“It seems to me that it would be a barbarous, a cruel, a revolting thing to do to compel a young lady to go to a man whom she dislikes, in order that he may cohabit with her against her will.” On September 21, 1885, an extraordinary judgment with these words was delivered by Justice Pinhey of the Bombay High Court in a suit for restitution of conjugal rights. He was pronouncing his judgement on the Dadaji Bhikaji and Rukhmabai case where the former, had filed a suit asking for the Court to compel his wife of 11 years, Rukhmabai, to go to his house so that he may consummate his marriage. But, Rukhmabai, now 22 had firmly objected to ratifying his demand, a person highly unsupportive of the very idea of women’s education. She was fearless and valiant when she contested her husband’s claim to conjugal rights in the iconic case that led to the passage of the Age of Consent Act in 1891. This gutsy, determined woman then went on to study medicine in London and became India’s first practising woman doctor in 1894.
Born at a time when women weren’t allowed to talk, had to have their faces buried underneath foot long veils and barely exercise any rights, here was Rukhmabai Bhimrao Raut, for when she raised her voice, she defied taboos and paved a path of her own. I am a women’s rights advocate and a vocal campaigner for their equality and justice, internet-savvy, internationally-interacting and the next-generation of young women. But, from more than a millennium ago, here’s a story that takes us back to a time when a fresh, vibrant new strand of women’s liberation was progressively probing its roots in colonial India and women were up in arms fighting for the rights of the oppressed gender, the fairer sex.
Clad in the quintessential saree, Rukhmabai had risen despite all odds and little support. I now know why Eleanor Roosevelt has rightly said, “A woman is like a tea bag—you never know how strong she is until she gets in hot water.” During an era when girls were confined within the four walls of their houses, especially the kitchen because education was not important for them, Rukhmabai went to a foreign land to achieve a degree in medicine unthinkable by a woman only to come back to practice in the land that had ostracized her. Battling the risks while practising medicine in a society reigned by the patriarch, Rukhmabai also started her journey as an activist against child marriage and women’s suffering. Discouraged at every step and angered, she had once written, “This wicked practice of child marriage has destroyed the happiness of my life. It comes between me and the things which I prize above all others – study and mental cultivation.”
This woman deserves unparalleled respect for being the guiding light of women’s rights in deeply conservative, colonial India. She tolerated humiliation and trauma but what she had in her was the indomitable bravery and determination to study, and eventually became a social activist fighting for women of all times.
Well, all said and done, that was an era ago, why am I telling you this today? How much has India’s education system really changed? Rukhmabai had to go overseas to attain education only because the system here was fragmented. Even today, the number of Indian students going abroad to pursue their higher education has been snowballing year on year. Foreign colleges offer ease of admission as opposed to the highly competitive process in India’s top-ranked institutes. Foreign colleges offer a rich variety of courses as opposed to the Indian education that is highly focused on delivering popular STEM courses. Just a few years ago there was a huge gap in India’s education system. Only over the last 4 years, have we witnessed how huge impetus is being given to education. Education is not being viewed as classroom knowledge and restricted to mere books, but also aiming to build an individual’s character, be part of the aspirations of the nation. For our strong governance, education is to enable balanced growth of every dimension of a human being, which is not possible without innovation.
Then again, we cannot solely leave the onus of building and improving India’s educational infrastructure on the government. If we have to be global citizens in a global village, we have to innovate and attain wholesome education. We should never forget what Swami Vivekananda, Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, Deen Dayal Upadhya and Ram Manohar Lohia fought for – character-building over literacy!
Also, over the last 4 years, under a rock-solid leadership at the helm, women’s rights have been at the fore. India’s Apex Court has been passing landmark judgment after judgment and slaughtering draconian pre-historic law after law that has suppressed women for aeons. Take the triple talaq or instant divorce for instance or the law that now permits young women to enter a celebrated temple in South India. Women in India are progressing in every field and they prove that nothing is impossible for women if they have a strong will. We’re anxiously longing for the regeneration of India, building a new India, a shinier India, but in the words of Swami Vivekananda, if we do not better the condition of our women, there’s no hope for our well-being. Otherwise, we will remain as backward as we are now.
Despite women being intelligent, educated and opinionated alongside today’s movements such as #MeToo and Time’s Up, the millions of Rukhmabais across the world are today fighting against the patriarchy and its prejudices that blemish our society. It is sure is a tough feat to pull off. 120 years ago when Rukhmabai started this fight, she barely had support, yet she emerged victoriously. It was a lonely battle she fought bravely on behalf of all of us and it only intensified the fact the roots of Patriarchy go so deep in our society that even 120 years of struggle and fight were not enough to uproot them.
Women rights have been hard fought across the world and there is a lot more ground to cover. But, as we do so, it is important to remember the sacrifices and fights of women like Rukhmabai – who were trailblazers and torchbearers at a time when women rights ceased to exist.