Savitribai Phule: A Crusader of Gender Justice

by Ritu

 savitribai phule

Today, on 3rd January, 2023, the nation is celebrating 192nd birth anniversary of Savitribai Phule, who was a great social reformer, educationist, author and poet. She was born on 3rd January, 1831 at Naigaon in Satara region of British India. As per the tradition of that time Savitrabai Phule was married to the Jyotiba Phule at the age of nine, like every other woman of the time she had option to engage herself in household works throughout her life but instead of this Savitribai Phule chose to bring changes in her life along with others.

Contribution of Savitribai Phule to Society

She and her husband launched one of the first anti-caste struggle in British India and mass activism against prevailing Brahmanical norms and patriarchy. She actively began working for Satyasodhak Samaj while she was a teenager (1873), and she and Jyotiba Phule eventually condemned to be socially ostracized for aiding widows, expectant mothers, shudras, and ati-shudras.

Under such conditions, it would had been difficult for a woman from a lower caste to grasp the concept that patriarchy and caste are closely intertwined throughout the nineteenth century, when society was heavily influenced by the caste system. She was the first woman who had come to the understanding that women from lower castes had to fight for equality on two fronts: caste and patriarchy. She and Jyotiba had setup first school for women in 1848, apart from that she had also established Mahila Seva Mandal (Association for Women’s Service) in 1852, which worked for spreading awareness among women for their rights.

In his book “A Forgotten Liberator,” author Braj Ranjan Mani correctly noted that, as a woman, she was able to grasp the double oppression that most women experience, since she identified the gender question in connection to caste and Brahmanic patriarchy. She became actively involved in the fight against issues that were unique to women on several fronts. She spearheaded several movements to protect widows from being victimised. Savitribai Phule advocated and encouraged widow remarriage and campaigned against infanticide of illegitimate children. Orphaned children and women who had been abandoned received shelter from her. She went on strike because widow’s heads were being shaved by barbers.

Learn English to annihilate Caste

Few of us knew that Savitribai Phule was a successful poet and writer. She has also compiled and edited many of Jyotiba Phule’s speeches. Caste and Patriarchy were two of her most important intellectual engagements. Savitribai Phule was a great supporter of English and Western education, and in many of her writings she said, “Learn English to annihilate Caste.”

She kept the spirit of social justice alive after Jyotiba Phule’s death, and due to the fact that she always remained a kind and compassionate person, she lost her life while she was helping plague patients. After Jyotiba Phule’s demise, she did not allow the organisation to fade away; instead, she remained dedicated for the spirit of social justice.

For women today, what she accomplished 200 years ago still remains a challenge. There is a huge difference between literacy rate of men and women, widow remarriage is still a taboo in our society, women are mere sex object for many men in the society and the lower-caste women are still unaware that, caste and patriarchy are interlinked.

A forgotten leader

Being a first female teacher of India, Savitribai Phule had never accorded with the recognition she deserved. Amongst the names of great social-reformers like Raja Rammohun Roy, Swami Vivekananda, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, her name has been missed by modern history writers. Most of us still do not know about Savitribai Phule and those who know her, they know her by the wife of Jyotiba Phule or just a general knowledge question that ‘She is first female teacher of India’, but none of us were told what it means to first female teacher of India? How much struggle she had done to educate the masses, to uplift the downtrodden, to give recognition to widowed women? Savitribai Phule’s contributions are still not sufficiently acknowledged in popular narratives, making it difficult for her name to gain household recognition like Rani Lakshmibai.

The path for the recognition

Many schools and colleges have been named after Savitribai Phule to emphasize her significance to the nation. Additionally, the Vice-Chancellor of JNU, Dr. Santishree Dhulipudi, has formally observed Savitribai Phule’s birth anniversary and demanded that her birth anniversary be recognized by the UGC. The Indian government must applaud these initiatives, Savitribai Phule should be mentioned in school textbooks, and anti-caste historians must be encouraged to research such notable individuals.

Savitribai Phule was a woman of deeds than words; as a result of her efforts, the women of this country received “education”; as a matter of fact, she is a role model for the entire women’s community, but particularly for marginalized women who fought against all odds to achieve social and gender justice.

Ritu, Research Scholar, Department of History, University of Delhi

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