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Updated: Apr 22, 2021


With 65.46% female literacy rate as per the 2011 census, women’s education in India is still a point in question. But reaching even this rate would have been impossible if not for the revolutionary personalities who fought for women rights. Savitribai Phule was an Indian social reformer, educationalist, and poet from Maharashtra. She married Jyotirao Phule, an activist and a social-reformer, at the tender age of nine. She founded India’s first school for girls and 17 other such schools therefore, regarded as the first female teacher of India. Around 1847, the idea of imparting education to girls was considered to be a radical one which led to people often hurling dung and stones at her. Savitribai also opposed the practice of Sati and spoke out against caste-based discriminations. She was the beacon of light for the women and girls of her time and if not for her, girls would not be attending schools today.


When Jyotirao and Savitribai were asked to vacate their home by Jyotirao’s father due to their reform agendas, it was an educator and social reformer, Fatima Sheikh alongwith her brother, Usmein, who provided them shelter by opening their house for the Phules. It was in that very house where the first girl’s school was started. Fatima Sheikh worked side-by-side with Savitribai Phule and went from house-to-house encouraging families to send their daughters to school and gain education while also managing the school affairs. So little is known about her that even her date of birth is debated upon. Sheikh, being a Muslim, did not only face opposition from high caste Hindus but also orthodox Muslims. Fatima Sheikh never wrote any treaties on her life or work, which is why we know so little about her but what we know that she played a crucial role in ensuring that children, irrespective of gender, caste or religion, had access to education and hence fought for the rights of women.


She was not only India's but also one of the world’s leading women in public life in the 20th century. After receiving primary education in abroad, she married Ranjit Sitaram Pandit, a fellow Congress worker. In her family’s tradition, she became an active worker in the Indian nationalist movement and was imprisoned three times by the British authorities in India. Soon, she became the minister for local self-government and public health (1937–39), the first Indian woman to hold a cabinet portfolio. In 1953, Pandit became the first woman to be elected president of the UN General Assembly. After serving as a member of the Lok Sabha and representing India at United Nations Human Rights Commission in 1978, she died in 1990 at Dehradun. Having struggled and succeeded in a British India's Man's World, Pandit has proven to be an inspiration to young girls all across the globe.

Article by - Jahnavi Bali

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