- India (Delhi)

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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