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Savitribai Phule: The Relevance of the Woman who Fought for the Annihilation of Caste and Patriarchy

By Vrinda Garg

Abstract – Savitribai Phule made a significant contribution to literature and culture in addition to playing a pivotal role in the social movement for the emancipation of women via education and against oppressive caste systems. This article aims to explore the birth of intersectional feminism in
India through the life and contributions of Savitribai Phule and how it ties in with modern-day
conversations around caste, class, race, gender and their intersectionality.

“Sit idle no more, go, get education
End misery of the oppressed and forsaken,
You’ve got a golden chance to learn
So learn and break the chains of caste.
Throw away the Brahman’s scriptures fast.”
– Savitribai Phule (Kavya Phule, 1854)

Intersectionality in feminism aims to emphasize that different individuals have varying struggles
and privileges based on their identities. This includes a range of facets like race, class, caste,
gender etc. Lawyer and civil rights advocate Kimberle Crenshaw demonstrates how prejudice
against women does not occur in isolated instances by citing the 1976 case of Emma
Degraffenreid v. General Motors Assembly Division. It is frequently observed to overlap with
other types of discrimination, therefore a comprehensive analysis of the issue is necessary to find
a solution. Five African American women filed a lawsuit against General Motors alleging racial
and gender discrimination. The Court ruled that there was no gender discrimination against
women working as secretaries in that corporation, and it even rejected claims of racial
discrimination because the business also hired African American men. The potential of women
of colour experiencing discrimination on more than one basis concurrently was not taken into
consideration by the court as it considered the two accusations of gender and racial
discrimination separately. Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to describe the
experience of facing discrimination because you identify with multiple identities. A recently
popularized phrase examines the intricate and cumulative ways in which the consequences of
many types of discrimination merge, overlap, or intersect.

The struggles of lower-caste, lower-class women in India differ from those belonging to the
upper-caste, upper-class sections. Dalit women, have to carry the burden of their class, and caste
in addition to their gender-based identities. According to a study conducted by International Dalit
Solidarity Network in which 500 women from across India who have experienced violence were
surveyed, it is seen that “62.4% of them have faced one or more incidents of verbal abuse, 54.8%
have faced physical assault, 46.8 % had faced sexual harassment and assault, 43% of them faced
domestic violence and 23.2% were victims of rape.” There exists structural and institutional
discrimination in the justice mechanisms of our country which leads to many cases going
unreported for fear of further discrimination. Other reports show that less than 1% of the cases
that were filed by Dalit women have actually resulted in convictions. There also exists a huge

gap in the conviction rates of cases filed by upper-class upper-income women which are reported
to be nearly 27%. The sporadic media coverage of such cases further intensifies the problem.
Thus, when considering feminism, it is important to see the role of deep-rooted Brahmanical
casteism and its intersectionality with gender.

Savitribai Phule, often referred to as the ‘Mother of Indian feminism’, recognised the intersection
of gender, class and caste that mainstream feminism often neglects.Born to a Dalit family in
Naigaon, a small village in Maharashtra, she was married to Jyotirao Phule at the age of nine and
became a child bride. She moved to Pune after marriage where she went on to become the first
female teacher in 1848 and with her husband, established a school for young girls in Bhidewada,
Pune. It is said that when she was the headmistress of the school, men from upper-caste
backgrounds would often misbehave with her due to caste identity and her response to that,
according to the memoirs written by Balwant Sakharam Kolhe, was “As I do the sacred task of
teaching my fellow sisters, the stones or cow dung that you throw seem like flowers to me. May
God bless you!”. While today her passiveness can be seen and interpreted in a variety of ways,
the harassment did not deter her from continuing to teach and give a platform to the marginalized
women in society, and the school went on to receive great traction and success. The couple
together opened over 18 schools across the nation. In fact, the school had, on average, over 10x
more girls studying in it than the number of boys government schools due to its sheer quality and
understanding of the context these girls come from.

What garnered Savitribai Phule the position of a feminist, a timeless one at that, was also her
ability and foresight to tackle the issue structurally. Savitribai ad Jyotirao together started the
Balhatya Pratibandhak Griha (‘Home for the Prevention of Infanticide’) for pregnant widows and
women who were conceiving out of wedlock, who often faced societal discrimination. The
couple recognised the need for a safe space for such women after seeing a young Brahmin
widow being sentenced to life imprisonment in the Andamans on account of killing her newborn

child. She claimed to be driven to commit infanticide as the man who assaulted her refused to
take up any responsibility and the fear of being shunned by society played a significant role. The
couple also established ‘Balyata Pratibandak Gruha’, which was a childcare centre for children
of widows and rape victims. In their personal life, the Phules adopted Yashwantrao, who was
born to a widow who was unable to take care of him. Today, as discussions around legal abortion
and providing women with the agency to terminate their pregnancy are intensified, the care home
set up by Savitribai and Jyotirai seems to come from a place of awareness and foresight.

Savitribai Phule was also an advocate of inter-caste marriages and encouraged breaking away
from religiously sanctioned arrangements. In 1873, the Phules started the Satyashodhak Samaj or
the Truth-seekers’ society, which endeavouredendeavored to create an equitable platform for
people coming from diverse religions, castes, gender and economic backgrounds. An extension
of this was the ‘Satyashodhak Marriage’ which involved a rejection of Brahminical principles.
The couple also pledged to incorporate education, equality and non-discrimination as an integral
foundation of their relationship.

Apart from being a social reformer, Savitribai Phule was also a deep-sighted author. In 1854, at
the age of 23, her first collection of poems called Kavya Phule or ‘Poetry’s Blossoms’ was
published. In 1892, she released Bavan Kashi Subodh Ratnakar, also known as “The Ocean of
Pure Gems.” Along with these publications, Savitribai Phule’s speeches and songs as well as her
letters to her husband are included in Matushri Savitribai Phlenchi Bhashane va Gaani.

While they were on this journey of social reform and activism, the Phules lived with Jyotiba’s
friend Usman for a while. During this time Savitribai met Fatima Begum Sheikh and the two
women went on to graduate college together. Interestingly, Fatima Begum Sheikh became the
first Muslim woman teacher in India. The two women then opened a school in 1849. Fatima andSavitribai, coming from diverse and socially oppressed backgrounds, together sowed the seeds of intersectional feminism in India.

On her husband’s passing, Phule lit his funeral pyre. She walked in front of the procession to lead Jyotirao Phule on his final trip. This was possibly the first time a woman had performed funeral rites in nineteenth-century India.

It is interesting to note that when Savitibai discussed one’s capacity for reasoning, independence,
and attendance at public institutions, her feminism had elements of the first wave. When she
discussed shelter homes and inter-caste marriages, her feminist ideology displayed congruence
with the ideology of the second-wave feminist diaspora. When she discussed handling women
with a variety of identities and treating Stree- Shudra-Ati Shudra with recognition and equality,
her feminism also displayed some traits of the third wave.

Savitribai’s life reads like an eternally inspirational storybook. She was the only female leader in
19th-century India who recognised how caste and patriarchy interacted and actively battled
against it. Savitribai, affectionately referred to by her pupils as Kaku (paternal aunt), was a
passionate reformer who changed many lives.

Author’s Bio: Vrinda Garg is a second-year student of Economics and International Relations
at Ashoka University. Through her writing, she attempts to rethink and challenge commonplace notions that permeate our everyday life, our institutions and the way we see the world.

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