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Savitribai Phule: A Strong Voice on Women's Rights, Against Conservatism and Patriarchy

Sonia Yadav |
On the birth anniversary of Savitribai Phule on January 3, NewsClick remembers the social reformer’s stellar contribution to the making of a progressive society and her life struggle.
savitri Bai

“Study to live with self-respect, a school is the true jewel for a human."

This is the lesson given by the country's first woman teacher and social reformer, Savitribai Phule. Savitribai took many revolutionary steps for women's education and literacy. Facing the stiff challenges posed by conservatism and patriarchy, she created many new paths in the interest of women’s empowerment. She opened new doors of freedom and created a new consciousness among women. She is also known for promoting education among dalits. 

Savitribai Phule, who has always been a source of inspiration for girl students and youth, was born on January 3, 1831 in Naigaon, Maharashtra. Today, on her birth anniversary, Newsclick pays tribute to her contribution to the cause of education, especially of women, and her struggles. 

The personality of Savitri Bai, who considered humanity as her religion, was multi-dimensional. She believed in the principle of working without fear of criticism. At a time when reading and writing had not yet reached women, Savitribai used to write letters to her husband. In those letters, she used to write about social work instead of family matters. This is enough to understand that Savitribai was an example of someone ahead of her times. She was a logical woman growing up in a superstitious society. 

It is said that once in her childhood, when Savitribai was turning the pages of an English book, her father saw her reading. Because at that time only upper caste men had the right to education, her father took away the book from her. This is the reason why Savitribai's entire life revolved around extending the right to education to every person who was deprived of it. She is also considered the first vocal voice of feminism in India. She was also a social reformer and Marathi poet. She also got fame as the first Marathi poet in those times. 

When marital partnership wrote the story of social change 

Savitribai and her life partner Jyotiba Phule continued fighting the evils of child marriage throughout their lives and raising awareness about it because both of them were its victims. 

In 1840, Savitribai was just 10 years old when she got married to Jyotiba Phule. At that time Jyotirao Phule was studying in Class III and was 13 years old. After marriage, Savitribai received education with the help of her husband. The partnership between the two was not limited to mere marital relationship, both remained partners on the path of social change, too. At the young age of 17, Savitribai took up the responsibility of educating girls.

When Jyotiba Phule started the first school in 1848, the couple's challenges began to increase. It is said that Savitribai had opened a school for girls in Bhidewadi, Pune city, and whenever she went to school, the conservatives, angry with her move, used to throw stones and cow dung at her. But she never backed down and started carrying another saree with her while going to teach (to change later). When stones and cow dung were thrown at her, Savitribai used to say, “I work to teach my sisters. That is why the stones and dung that are thrown at me, appear to me like flowers.”

Savitribai was a great proponent of education of girls from every caste and community that did not consider that girls were capable of getting education. She opened a total of 18 schools for girls. The 18th school established by her was also opened in Pune. 

The Phule couple faced social challenges every day of their lives. In those days, the brahmanical patriarchal social system was very angry with Savitribai. But no obstacle could deter her from her purpose in life. She always talked about social consciousness in her poems and articles. Many of her poems create awareness about the need for education. In her poems, she writes about breaking caste barriers and staying away from brahmin scriptures. 

Struggle against social evils and advocacy of women's rights 

Savitribai was vocal against child marriage and a strong advocate for women's rights. She did not consider inter-caste marriage and pre-marital pregnancy as crimes, rather, she stood firmly in support of such girls. 

She, along with Jyotiba Phule, also established an orphanage in Pune for destitute children. This institution provided a home and education to orphaned children regardless of their caste or background. 

The Phule couple was involved in many movements, one of which was against the practice of Sati (bride burning on the pyre of her husband). Savitribai was vocal against the tonsure of women when they became widows and also launched a strong movement against barbers engaged in this practice.

The Phule couple struggled throughout their lives against untouchability, the practice of Sati, child marriage and social discrimination in the education system. 

Savitribai, who rejected stereotypes, also performed the last rites of Jyotiba Phule in 1890 when he passed away, a practice generally done by men in our society.

After Jyotiba's death, Savitribai continued to fulfil her responsibility as a social reformer. On March 10, 1897, while taking care of children suffering from plague, she contracted the disease and bid farewell to this world. However, even today, her thoughts and ideas are immortal and will remain for years. 

Savitribai used to say, “Women are not made just to work in the kitchen and fields, they can do better work than men.” 

Her life continues to inspire women till date.

(Translated from the original article published on our Hindi website)

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