While the country was grappling with the British clutches, pre-independence India witnessed the subjugation of women on varied fronts. It can be considered that the mothers and daughters of India were doubly repressed: by their very biological identity and secondly by the colonizers. The nineteenth century, enduring such political and social upheavals beheld the rise of one of the most constitutive figures whose name remains etched in the Indian history that paved the path for women empowerment.
Born in Maharashtra, the first women crusader of seized India, was Savitribai Jyotirao Phule whose contributions towards the eradication of societal malpractices are immense. As an activist and educationist, Savitribai along with her husband Jyotirao Phule, who too was a social reformer set the whirlwind of revolt against dehumanization on grounds of caste and gender.
The visionary couple on realizing the fundamental need of educating girls opened around 18 schools where children, irrespective of their castes, received education. Savitribai willingly took on the role of a teacher in one such school, thus becoming the first woman educationist of India. Her endeavors comprised active participation in the spread of literacy amongst the so-called underprivileged and outcasts of the society.
Her message for a harmonized society also reached the masses through her inspirational writings of which Kavya Phule (1954) and Bavan Kashi Subodh Ratnakar (1982) are notable. Her selfless indulgence towards the formation of a better society was limited not only to educational reforms. With reverential support from her husband, she also fought for odious practices that plagued the lives of women. Savitribai’s outcry on female infanticide, killing of widows and ostracizing of pregnant, rape victims is still considered to be of utmost significance by activists working for the emancipation of women, especially belonging to the lower castes.
The Dalits of the time were subjected to utter deprivation, for which Savitribai worked tirelessly in order to restore their trodden existence in society. B.R. Ambedkar is known worldwide for his reforming movement against the untouchables and happens to be deeply influenced by the noble deeds of both Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule. Expressing his deference towards the pioneer of women empowerment in India, he proclaimed that progressive minds like Savitribai have “worked for the upliftment of the deprived class…” and has also reached to the “exploited classes, including women.”
Savitribai’s zealous efforts have urged women to voice their rights and strive for a respectable existence. Feminism in India was thus rightly foreground by this venerable woman’s exponential attempts, that embarked many others to seek for the representation of women’s equal rights and needs. Many a thinking minds were influenced by the revelation that surfaced through her rebellion, concerning around the suppression of upper caste women on the elemental cause of gender which was very similar to the sexual and manual oppression that the labor and lower caste women faced. Savitribai challenged the daunting obstacles that reigned over the Brahminical Indian society, hence initiating the general masses to wake up from their debilitating slumber and kindling in them the fire of empathetic identification of oneself with the powerless.
By Debashrita Dey