Savitribai Phule and Fatima Sheikh: Pioneers of Indian education

Anjali Noronha

Savitribai Phule started the first informal school for girls in 1847, nearly 200 years ago. She was India’s first woman teacher at a time when women and Dalits were treated not much better than cattle! She was of the Mali caste and faced a lot of opposition. She died 50 years before India got its independence, taking care of patients with plague and contracting it herself. Perhaps for all these reasons, she was little known in India in the early years after independence. She was a woman before her time. Today, thanks to active groups and anti caste movements of the Ambedkarites, the Phules – Savitribai and Jyotirao, her husband and mentor – are becoming well-known and their work is being celebrated.

There is another, equally worthy, woman, a Muslim woman called Fatima Sheikh, of whom even less is known. She was a friend and partner of Savitribai. Together they set up a number of schools, particularly for girls of the Dalit and Muslim communities. Serious attempts are now being made to reconstruct her history as unlike Savitribai, she didn’t write much. Being a Muslim, she didn’t get quite the same place in any movement.

We dedicate this January issue to both these pioneering women of the deprived castes and classes. In this article, we will try to briefly understand their lives –

Savitribai Phule
Savitribai Phule was born on 3rd January 1831 in a Patil (Mali) family, in a village 50 km from Pune. She was married to Jyotirao Phule at the tender age of nine. Savitribai was illiterate then, but was very fond of books; she even carried a book with her to her marital home. Jyotirao, also of the Mali caste, had studied till class 7 before pundits of his village advised his father to take him out of school. But, (Times of India, September 25, 2023*), Ghaffar Munshi, a school inspector, convinced Jyotirao Phule to continue his education. Not only did Jyotirao do so, he also taught his wife, Savitribai and cousin Suguna to read and write. After Savitribai began to read and write, she became a voracious reader interested in education. At this time, the Phules came to know of and visited the Christian missionary schools being run for girls under the supervision of Cynthia Farrar~ in Ahmednagar. Savitribai completed her school and enrolled in Farrar’s teacher training course in Ahmednagar, where she met Fatima Sheikh.

In 1847, Savitribai opened the first school for girls in Maharwada with just 8-9 girls. The school soon grew to have 30-40 students. In 1948, she opened another school in Bhidewada. The present condition of that first school for girls is miserable because of neglect. It should be restored and preserved as part of our educational heritage. In both schools, she taught women and girls from all castes, including deprived castes and classes. She faced a lot of opposition from the upper castes as they thought it a sin to educate these classes, especially their women. She was pelted with stones, mud, and dung on the way to and from the schools. This forced Jyotirao Phule’s father to ask them to either close the schools down or leave the house. Jyotirao, Savitribai, and Sugunabai chose to leave the house and continue the schools. It is during this time that Savitribai’s friend Fatima Sheikh and her brother Usman Sheikh gave them shelter.

In the 1850s, the Phules established two trusts for education. These went on to run a number of schools for both girls and boys although Savitribai’s interest continued to remain the upliftment and education of women. Due to child marriages, there were a lot of child widows, including single mothers, who were ostracized by the society There were also unwed mothers. For such girls and women, Savitribai opened an ashram called Bal Hatya Pratibandhak Griha. She also educated the widowed women in her school. One such Brahmin unwed pregnant woman was Kashibai. She adopted Kashibai’s son Yashwant and educated him to become a doctor. Savitribai wrote a lot, diaries, poems and letters which are the source of much of the reconstruction of her history. Her poems have been published in two books called Kavya Phule and Kashi Subodh Ratnakar. In many of her poems, she has exhorted women to become independent, get educated, and stand on their own feet. She saw education as the path to liberation of both women and Dalits. She was an active member of the Satyashodhak Samaj set up by Jyotirao Phule and chaired its meetings after his death.

She died in 1897, tending to patients during the plague epidemic, contracting the disease and succumbing to it. Savitribai was a remarkable woman. There are now many articles and books written on her. Chapters on her life have been included in a number of school textbooks.

Fatima Sheikh
Fatima Sheikh, it is believed, was born on 9th January 1831. She is considered the first Muslim teacher of India and a comrade of Savitribai in all her educational endeavours. They studied together to become teachers at the teacher training course started by an American, Cynthia Farrar. After their training, she joined Savitribai and together, they opened many schools. The Sheikhs gave shelter to the Phules when Jyotirao’s father had thrown the couple out of their home in 1949. Fatima and Usman belonged to a family of julahas or weavers who migrated from Uttar Pradesh to Maharashtra. They moved to Poona in 1837-38 due to the famine.

Unlike Savitribai, who left diaries, letters, and poems, no surviving documents of Fatima’s life have been found. In fact, it was a reference to Fatima in Savitribai’s writings that alerted researchers to her existence. Savitribai writes – “When I published Kavya Phule in 1854, I insisted that she (Fatima) publishes a book of her poems too. She has immense knowledge of Urdu and had composed many poems. Sadly, she never published….”

Because of lack of written sources and being a woman, Fatima has remained in oblivion for long. There are researchers, today, who are trying to reconstruct her life through oral histories. Reeta Ramamurthy Gupta, who has recently written a book on Savitribai, plans to write one on Fatima too.

“Fatima was my closest friend, my most dependable ally in our success in the education of girls…. We lost touch, I last saw her at Cynthia Farrar’s funeral.”

Like Savitribai, dung and stones were thrown at Fatima too, on the way to and from Bhidewada. “Our fight is of a hundred years or more,” said Fatima. How right she was. Even today, women and Dalits face similar challenges, albeit to a much lesser extent.

More schools and other initiatives
By 1851, the Phules and Fatima Sheikh were running three schools for girls in Pune with a total of 150 girls, more than the boys studying in the government schools then. The methods that Savitribai and Fatima used in their schools were perhaps superior to the general teaching methods. They opened 18 schools for Mahars, Mangs, Muslims, Shudhras, and Atishudras between 1848 and 1853. The curriculum at these schools was different from the schools run by the Brahmins. It included a broad range of subjects, the history of the Marathas, the geography of India and Asia, grammar, arithmetic, and basic writings on socioeconomic problems. Savitribai and Fatima also set up the Mahila Seva Mandal to help widows. They worked for the prevention of discrimination of widows (which included practices like tonsuring their heads), their rehabilitation and that of their children.

Savitribai and Fatima Sheikh were remarkable teachers born nearly 200 years ago. Despite challenges, they kept expanding their work to change society and make it more conducive to the well-being of women. They were the first women teachers to set up schools. Unfortunately, they have remained unknown for too long. It is only in the last few years that some states have included chapters on the life of Savitribai and/or Fatima Sheikh in textbooks. In 2016, there was a proposal to the Human Resources Development (HRD) Ministry to declare 3rd January, Savitribai Phule’s birth anniversary, as a second Teacher’s Day – a Shikshika Diwas, but nothing has happened so far. Savitribai Phule was accompanied by Fatima Sheikh and together they have pioneered the education for girls in India. We also know that Fatima Sheikh was born around the same time as Savitribai and we can take the date to be 9th January.

Perhaps, before their bicentenary in 2031, India may yet see not just a shikshika diwas but a shikshika or shikshak saptah beginning 3rd January (Savitribai’s birthday) and ending on 9th January (Fatima Sheikh’s birthday) – a fitting tribute to two strong feminist teachers who did much for the emancipation of women and girls of the deprived and backward communities.

~Cynthia Farrar was an American missionary who ran schools for girls in the Bombay presidency. When she was a teacher in Ahmednagar, Jyotirao Phule visited her to observe her schools.

The author has a post graduation in Economics from the Delhi School of Economics and has nearly four decades of experience in the development of curricular and teacher education programs as well as research and policy review in elementary school education at state and national levels. She has a keen interest in the education of underprivileged sections. She can be reached at

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