Celebrate World Teachers’ Day with the story of India’s first female teacher7 min readReading Time: 5 minutes
What does education mean to you? Is it all about textbooks, and exhausting exercises or is it also about curiosity, imagination, and opportunity—an opportunity to live an enriched life?
And today, to celebrate World Teachers’ Day, Owliver brings to you the story of a trailblazer who ensured that these opportunities reached every child in India regardless of sex, gender, and caste.
Meet Savitribai Phule, one of the first modern Indian feminists
who redefined gender and caste roles and
their relationship with education.
In 19th century India, going to school was not as inevitable as it may appear now, and no, it was not because of a monstrous virus. Back then, it was because of another kind of pandemic: ignorance. Public education had just started emerging and there were only a few missionary schools that were open to all. It was believed that only a certain sex, read boys, and certain castes, read upper-castes, deserved to be educated. But all this changed with the advent of India’s first female teacher, Savitribai Phule. Along with her husband, Jyotirao Phule, Savitribai opened the first all-women’s school at Bhide Wada in Pune in 1848. She remained a champion for women’s rights under the British rule all throughout her life.
And what a life it was…
Savitribai Phule was born on January 3, 1831 in the village of Naigaon in Maharashtra. Her parents belonged to the Mali community that is now categorised as OBC (Other Backward Class). As education was a privilege reserved for the upper castes, it was not accessible to Savitribai. She was all of nine when she was married off to Jyotirao Phule. At the time of her marriage, she was illiterate. Even Jyotiba was forced to leave school because of his caste. But endorsement from a Persian scholar paved way for his admission in a Scottish missionary school where he studied till Class VII. He taught Savitribai whatever he knew passing the responsibility of her higher education to his friends. Savitribai went on to enrol herself in two teacher’s training programmes. She started teaching girls at Pune’s Maharwada alongside Sagunabai who was a leading feminist, and a mentor to Jyotiba. In 1848, they went on to start the school at Bhide Wada with a curriculum that incorporated mathematics, science, and social studies.
But their crusade was met with resistance. Many people believed that they were going against the religious order by education women and people from the lower caste. A story goes that Savitribai used to carry an extra sari to the school because on her way she was met by angry onlookers who hurled stones and dung at her. Even her father-in-law asked the couple to move out of his house. The couple stayed with Usman Sheikh, who was Jyotiba’s friend. This is where Savitribai met Fatima Sheikh, India’s first female Muslim teacher. The two educationists went to a teacher training program in Pune. They graduated together and opened a school in Sheikh’s home in 1849.
In the 1850s, Jyotiba and Savitribai opened two educational trusts— the Native Female School, Pune and The Society for Promoting the Education of Mahars, Mangs and Etceteras. Savitribai was the headmistress of one school and Fatima Sheikh took over the responsibility of another.
Savitribai was a reformer inside the classroom and beyond it as well. As a chamption of women’s rights, she started the Mahila Seva Mandal in 1852. She also started the Home for the Prevention of Infanticide in her own home as a space for Brahmin widows to give birth safely. She campaigned against child marriage, and in favour of widow remarriage. She alsochampioned for inter-caste marriages. In 1873, the couple started an organisation, called Satyashodhak Samaj, that advocated the interests of those who were non-Brahmins. After Jyotiba’s demise, Savitribai chaired the organisation. Her gender made this a revolutionary act in itself.
She was also a prolific poet who used her words for her activism. In her poems, she urged people to rise above oppression and pursue knowledge.
She opened a clinic for those infected with the bubonic plague. She passed away while caring for a patient on March 10, 1897.
Savitribai was a teacher in more ways than one. Not only did she pave the way for the education of billions of girls born during and after her time, she also taught society to question accepted prejudice. She taught the world about gender equity, human-rights, and a caste-less society where opportunities are available to everyone. If education were to have a form, Savitribai embodied it in her extra sari, the bricks of her school at Bhide Wada, her friendship with Fatima Sheikh, her poetry, her classrooms, and in her very being.
(In the Spotlight is a weekly column that features people who are in the news for all the right reasons)