Savitribai Phule, Fatima Sheikh
Even an ordinary person in India today would probably not know those names.
So you are forgiven for wondering: who are they?
They were 2 phenomenal women,
One Hindu, a Dalit, that is an untouchable, the other a Muslim.
Nearly 2 centuries ago they united, despite their different background and religion, against the culture of patriarchy and misogyny which ruled unhindered in their time.
They challenged the barbaric practices and oppression of men, such as female
infanticide and the killing of widows.
Savitribai Phule and Fatima Sheikh rebelled against the beliefs that the sole purpose of women was to belong to men, as chattel, first to their fathers then to their husbands. That women had no need for education.
They fought against the views that the only value of women was in the dowry they
brought into a marriage and the siring of sons. Sons, not daughters.
Those two phenomenal women sparked an early movement for women’s rights in a
country where there were none.
SP and her husband were chased out of their house, for their opinions and their
work. They took refuge with Fatima Sheikh. This in itself was a challenge to the
common beliefs on caste and religion.
Together they set up the first school which educated women of all caste and religion, a first practical step towards abolishing caste and gender discrimination. They were the first female teachers in India, one Hindu and one muslim. They showed the way and other women followed and continued their work.
As the decades went by, through the 19 th century and into the 20th , the legal environment started to put in place legislation to support women. There is a long list of acts of law to map the small but significant steps of progress.
Despite all this, culture and social education still lag behind today. Nowadays barbaric acts committed on Indian soil reach a global audience and we are horrified. Yet is it surprising that such male attitudes remain when you know that the Sexual Harassment of Women at Work act did not come into force until 2013.
One shining glimpse of hope is the International Day of the Girl Child. This is seriously respected in India, especially in schools, colleges and education. We can but hope that things are changing for the better.
Marie Paule Sheard