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Remembering the emancipatory ideals of Savitribai Phule

Be self-reliant, be industrious
Work, gather wisdom and riches,
All gets lost without knowledge
We become animal without wisdom,
Sit idle no more, go, get education
End misery of the oppressed and forsaken,
You’ve got a golden chance to learn
So learn and break the chains of caste.
Throw away the Brahman’s scriptures fast.
— Savitribai Phule, in her poem, “Go, Get Education.”[1]Indian Express. “Savitri Bai Phule’s impact on women’s education in India”. Jan 3, 2020. … Continue reading

Savitribai Phule established the foundations of renaissance with regards to women’s education by her courage and undeterred will, marking a groundbreaking shift in the way women’s existence was hitherto imagined. History of social reform in India remains incomplete without giving Phule due recognition for her pioneering efforts to uplift the downtrodden through an egalitarian mode of living. Her activism includes teaching, leadership, groundwork, poetry and a lot more. She not only changed the sociopolitical milieu of the 19th century Maharashtra but left a legacy for coming generations to follow. Much of the rights that today form a part of gender equality and justice, can be seen as a product of the revolutionary steps taken by her and Fatima Sheikh long back.

Phule, and her husband Jotirao, faced extreme opposition for their radical activities for upliftment of the downtrodden. The upper-caste reformers campaigned for limited education for women to enable them to be better wives and symbols of nationalism. Women’s agency and activism were circumscribed within the boundaries of nationalist agenda. Phule, in contrast, wanted women to receive education as a matter of right, realisation of potential, and empowerment. In order to ensure a more dialogical and transformative project of education, the Phule–Ambedkarite pedagogies may be seen historically as constituting one school of critical pedagogy. (Rege, 2010)[2]Rege, Sharmila. “Education as ‘Trutiya Ratna’: Towards Phule-Ambedkarite Feminist Pedagogical Practice.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 45, no. 44/45, 2010, pp. 88–98. JSTOR, … Continue reading

Life history and activism

Savitribai was born in Naigaon, near Pune, Maharashtra, on 3 January 1831 as the eldest child to Khandoji Nevshe Patil. She was married to Jotirao at a young age. Despite the odds against him, Jotirao was exposed to English missionary education which developed his critical reflection on egalitarian ideals. He encouraged his wife Savitri to read and write, post which she enrolled in a programme to get a teacher’s training certificate.

The Phules started their first school for girls of all castes in 1848 at Bhide Wada in Pune. Jotirao–Savitribai started two institutions—Native Female School, Pune and the Society for Promoting the Education of Mahars and Mangs. They challenged the Brahmanical and patriarchal monopoly of education and started no less than 18 schools between 1848 and 1852 despite extreme opposition and other humiliating actions to stop them which included throwing stones and dung at them. This wasn’t only a physical hurdle but also an attack on Phule’s self-respect. She faced this treatment for having dared to debunk religious notions which determined social conduct. Hari Narake says[3]Narake, Hari. “On Savitribai Phule: Dnyanjyoti Savitribai Phule.”, The distinction of starting the first school for girls and the Native Library in the country goes to them (Phule couple). They started the Literacy Mission in India in 1854-55. In 1863, they started a home for the prevention of infanticide in their own house, for the safety of pregnant, exploited Brahman widows and to nurture these children.

One commentator in the Poona Observer on 29 May 1852, remarked, The number of girl students in Jotirao–Savitribai’s school is ten times more than the number of boys studying in the government schools. This is because the system for teaching girls is far superior to what is available for boys in government schools. If this situation continues, then the girls from Jotirao’s school will prove superior to the boys from the government schools and they feel that in the coming examinations, they can really achieve a big victory. If the Government Education Board does not do something about this soon, seeing these women outshine the men will make us hang our heads in shame.

Apart from education, Phule along with Jotirao worked further against child marriage. The couple adopted a child which posed a challenge to conservative notions of caste and lineage. The Phules firmly believed in inter-caste marriages as one of the means to break down the caste system. They also got several widows remarried at a time when none could even imagine such an emancipation.

Phule headed the women’s unit of the Satyashodhak Samaj where regular meetings were conducted to discuss the problems of society and their effect on the marginalised castes and gender. This included discussions on child marriage, widow remarriage, mass education and condemnation of practices such as sati. Jotirao condemned the practice of a woman immolating herself on the funeral pyre of her husband and becoming a sati. Satyashodhak marriages became an important outcome of the Satyashodhak Samaj. According to Hari Narake, The Satyashodhak marriage required the bridegroom to take an oath of giving education and equal rights to women. The mangalashtakeí (the Mantras chanted at the time of the wedding) were to be sung by the bride and the bridegroom themselves, and these were in the form of pledges made by the bride and the groom to each other.

Poetry and writing

Phule is considered the first modern, feminist and radical Marathi poet. Her first book of poems Kavya Phule was published in 1854, much before any of Mahatma Jotirao’s works. Phule was probably one of the first published women in modern India. According to Lalitha Dhara[4]Dhara, Lalitha. “Social revolutionary, feminist and poetess Savitribai Phule”. Forward Press. Dec 19, 2016. … Continue reading, Her speeches on debt, inebriation and education as a tool of liberation are available in print and are a moving testimony to her passionate involvement with people. Her poems are a diverse mix of the serious, the sensuous, the playful and the wishful. The woman that emerges is rational, modern, progressive, committed, confident and fun-loving.

Phule’s poetry collection, Bavan Kashi Subodh Ratnakar (The Ocean of Pure Gems), was published in 1891. She also edited and published four of Jotirao’s speeches on Indian history. Her letters to her husband where she addressed him with name reflect a compassionate marriage based on a sense of equality at a time when writing letters was considered to be a sacrilege.

Mama Parmanand rightly remarks,

More than Jotirao, his wife deserves praise. No matter how much we praise her, it would not be enough. How can one describe her stature? She cooperated with her husband completely and along with him, faced all the trials and tribulations that came their way. It is difficult to find such a sacrificing woman even among the highly educated women from upper castes. The couple spent their entire lifetime working for people.

Damni Kain is currently pursuing a Master’s in Political Science from the University of Delhi.

Notes

1 Indian Express. “Savitri Bai Phule’s impact on women’s education in India”. Jan 3, 2020. https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained-savitribai-phules-impact-on-womens-education-in-india-6198439/
2 Rege, Sharmila. “Education as ‘Trutiya Ratna’: Towards Phule-Ambedkarite Feminist Pedagogical Practice.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 45, no. 44/45, 2010, pp. 88–98. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20787534.
3 Narake, Hari. “On Savitribai Phule: Dnyanjyoti Savitribai Phule.”
4 Dhara, Lalitha. “Social revolutionary, feminist and poetess Savitribai Phule”. Forward Press. Dec 19, 2016. https://www.forwardpress.in/2016/12/social-revolutionary-feminist-and-poetess-savitribai-phule/

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