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Savitribai & Fatima’s Friendship: A Lesson in Solidarity That India Needs Today

Savitribai Phule hadn't met anyone like Fatima Sheikh, whom she called her 'most dependable ally'.

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It is said and quite rightly so, if you can read today, you thank Savitribai. If you can write today, you thank Savitribai. This piece is about Savitiribai Phule and Fatima Sheikh whose bond has stood the test of time and is a lesson in solidarity that India's citizens need today.

This article is based on the excerpts from: 'Savitribai Phule, Her Life, Her Relationships, Her Legacy' by author, Reeta Ramamurthy Gupta.

In the critical tug-of-war, where women and lower castes had no access to public spaces, let alone education, Savitribai Phule found her own voice and a voice of reason in Fatima.

Along with her husband, Jyotirao Phule, they lived in Poona, a traditional Brahmin stronghold and along with Fatima, they set up over 18 schools for girls and marginalised groups like Mahars, Mangs, Shudras and Atishudras.

"Re-creating Fatima's life was vital, even if only through painstakingly gathered oral accounts, for the sake of future generations. We owe a debt of gratitude to her as much as to Savitribai for the education and the opportunities we enjoy today."
Reeta Ramamurthy Gupta to The Quint
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Two Aspiring Students & a Deeply Patriarchal, Brahmanical World

As the book reads, "Brahmins considered it bad luck if they came across a Shudra in the morning...Shudra's footprints could not be seen by Brahmins. The soil contaminated by their passage was to be covered by another layer of soil so they were forced to tie tahalya (branches to their waist  with which they would sweep the path behind them."

The situation of women was even worse — they were married off at young age to older rajas and men, hence widowed early. Women generally were expected to stay behind purdah/ghoonghat, not come in front of men, laugh or talk loudly or even wear footwear in front of men.

“Women’s education was considered to be against Dharma," the book reads. Savitri and Fatima's story is set in this time.

Even in her childhood, Savitri was caught hiding and watching boys study in school and was threatened if she is seen again with: "It will be death of your father and future husband," and "No one will marry you."
Savitribai Phule hadn't met anyone like Fatima Sheikh, whom she called her 'most dependable ally'.

'Savitribai Phule, Her Life, Her Relationships, Her Legacy' by Reeta Ramamurthy Gupta.

(Photo Courtesy: Vibhushita Singh)

On the other hand, Fatima’s family migrated from UP to Maharashtra and settled in present-day Nashik. Her family members were handloom textile merchants, belonging to the lower caste Julaha community.

When she was barely seven, the family moved to Poona owing to Agra famine of 1837-38. When her parents died early, Usman Sheikh, her brother became her guardian. Munshi Gafar Baig, an Urdu and Persian scholar stood as a father figure to them. 

Savitri and Fatima met at Mrs Mitchell’s school in Poona where they both took English lessons.

Savitribai Phule hadn't met anyone like Fatima Sheikh, whom she called her 'most dependable ally'.

'Savitribai Phule, Her Life, Her Relationships, Her Legacy' by Reeta Ramamurthy Gupta.

(Photo Courtesy: Vibhushita Singh)

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'Fatima, My Most Dependable Ally'

In the book, Savitribai recalls, "Saguna Aau (Jyotirao's aunt) was our guiding light. Fatima was my closest friend, my most dependable ally in our success with the education of girls. She was a very courageous woman. We lost touch, I last saw her at Cynthia Farrar’s funeral.”

Farrar was their teacher at Ahmednagar who had insisted both of them study in her school.

On the other hand, Fatima also taught Savitri to ignore criticism and still be compassionate despite the omnipresent hardships.

“She always said, quoting the Prophet: Tum dharti waalon par daya karo, (Allah) tum par daya karega,” as attested by Savitri and Jyotirao.

“When I published Kavya Phule in 1854, I insisted that she (Fatima) publishes a book o her poems too. She had immense knowledge of Urdu and composed many poems. Sadly, she never published...," the book reads.
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There was also a willing participation of a handful of Brahmins in uprooting the hegemony of their fellows, as the Book points out.

"Soon, Savitri completed her elementary-level teacher-training course with Mrs Mitchell, it is believed that she was the first Indian woman to do so. Mrs Mitchel and Fatima visited Savitri’s house to give her the certificate of completion."

Cow-Dung Thrown at Fatima, Savitri Carried an Extra Saree

Both Savitri and Fatima went to Farrar in Ahmednagar to spend some months under her training. Savitri and Fatima both said, "when we set up our own schools, we will make it completely free from links to any caste or religion.”

The first school opened on 1 January 1848. Savitri appointed as teacher and headmistress and Fatima also as a teacher.
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Savitribai Phule hadn't met anyone like Fatima Sheikh, whom she called her 'most dependable ally'.

'Savitribai Phule, Her Life, Her Relationships, Her Legacy' by Reeta Ramamurthy Gupta.

(Photo Courtesy: Vibhushita Singh)

Savitri also started carrying an extra saree because she was regularly pelted with stones and filth. Jyoti and Savitri also left their parents home and after Munshi Gafar Baig wrote a letter to Fatima's brother, they found shelter in Fatima's home.

'Sakshar Vha, Nirbhar Vha' — Become Literate and Become Independent

"As girls and children of Mahars and Mangs were not allowed to drink water from the nearby water sources, Fatima and Savitri even purchased water for the children. The funds they were getting were not enough to run the school on a sustained basis.  Hence, Bhidewala school was closed briefly. 

From 1848-1853, they opened 18 schools. Later, Savitri made Fatima the headmistress of the schools to tour the villages herself and convince families to send their girls to their school.

"The curriculum at the schools run by Jyotirao and Savitri was different from that of schools run by Brahmins. It included a broad range of subjects, history of Marathas, geography of India and Asia, grammar, Arithmetic and basic writings on socioeconomic problems."

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At the Intersection of Gender & Social Justice

The schools that Fatima, Savitri and Jyoti and their associates set up between 1851 and 1853 became beneficiaries of the Dakshina Fund via an additional grant of Rs 75 a month.

This was a major change from the original aim of the fund which was to encourage and reward those who had become learned in Hindu sacred books.

Fatima and Savitri also organised a prize distribution ceremony for their school children. Here, British mingled with both, the local elite and common folks. Fatima quizzed the girls on Maths and History and they answered loudly on the stage.

Savitri also set up a Mahila Seva Mandal with Fatima’s help. One of the issues that took up was the forcible tonsuring of widows among Hindus.

Savitribai Phule hadn't met anyone like Fatima Sheikh, whom she called her 'most dependable ally'.

'Savitribai Phule, Her Life, Her Relationships, Her Legacy' by Reeta Ramamurthy Gupta.

(Photo Courtesy: Vibhushita Singh)

"Savitribai and Fatima understood the importance of context and perception extremely well, which we often miss."
Reeta Ramamurthy Gupta to The Quint

She added that to dispel the myth that they had converted, "during the formation of the Mahila Seva mandal Savitribai performed a Haldi Kunku ceremony to show the people that she was still their own. Likewise, Fatima continued to train young Muslim and Hindu girls in embroidery and tailoring, so that she never lost her connection with the locals."

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"Given that Fatima was liberal and free-spirited, one can possibly surmise that both Muslims and orthodox Hindus opposed her as much as they opposed Savitri. …Usman never explained Fatima’s choices to anyone. She was his greatest pride and greatest duty.”

On 28 January 1853, Savitri opened an Infanticide Prohibition Home — the first of its kind in India.

Savitribai Phule hadn't met anyone like Fatima Sheikh, whom she called her 'most dependable ally'.

'Savitribai Phule, Her Life, Her Relationships, Her Legacy' by Reeta Ramamurthy Gupta.

(Photo Courtesy: Vibhushita Singh)

Savitri also played a little matchmaking role by telling Baig about Barkat, a fit for Fatima as a partner. Barkat and Fatima had been writing to each other for five years.

Their struggle to educate was a revolution in itself, their friendship being the backbone. 

“The full impact of the social reformation movement can perhaps only be realised and not measured,” as Gupta aptly writes.

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Topics:  Books   Maharashtra   School 

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