Monday, September 05, 2016

Great women reformers of India: Savitri Phule, Fatima Sheikh who opened India's first girls' school in 1848

By Shams Ur Rehman Alavi

Savitri Phule and Fatima Sheikh had set up the first school for girls in India.

That was in the year 1848. The school was opened in the house of Fatima and was also run at her brother Usmain Sheikh, for a period.

In an era when the orthodox called it a 'sin' and were against education to women, especially, untouchables-backwards, this landmark step was taken despite fierce opposition and threat to lives.

Savitri Phule would carry an extra dress while going to the school, as cow dung was thrown on her at the instance of upper castes who were opposed the education to untoucahables, the backwards castes and women.

They threw stones at her, but nothing could shake her steely resolve and the will to educate the girls belonging to dalit, backward and other oppressed castes.

When casteism was rampant and the upper castes in Pune were opposed to Phules for the their socio-educational efforts, Fatima Sheikh extended full support to Savitribai in the endeavour. Such was the opposition that there was even attack on the lives, killers were sent at night to murder Phule.

The first school was set up in 1848. Fatima Sheikh taught here. Saguna Bai, another leading light of the movement, also taught here. This school was founded in Pune [then Poona], which was once the seat of Peshwas.

The British had taken over the Maratha empire in 1818 and were now firmly in saddely. Savitri Phule's husband Jotirao Phule [also spelt, Jyoti Rao Phule] were the leading reformers of the country--for their role in education, in widow remarriage, for opening educational institutions and homes for the destitute.

Jotirao mentions how English education helped expand his vision in his student years. He also writes about the positive influence of his Muslim friends. Phule was one of the first crusaders against caste system and a voice of rationalism in the era.

Mahatma Phule hoped that just like people from the White ruling class had spoken for the Blacks in USA, in India too there would be a class among Upper Castes who would fight against caste discrimination and oppression.

He had established the 'satyashodhak samaj'. His book, 'Goolamgiri' is among the most famous and enlightening texts.

In fact, such is the contribution of these luminaries that hardly any other figure in that era or later generation comes close to their stature.

Salute to Savitri Phule, Fatima Sheikh--the pioneering educationists and great teachers who rebelled against society and lit the lamp of education in India. We must remember their effort, sacrifices and should get inspired to move ahead.