Why everyone should know about Savitribai Phule, one of India's first feminists

Remembering one of India's first feminists, Savitribai Phule, on her birth anniversary.

Dipannita Saha Dipannita Saha Jan 03, 2017
Indian women have a lot to be grateful for to Savitribai Phule. Photo courtesy: Twitter/Google India

At a time when it was a taboo for women to be seen in public, Savitribai Phule, waged a war against discrimination and unfair treatment of people based on caste and gender. Described as "one of the first-generation modern Indian feminists", Savitribai along with her husband Jyotirao Phule played an important role in India's women's rights movement 150 years ago.

However, not too many people remember, until of course, Google decides to dedicate a doodle to her on her birth anniversary, which happens to be on January 3. Nonetheless, Indian women have a lot to be grateful for to Phule. Here are 7 reasons why one of India's first feminists needs to be remembered--today and forever.

She Was a Pioneer Of Women's Education In India
At the age of 17, Savitribai began teaching young girls. In 1848, along with her husband, she set up the first school in India for women at Bhide Wadai in Pune. At a time when women were treated like mere objects, she ignited a spark that led to equality in education--something which the country hadn't seen before. She set up and ran about 18 schools for girls from oppressed communities. In 2014, the University of Pune was renamed Savitribai Phule Pune University in her honour.

She Was An Intersectional Feminist
The Phules were a staunch advocate of anti-caste ideology and women's rights. The couple's vision of social equality included fighting against the dominant caste system and worked towards the upliftment of women, adivasis, and the marginalized. As a Shudra woman, she gained education, became a teacher, and tried to bring a progressive change in the Indian society, while posing a serious challenge to both the caste system as well as patriarchy.

She Fought For The Rights Of Widows And Rape Survivors
Savitribai, who is said to have been married at the age of nine to Jyotirao, was taught to read and write by her husband. The practice of child marriage was prevalent in the 19th century and since the mortality rate was high at the time, many young girls often became widows even before attaining puberty.

Savitribai organized a barber's strike against shaving the heads of Hindu widows, and also fought for widow remarriage. She noticed the plight of women who after falling prey to sexual exploitation and becoming pregnant, either committed suicide or killed the newborn due to fear of banishment by the society. She opened a care center "Balhatya Pratibandhak Griha" (Infanticide prohibition house) for pregnant rape victims and helped deliver their children.

Savitribai Phule is also an iconic Indian poet. Photo courtesy: Twitter/GirlRisingIndia Savitribai Phule is also an iconic Indian poet. Photo courtesy: Twitter/GirlRisingIndia

She Founded One Of The First Women's Rights Organisations In Modern India
In 1852, Savitribai started the Mahila Seva Mandal that helped to create awareness among women of their social status and rights.

She Stood Up Against Unfair Traditions
Savitribai continued to break unfair traditions even after the death of her husband. She walked in his funeral procession in 1890, which is something Hindu women are not supposed to do even today.

She Was a Literary Icon and Poet
Savitribai's writing ranged from poetry in folklore form to essays such as Karz, and are collected in the anthologies Kavya Phule and Bavan Kashi Subodh Ratnakar. She also edited some of her husband's speeches for literary publications, and published some of her own speeches. Her works on subjects such as education, caste, and liberation of untouchables, serve as valuable historical documentation of the times.

She Dedicated Her Life To Serving People
She, along with husband Jyotirao provided famine relief through 52 food centres that also operated as boarding schools. Savitribai died of infection while taking care of patients during the third global pandemic of the bubonic plague in 1897.

Savitribai Phule is a shining example of courage in the face of adversity--especially for those who are still afraid to associate themselves with feminism.

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