Who Was Savitribai Phule?
Savitribai Jyotirao Phule, born on 3 January 1831, was a social reformer and poet. She played an important role in fighting for women’s rights in India during British rule. At a time when people hardly identified the grievances of women in India, Savitribai Phule along with her husband stood up to fight the injustice against women. Phule along with her husband founded the first women’s school at Bhide Wada in Pune in 1848.
The child bride who stood up against discrimination, was born into a family of farmers in Naigaon, Maharashtra, she was married to 12-year-old Jyotirao Phule at the age of nine. Savitribai was taught to read and write by her husband, Jyotirao. As one of the very few indigenous literate women of the time, she played a full part in her husband’s social reform movement by becoming a teacher in the schools he started for girls and later for the so called untouchables in Pune.
For this task, she had to endure a lot of abuse at the hands of the orthodox society of Pune. The couple was felicitated by the colonial government of Bombay Presidency in 1850s for this work. During the 19th century, arranged marriages before the age of maturity was the norm in the Hindu society of Maharashtra. Since mortality rates were high, many young girls often became widows even before attaining maturity.
Due to social and cultural practices of the times, widow remarriage was out of question in many upper castes and therefore prospects for the young widows from those castes were poor. The 1881 Kolhapur gazetteer records that widows at that time used to shave their heads, and wear simple red sarees and had to lead a very austere life with little joy.
It was Savitribai who decided to stand up against this practice and organized a strike against the barbers in order to persuade them to stop shaving the heads of the widow.
She noticed the plight of women who after falling prey to sexual exploitation, and becoming pregnant, either committed suicide or killed the newborn due to fear of banishment by the society. To cater to such women she opened a care center for pregnant rape victims and helped deliver their children. The care center was called “Balhatya Pratibandhak Griha” (Infanticide prohibition house).
Phule also worked to abolish discrimination and unfair treatment of people based on caste and gender. She found the treatment of the untouchables problematic and opened a well in her house in 1868 so that, people who were refused drinking water by the upper caste can use it.
Tiffany Wayne has described Phule as “one of the first-generation modern Indian feminists, and an important contributor to world feminism in general, as she was both addressing and challenging not simply the question of gender in isolation but also issues related to caste and casteist patriarchy.”
Savitribai and Jyotirao had no children of their own. However, the couple adopted Yashavantrao, who was the son of a widowed Brahmin. Savitribai and her adopted son, Yashwantrao, opened a clinic to treat those affected by the worldwide Third Pandemic of the bubonic plague when it appeared in the area around Nallasopara in 1897.
The clinic was established at Sasane Mala, Hadapsar, near Pune, but out of the city in an area free of infection. Savitribai personally took patients to the clinic where her son served them. While caring for the patients, she contracted the disease herself. She died from it on 10 March 1897 while serving a plague patient.
The Government of Maharashtra has instituted an award in her name to recognize women social reformers.
In 2015, the University of Pune was renamed as Savitribai Phule Pune University in her honor.
On 10 March 1998 a stamp was released by India Post in honor of Phule.