Pioneer of women’s education, Indian feminist movement: Remembering Savitribai Phule on her 190th birth anniversary

Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule was born on January 3, 1831, in a village called Naigaon in the Satara district of Maharashtra. She was a feminist and social reformer who fought for women’s empowerment and education in India. This year marks the 190th birth anniversary of Phule, and the day is observed in Maharashtra as Balika Din.

Savitribai Phule is considered to be one of the pioneers of the feminist movement in India. She started the first-ever school for girls in the country in 1848 at Bhide Wada, Pune. Her efforts to spread awareness about women’s education saw her face boycotts and abuses mostly from men at the time. Jyotirao Phule, her husband, was one of the pillars of support to her in her journey to spreading awareness about the importance of women’s education and uplifting the status of women and India. Phule was married to Jyotirao Phule at the age of nine when she was not literate.

By 1851, Phule had set up three schools and was the teacher of 150 students. She would go on to established 17 schools in the country and although most of them were for upper-caste women, she and her husband set up schools for Dalit and lower-caste women as well. Phule encouraged women to attend school by offering them stipends.

Women’s education was not the only thing Phule wanted Indians to take up. She also fought against social injustices of the time like Sati, child marriage and the still prevalent caste system and was also one of the first advocates for women’s rights in the country. She opened a well for ‘untouchables’ at her residence in a defiant act against the caste system and also started a care centre for pregnant rape victims called ‘Balhatya Pratibandhak Griha’. Phule also set up a ‘Mahila Seva Mandal’ where women would gather and she would raise awareness about women’s rights.

Apart from being a pioneer of Indian feminism, Phule was a plague warrior. She helped several people when the bubonic plague hit the world, opening up a clinic with her son, Yashwant, in 1897 to help patients. The plague ended up being the reason of her demise as she passed away on March 10, 1897.

She was also a hard-hitting, radical writer and poet who questioned the brahminical hegemony and openly criticised social evils at the time like Sati, child marriage, class distinctions, gender inequalities and the caste system.

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