Dr. Ratna Panvekar
Savitribai was born in an era when the social structure was inhuman and women did not have any scope for education or other freedoms. Savitribai was born at Naigaon, Taluka Khandala, district Satara, on 3rd January 1831. Her mother’s name was Lakshmibai and her father was a Patil of that village and fondly called as Khandoji Nevase Patil. Savitribai was married to Jyotirao Phule in 1940. At the time of marriage she was 9 years old and Jyotirao was 13. Savitribai’s father-in-law was a farmer at Phursingi near Pune. Later on, he migrated to Pune and started the business of selling flowers. He was very successful in it and people started recognising him as Phule. Jyotirao lost his mother in childhood. His maternal sister Sagunaoo raised him. Sagunaoo was working at a British officer’s house and took care of the officer’s son. While working there she started to understand and learned to speak English. She used this knowledge to inspire Jyotiba. After marriage, Savitribai carried with her a book given to her by a Christian missionary. Jyotirao realised his wife’s interest in reading, inspired her to get an education. Thus, Savitribai’s education commenced. She not only became literate herself but also got ready to educate underprivileged women and oppressed people of our country.
In the age when women were confined to their kitchen and children, Savitribai laid down the foundation for women’s education and women’s empowerment. The society was rigidly based on caste, religion and gender separation. On 1st January 1848, she started the first school for girls in Bhidewada. She had the responsibility of being a teacher and principal of that school. In the beginning, there were 6 girl students in that school, but by the end of 1848, the numbers rose to 40-45. The religious fundamentalists of the upper castes termed these schools as anti-religious and tried to demoralise Savitribai by verbally abusing and attacking her with stones and cow dung. Once she was hit by a stone on her ear that led to injury causing bleeding; that could not deter her from her noble mission, and she kept walking. After reaching the school she focused on the girl students gathered by Jyotirao, putting aside the earlier incident.
Savitribai provided slates and pencils to the girls. This led to the beginning of girls’ education and these girls would uplift women in the future by spreading education. She worked to make the students have self-confidence. She struggled very hard to sustain this movement. Within a few years, Savitribai and Jyotirao started 18 new schools. The British rulers felicitated the Phule duo in 1852 by Major Kady for their contribution in the field of education. The British government also announced grants for their schools.
Savitribai’s slogan as a pioneer educationist, teacher, social reformer was ‘Women should learn.’
Savitribai fought against several evil traditions related to women. Women had to suffer atrocities due to child marriage, child-adult marriage, the tradition of Sati and tonsure. Many girls had to face a widowed life because of child marriage. In those days remarriage of a widow was not permitted. So, the girls who refuse to adopt the inhumane sati tradition were forcibly tonsured. Many times these girls had to face sexual exploitation. There was no place for pregnant widows and their kids in the society. Many women committed suicide because of these brutal orthodox rules. Jyotiba started a special infanticide prohibition ward which was run by Savitribai successfully. In this ward, she helped many women in their pregnancy and delivery. She also arranged many inter-caste marriages. She participated wholeheartedly in the mission of widow remarriage. She also fought against tonsure of widows and got the support of barbers. Her efforts resulted in reforms among barbers which caused a barbers’ strike condemning the tonsure of widows. She made an immense contribution to the Satyashodhak Samaj movement founded by Jyotiba Phule.
After the demise of Mahatma Phule she took on the responsibilities of this organisation and gave shelter to the oppressed and became a patron of many orphans. She served all the people, especially oppressed and women. During 1896-97, Pune was engulfed with plague and many people succumbed to death due to the deadly disease. The British rulers, in order to contain the infectious disease, searched for probable victims and shifted them to distant locations as a precautionary measure. Without caring for her own health Savitribai started a clinic in the yard of Sasane near Pune for the plague patients. Unfortunately, she got infected with plague and passed away on 10 March 1897.
Women’s prosperity, their social awareness and responsibility
Women have realised their strength in the 21st century and created their own identity in this world. She learned how to fight for her rights and learned how to fight against injustice. She is walking shoulder to shoulder with men intellectually. Women are trying to throw away traditions and the beliefs that girls have to look after the kitchen and children after marriage and are firm that education is very important. The women have become more self-reliant by taking the required education. They are creating their own positions not only at home but also abroad.
But a big question still remains to be answered. Is the present generation of women aware of Savitribai’s sacrifice and devotion for women’s freedom? I regret that the progressive women of today have forgotten Savitribai’s contribution. They forgot that Savitribai devoted her whole life to liberating women from social evils.
The present day progressive Indian women have no idea about the legendary contributions of Savitribai as a liberator from an unjust system. Who is responsible for this? They need to look into their past and think rationally. It is useless for women to break their bangles on a washing stone or on her own forehead. Instead, they should do that on those heads which are responsible for their intellectual degradation.
Crores of salutes to Savitribai who worked restlessly for the upliftment of the unprivileged, and liberating women from slavery at the hands of religious fundamentalists.
Dr. Ratna Panvekar (Ph.D. in Physics) is an Assistant Professor in Physics at MH Saboo Siddik College of Engineering, Mumbai. Besides teaching, she is involved in writing short articles, songs and poems.