"We shall overcome and success will be ours in the future." -Savitribai Phule
The most important facet in a person's life, something that defines him or her as an individual or personality wise, is education. Education helps a person think, act and grow. There was a time when education was regarded as a taboo for women especially women from marginalised caste and communtities. It was something that they couldn't even dream of. Amidst fire, anger, abuses and brickbats one woman took the initiative to bring books before young girls. That person was Savitribai Phule, someone who is regarded as earliest feminist icons and the mother of Indian feminism.
Savitribai was born on January 3, 1831 in the village of Naigaon, Satara District, Maharashtra to Lakshmi and Khandoji Neveshe Patil who belong to the Mali caste.
She married Jyotirao Phule at the age of ten when he was thirteen. They did not have children but they adopted a Brahmin widow's son named Yashawantrao.
As per the norms due to severe degree of casteism, both Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule were forbidden from getting education by the privileged caste men.
Jyotirao was able to enroll in a Scottish missionary school and studied till 7th grade.
1800s was the time when widows had to shave their heads and wear white sarees while living in isolation for the rest of their lives. Women from marginalised caste were forced to dance naked for men's pleasure. Dalits were abused and mistreated to a severe degree.
At this time when women and dalit people's rights were simply thrown out of the window as an unnecessity, Jyotirao knew that only education can help people think differently. He along with his friends Sakharam Yeshwant Paranjpe and Keshav Shivram Bhavalkar taught Savitribai at home.
All of her education, reading and exposure helped her become the first teacher and headmistress of India.
As a couple, Savitribai and Jyotirao dedicated their lives and energy into lessening the gap between women and men in the education sector. They started the first school in India for little girls, especially dalit and other marginalised caste girls.
She began a revolutionary social education movement for girls belonging to the untouchable communties to help them rise up above their gender and caste barriers. Apart from providing vocational and practical education, Savitribai encouraged the independent thoughts in them.
Savitribai was not spared of the privileged caste men's wrath. Everyday, on her way to school, she had to endure abuses from conservative people. They used to scream that by educating girls and shudras, she is commiting a social evil.
They pelted stones, mud and cow dung at her. Yet, this didn't stop Savitribai in her task. She carried an extra saree with her everyday because she would be covered in dirt and dung as a result of conservative people's attacks.
Savitribai used to regards all the abuses she endured as her inspiration to keep moving forward. She was confronted well-built ruffian who threatened her with "heavy price" unless stops educating Mahars and Mangs. After noticing none from the large crowd, that gathered at the spot, will come forward to help her, she stood up to him by slapping him hard. The man ran away from the spot.
Jyotirao’s father, in 1849, forced the couple to leave house for commiting a "sin" as written in Brahminical texts by educating shudras and girls.
The couple then went to Usman Sheikh and befriended Fatima Begum Sheikh who goes on to become the first Muslim woman teacher of India. They began a school in 1849.
Along with her adopted son Yashwant, Savitribai opened a clinic to treat those affected by the worldwide Third Pandemic of the bubonic plague in 1897.
The son of Pandurang Babaji Gaekwad caught the plague and upon learning this, she went to his side and carried him on her back to the hospital. She caught the plague unfortunately and died. But her heroic deeds were to be remembered.
In 1983, Pune City Corporation created a memorial, a bust, in her honour. India Post released a stamp with her face in her honour on March 10, 1998. The University of Pune was renamed as Savitribai Phule Pune University in 2015.
Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi (DBA) and Mang communities regard her as an icon who ensured their rights along with BR Ambedkar.
The fire that Savitribai started with her husband in 1880s continue to persist even today. Despite the reformations in terms of the law, politics, access to education and other facilities, women and minorities still face social boundaries that are yet to be broken.
Untouchability is still practices in rural areas and dalits are lynched for occupying public spaces.
Similarly, girls are forcefully married off before legal age of 18 even today and become mothers before they turn 20. Girls are still the highest amongst the school dropouts with factors like poverty, child marriage and child labour as major reasons.
Still, a group of activists stepped into the light of what Savitribai started top ensure that more and more generations are saved from social evils like caste system, widow system, child marriage, sexual violence, teenage pregnancy, child labour, exploitation etc.