About 250 years ago, Savitribai Phule and Fatima Sheikh, who worked in the field of education for women and Dalits, were revolutionary women of their time. Together they worked for education and social reform. Savitribai Phule's contribution has been well documented, but not much information is available about Fatima Sheikh.
Whatever information is available about her is from the letters Savitribai has written to Fatima Sheikh.
Savitribai Phule was born on 3 January 1831 at Naigaon in the Satara district of Maharashtra. She married Jyotiba Phule in 1840. Jyotiba Phule continued his education after marriage and also started teaching Savitribai at home.
Soon she learned to read and write Marathi and English and passed her school examinations. Savatribai had realized the importance of education and the couple wanted women of the backward classes to get an opportunity to read and write. Back then, there was no system of education for Dalits and backward castes.
Jyotiba and Savitribai decided to open a school for girls. However, the problem was there was no woman teacher around. Savitribai took the responsibility for the project and she joined a teacher training course from Missionary College.
A newspaper clipping showing Savitribai Phule and Fatima Sheikh in their school
Thus, Jyotiba and Savitribai laid the foundation of the first women's school in Pune in 1848. Running a school for women was not an easy task. Initially, parents were not ready to send their daughters. They believed that educating girls would spell doom for the family. Savitribai did not lose heart. She visited people’s homes tand tried to convince them about the importance of education.
Fatima Shaikh belonged to an ordinary Muslim family. Born on 9 January 1831, she was the first educated woman from Muslim Community at that time. She lived in Pune with her elder brother Usman Sheikh.
Usman Sheikh was a childhood friend of Jyotiba Phule( also called Mahatma Jyotiba Phule). He had an open mind on women's education. Due to his efforts, Fatima was also able to read and write. Inspired by Savitribai's work, Fatima Shaikh joined Savitribai's mission. These women together infused a fresh lease of life into the idea of a girls' school.
The work on girls' school started with great enthusiasm. Fatima and Savitribai used to get up early in the morning, and after completing the housework, they devoted their time to school.
An artist's vsion of Savitribai and Fatima Sheikh
They enjoyed an equal support from Jyotiba and Usman Shaikh. Initially, the school had only six girls. Gradually this number started increasing. Everything was going according to plan but the upper caste community of the city did not like this and accused the Phule family of violating the scriptures.
Despite this, Savitribai and Fatima Shaikh continued their efforts. The protesters put pressure on Jyotiba's father Govindrao. Govindrao was threatened with ostracism and, in turn, he forced his son to either close the school or leave his house. Jyotiba and Savitribai left their home.
No one in Pune city was willing to support the couple. There the ‘boycott gang’ of the elite castes tried to enforce their social boycott. No one came to their aid due to the fear of social ostracism. The Phule family was labelled traitors and heretics. Mahatma Phule's childhood friend Usman Sheikh came forward as an angel. Usman Sheikh opened his private farm to the Phule family. The Shaikh family not only supported Savitribai and Jyotiba but also gave a part of their house to run the school. In this way, a girls' school was started from the house of Fatima Sheikh. Usman Shaikh and Fatima also faced opposition from their community.
Like Savitribai, Fatima Sheikh was also called evil. Both faced taunts and verbal abuse.; people flung mud and cow dung on them. However, Fatima Shaikh and Savitribai were fearless; they bore the torture silently and didn’t give up. In 1850, finally, an institution called 'The Native Female School, Pune was established.
A Chapter on Fatima Sheikh in history book of Telangana State
A total of 18 schools were opened around Pune city under this organization. At that time there was no education system for Dalit children like women. To overcome this problem, Mahatma Phule founded an organization called 'The Society for the Promoting Education of Mahar and Mang', thus starting a school for women as well as children from underprivileged communities.
Fatima Shaikh became the first Muslim woman who worked for the education of Muslim women and the Bahujan community. We can understand that 200 years ago, it must have been an act of courage for a Muslim woman to step out of the four walls of the house and do such social work. Fatima Shaikh not only carried forward Savitribai's mission but also stood by her side in crisis. In the absence of Savitri Bai, Fatima Shaikh used to take care of all the responsibilities of the school administration. The school enrolment increased. After completing their education, many students also started teaching in the school.
Gradually, Savitri Bai expanded her social work. Due to the prevalent custom of Child marriages, there were a lot of young widows at that time. Besides, single mothers who were ostracized by society had no option but to commit suicide. On January 28, 1853, Mahatma Phule and Savitribai opened an ashram named 'Bal Hatya Pratibandhak Griha' for such victimized women. This was the first such ashram for women in the country.
In this ashram, women were taught small jobs and their children were taken care of. When they grew up, they were admitted to the school. One day an unmarried pregnant woman named Kashibai came to the ashram. Savitribai supported her, later the Phule couple adopted Kashibai's newborn male child, his name was Dr. Yashwant. Savitribai made him a successful doctor.
It is the story of 1896, during that time plague was spread in Mumbai and Pune. Savitribai was engaged in the service of people. In the meantime, she was stricken with the plague, and on 10 March 1897, she passed away.
ALSO READ: 150 years ago, Indian Muslims encouraged co-education schools
Savatribai and Fatima Shaikh ignited the flame of education and knowledge in the lives of hundreds of women. Shudras and women were shown the way to live with self-respect through education. Women today are on the path of progress, more independent than ever before. The struggles and sacrifices of great people like Mahatma Phule, Savitribai, and Fatima Sheikh are hidden in the upliftment of women. It is a matter of pride for all of us to remember the contribution of great women like Savitribai and Fatima Shaikh on 8th March International Women's Day.
(Mukhtar Khan heads an organisation called Janavadi Lekhak Sangh, Maharashtra)