Savitribai and Jotirao Phule: The 19th century’s intersectional feminists
Savitribai Phule was a true Indian revolutionary. On the anniversary of her birth, meet the power couple who changed the face of Indian education, despite strong opposition from every corner.
We are two decades into the 21st century, but violence against women and the lower castes is still prevalent.
Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, Hansraj Gangaram Ahir, informed the Rajya Sabha in February that the conviction rates for crimes against women, in Delhi, is on a downward spiral.
Statistics from 2014 to 2016 show a continuous decline in conviction rates in cases of rape, molestation, dowry death, sexual harassment, and cruelty by the husband.
According to Amnesty International, nearly 70% of all hate crimes in India, since September 2015, were committed on the basis of caste.
If this is the scenario today, imagine what it would have been like in the 19th century. And that is what makes Jyotiba Phule remarkable. He fought not just for the rights of women but for the rights of people from the lowest castes.
Jyotiba Phule was an intersectional feminist almost 200 years before the idea had even been thought of.
Change begins at home
Born on April 11, 1827 to a low caste family in Pune – the centre of Brahminism – Jyotiba Phule was a revolutionary for his times. He was a vocal advocate for women's education, widow remarriage, and women's right to divorce. He was also an opponent of child marriage, polygamy, and caste-based discrimination.
The quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi – “be the change you want to see” – truly applied to Jyotiba and his life. He took his radical ideas and applied them first at home, with his wife Savitribai Phule.
Jyotiba was only 13 when he married Savitri in 1840, who was just 9-years-old herself. Both were from lower caste families. Fortunately for Jyotiba, his paternal aunt Sagunabai, who raised him after his mother’s death, pushed for his education. Savitribai, however, was denied this.
He was sent to a Scottish Missionary School because the dominant Brahmin community objected to his being schooled with their own sons.
Jyotiba chose to give Savitri an education at home.
Jyotiba became his wife’s first teacher.
After a few years of tutoring Savitribai, Jyotiba had his friends – Sakharam Yeshwant Paranjpe and Keshav Shivram Bhavalkar – help with her education. Six years later, when Savitribai was 15-years-old, she and another woman friend Fatima Sheikh, were sent to Mrs Mitchell’s Normal School in Pune.
Soon after, she completed her primary education, and she moved to Ms Farar’s institution in Ahmednagar where she trained as a teacher. She began working as an educator and rose in the ranks to be the headmistress of a school that the Phules set up.
In 1848, the Phules started a school for girls of all castes in Pune. This was 21 years before Mahatma Gandhi (the foremost documented leader in the fight against untouchability and women’s subjugation) was even born.
In colonial India, it was the first school for girls started by an Indian person. Savitribai was made a teacher there – the first Indian woman to officially teach.
By 1851, the Phules ran 3 schools for girls in Pune which had about 150 girl students.
In a patriarchal Brahmin-dominated setup, this complete deviation from the norm did not go unnoticed.
Problems for Jyotiba
Jyotiba’s father eventually expelled the couple from the family home. The family was increasingly being ostracised for its allegedly ‘unholy’ activities that went against the teachings of the Vedas. The choice was between stopping their social reform work or leaving the family setup. Jyotiba chose the latter.
It did not help matters that the couple had problems conceiving a child. Jyotiba was seen as having been cheated of not only a docile wife but also of children. He was constantly being pushed to remarry so that he could start a family.
True to his beliefs, he did not abandon Savitribai. He openly stated that it might as well have been the man who was incapable of reproduction. If that was the proven case, would it have been acceptable for the woman to remarry?
He could not abide by the double standard he found and continued with his marriage, eventually adopting a child with Savitribai.
Centre for unwed mothers and orphans
One particular incident deeply impacted Jyotiba and Savitribai.
In 1863, a young Brahmin widow working as a cook in the house of Jyotiba’s friend was raped by a neighbourhood ‘shastri’. The assault resulted in a pregnancy that forced the already marginalised widow – widows were pushed to the margins of society at the time – to kill her newborn son.
The police filed a case against her and she was later sentenced to life imprisonment in the Andaman Islands.
Deeply shocked by this injustice meted out on a helpless woman, the Phules set up a home for the welfare of unwed mothers and their children.
Pamphlets were distributed around Pune advertising the centre. They provocatively read: “Widows, come here and deliver your baby safely and secretly. It is up to your discretion whether you want to keep the baby in the centre or take it with you. This orphanage will take care of the children [left behind].”
As was now becoming a defining trait of the Phules, they led by example. The couple adopted the son of a Brahmin widow who came to their centre to give birth and raised him as their own. They named him Yashwant.
Yashwant became a symbol himself. He married a woman from a different caste at the age of sixteen. This was the first recorded inter-caste marriage in British India.
The Phules institutionalised this anti-Brahmin idea of marriage and purity in the Satyashodhak Samaj. Established on September 24, 1873, one of its key initiatives was Satyashodhak marriage.
This form of marriage removed Brahminical rituals altogether. Phule rewrote verses to replace the traditional ones sung by Brahmin priests and made them more egalitarian.
The couple that was getting married recited these verses themselves, which spoke of women’s empowerment and the fight for their rights.
Satyashodhak marriages also avoided the pomp and show generally associated with Brahminical weddings.
In a deeply patriarchal setup like India’s, it is almost impossible for women to move towards empowerment, especially in more remote towns and villages. Even today, the ideas of inter-caste marriage and rejection of Brahmin hegemony are met with resistance.
Rationalists like MM Kalburgi and activists like Gauri Lankesh paid for these ideas with their lives.
Yet, here stood a couple who saw equal rights – the core fight of the feminist movement – as deeply entangled with the issue of caste way back in the 19th century.
To call them visionaries would be an understatement. Educating women and the lower castes could have spelled death for the Phules.
Jyotiba and Savitribai took this a step further, they educated people who were both lower caste and female – a feat even today, let alone 200 years ago.
Feminists are not only women. Feminists are also the men who use their inherent privilege to become allies of the movement for equality.
Savitribai and Jyotiba Phule, a couple from the 19th century, are truly the intersectional feminists of the 21st. They were way ahead of their times, smashing “Brahminical patriarchy” before Twitter made it a buzz word.