174 years ago today, Savitrabai Phule and Fatma Sheikh opened the first girls’ school

Teacher’s Day is celebrated in the country on September 5. The first school for girls in the country was opened on this day. About 100 years before India’s independence, when education in India was limited only to a particular caste and class, on September 5, 1848, Savitri Bai Phule and Fatma Shaikh together opened the first school for to girls in Bhidewada, Pune. It was not easy to take this step in a slave and feudal country, conservative of the British. But this difficult step later became the basis of women’s education and the creation of modern India.

Both Savitribai Phule and Fatma Shaikh continued their struggle despite opposition from their family and society. When Savitribai and her husband Jyotiba Phule expressed their desire to open a school for the underprivileged, downtrodden and girls of society, Phule’s father Govind Rao kicked them out of the house. They weren’t there if they wanted to, but they were under a lot of pressure from the Brahmins in the area. He couldn’t afford to envy them.

When Jyotiba Phule was looking for a place to live with his wife and open a school, it was Fatma Shaikh’s brother Usman Shaikh who helped him. He gave him part of his house to live in and part to open a school. This is where their friendship and collaboration began. Fatma Sheikh’s parents died in childhood. In a way, he was raised by brother Usman Sheikh. Their father’s close friend, Munshi Ghaffar Baig, was the guardian of the two brothers.

Ghaffar Baig became the bridge of friendship between Phule and Usman Sheikh. Ghaffar Baig was no less important in Phule’s life. Being a friend of Phule’s father, Govind Rao, he had always encouraged him to send and teach Jyotiba to good schools.

174 years ago, on this day, the country’s first girls’ school was opened, but that’s why there was never an attempt to celebrate this day as Teacher’s Day. Teacher’s Day was celebrated, but for other reasons. The role of Savitribai Phule and Fatma Shaikh in educating women and building modern India got recognition and importance very late in history, so all the credit goes to the dalit movement that originated and spread to the country after the 1980s.

Organizations like BSP and BAMCEF worked to bring these marginalized women of history and their invaluable contribution to the mainstream. Now his biography is taught in the school curriculum, even political organizations, groups and parties with opposing ideologies cannot turn their backs on his name.

Lately, Savitribai Phule’s work got recognition, but Fatma Sheikh, who worked with her, took a long time to get that recognition. Three years ago in 2019, Google made a Google Doodle on Fatma Sheikh’s 191st birthday on January 8. Fatma Shaikh’s name, which until now was only known among a few academic books and scholars, suddenly entered the mainstream. Under the pretext of a Google Doodle, many mainstream media ran stories about who Fatma Sheikh was and what her role was in opening the first girls’ school.

Fatma Sheikh was introduced to Savitrabai Phule when her brother Usman Sheikh gave her a place to open a girls’ school in his home. Fatma belonged to a prosperous family, but she herself never went to school. He took Arabic and Urdu lessons at home. When the school opened, she also started studying Marathi and English from Savitri Bai.

There were great enemies in the society of the Phule couple. It was not easy even for Usman Sheikh to help these people. He had to face opposition and contempt from both the Hindu and Muslim communities. Soon Fatma Shaikh, who had become an expert in subjects other than Marathi and English, now went door to door with Savitrabai Phule, asking people to send the girls to school. When the number of girls began to increase, more teachers were needed. Fatma Sheikh then expressed her desire to come forward and teach and thus became the first Muslim teacher in India. Savitribai and Fatma Shaikh later received teacher training together from the Madam Cynthia Fair Missionary School in Ahmednagar.

By 1856, the Phule couple had opened 15 schools in Pune and 15 outside Pune. Fatma Sheikh has played an important role in this whole journey. Later, when Savitribai’s health deteriorated, she took over the entire business of the school and was also its headmistress for a while.

It may seem like a minor thing to hear today, but this thing is about two and a half hundred years old as of today. Society was very conservative. The chains of tradition for the girls were very strong and the walls were very high. No person in the highest and most powerful sections of society was very much in favor of the education of the weak. Be it the British or the ruling class people of India. They knew that education was the only weapon that could challenge their authority and power.

It is not without reason that even the so-called progressive historians of India have failed to give these women their rightful place in history. The controversy and questions about the celebration of Teacher’s Day on the birthday of Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan are the result of the last decade because no parallel story was written or told for many decades before that. Asking questions was a long way off.

The point here is not to establish one and reject the other. The point is to look at history truthfully without any bias, to be honest, to stand on the side of justice. The point is to introduce to the mainstream those marginalized facts, events and people that have long been missing from the history books.

Today, on the occasion of Teacher’s Day, remembering those women and that school is a small effort of this. Teacher’s Day should be celebrated on September 5 only because the country’s first girls’ school opened on that day 174 years ago.