The first lady of British India who served the cause of women

Rajesh Pathak

Born on 3 January 1831 and married to a great social revolutionary, Jyotiba Phule, Savitribai Phulay was the first Indian lady of British India to initiate different activities for the social emancipation of women in Maharashtra. Among the most pioneering works, she did with her husband was the opening of the school in Pune for the so-called low-caste girls in 1848. And, ignoring the rituals then strictly observed in the traditional Indian society, she herself fulfilled the role of a lady teacher for them [girls]. In all, they notably opened 18 such schools.

With the active cooperation of Vishnu Shastri Bapat, a renowned personality of contemporary Maharashtra, Jyotiba launched the first-ever movement for the widow–remarriage. When on 25 July 1856, the remarriage of a widow was made legal,  Phulay couple toured from place to place to generate public support in its favour. Likewise, they [Savitribai and Jyotiba] greatly condemned infanticide, and to discourage it they ran a child-care home in their own house. They even adopted the son of a Brahmin widow and named him Yashwant. They brought him up like their own son. Not only this, taking unprecedentedly bold steps, they even exhorted the barbers to boycott tonsuring the heads of widows, the ill practice imposed then, especially on the Brahmin women.

Making use of the local custom of Haldi-kumkum [religious celebration for the womenfolk to mark their happy and long married life] in the interest of social harmony, Savitribai organized a function of “Get-together” for the women folk to celebrate it.  Celebrated so far only by the upper-caste women, in the function, a big number of women of all kinds of low castes were also invited for the first time. In this revolutionary event, the mother of “Sarvjanik kaka” [Ganesh Vasudev Joshi] worked shoulder to shoulder with her. In protest against the caste-based restriction on consuming water from the public water booth, they made the arrangement of water for themselves through the water tank of their own house.

Many of their works became the glorious precedents for impending social revolution. Taking inspiration from Phulays, many of their friends and other enlightened personalities of upper castes like Sakharam Yashwant Pranjpay, Sadashiv Govind Sathe, and Sadashiv Gowanday, to name a few, extended their contribution to their works. It was the Brahmins who provided the place for the school to be run by him in Budhwara Peth in Pune. Not only this but Brahmins also took up the responsibility of teaching the students there.

From child- marriage to sati-system, abortion, prostitution, the obscene dance of women, and discrimination against women regarding inheritance wherever they noticed exploitation they acted unflinchingly upon its rectification. Their mission of social emancipation continued to go on for forty years. After Jyotiba’s demise, on the persuasion of Bhai Parmanand—one of the founders of Hindu Mahasabha— the Baroda king made the arrangement from the Baroda Govt. to provide monetary relief to Savitribai and his son, Yashwant. When growing up Yashwant became a doctor. They opened a hospital in Pune in 1897 to treat the needy and poor. Savitribai herself would attend to each patient. So deeply she engaged in serving them that one day she herself turned patient, and ultimately died on 10 March 1897.

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