Perhaps one of the most iconic feminists to grace this country, Savitribai Phule was an incredible badass. But so many years later, 188 to be exact, the extent of her badassery might be lost on a lot of people. So, on her birth anniversary, January 3, let’s take a look at who she was and her path-breaking work.
- She was the first female teacher in India at the age of 17, in 1848 (flashback to when I was 17, angsting my way through zero contribution of any form to society, trying to get my curfew extended to midnight).
- Set up and ran a bunch of schools for girls from oppressed communities.
- Fought for the rights of widows, including organising a Barbers’ Strike to stop the shaving of heads of Hindu widows.
- Opened a well for people from the lower caste in her own house—an act of vehement defiance against the concept of untouchability.
- Supervised inter-caste and inter-religious marriages.
- Started the Mahila Seva Mandal (a women-led organisation, a revolution at a time when the purdah system still dominated most Indian households) to create awareness amongst women about their rights.
- Wrote a bunch of amazing books (Kavya Phule, Bavan Kashi Subodh Ratnakar) while also working for the rights of the oppressed.
She did all this when women were still being used as burner fuel (read sati). The kind of courage it must have taken to break norms at a time like that continues to overwhelm me every time I think about it. As a Savarna woman coming from privilege, her work still manages to make an incredible impact on me. Her literary work inspires millions of OBC, Dalit, Adivasi, and other oppressed women today (as well as people from lower castes across genders), taking her fight forward to 2019 and beyond, as it highlights the chasms of caste that continue to divide Indian society.
Divya Kandukuri, a Bahujan woman and a prominent voice against caste oppression who runs pages like Everyday Casteism to raise awareness, speaks of Savitribai’s importance today, “For me, Savitribai is like a mother or a family member. Whenever I get hate trolled for the work I do, whenever I feel like giving up, I look at her and her story of how she used to carry an extra sari to her school because people would throw dung at her and verbally abuse her, but she still didn’t give up. That’s when I get the strength to move forward. She struggled all her life… started teaching at 17, imagine, and challenged Brahmanical patriarchy half a century ago. She was way ahead of her time, even the current time. She’s my feminist icon, and she should be everyone’s. She gave birth to the Indian feminist movement, defined what Intersectional Feminism was, over 170 years ago.”
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