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Fatima Sheikh – The Forgotten Educationalist of the 19th Century

For celebrating Women’s Day, it is important for us to remember the heroes of women empowerment in India who have tirelessly worked for women’s rights and uplifting the social status of a women to where it is today. There have been drastic changes in the condition of Indian women in the last 2 centuries, especially in the field of education. Eminent social reformers including Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Jyotiba Phule and India’s first female teacher, Savitribai Phule are the ones who led social movements to promote women’s education in India. Although, there was another significant women educator and reformer, who unfortunately didn’t find a place in the books of history. Her name, Fatima Sheikh.

“I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress which women have achieved.” – B.R Ambedkar

There have been various social movements in the last two centuries which have focused on uplifting the social status of women in India. Most of these movements focused on fighting against the bigotry and chauvinism of Brahminical patriarchy. In fact, these ‘anti-caste’ and ‘anti-patriarchal’ campaigns not only helped in empowering and educating the oppressed Dalit and Muslim women but also provided them with a sense of social and political consciousness. One such social campaign was led by Savitribai Phule and her husband Jyotirao Phule, who are often regarded as ‘India’s first anti-caste reformers.’

Jyotirao and Savitribai Phule were married at a very tender age. While Jyotirao had attended school till middle classes, Savitribai Phule on the other hand had not even entered any class-room till then. This was the time in history when the Brahmins did not allow men from the lower castes and women from any caste to attend school and receive education, not even the junior classes. The couple in order to break this Brahminical monopoly started schools which were attended by large number of children, mostly girls and also boys from the ‘shudra’ community. Due to their revolutionary thinking and practises, they received a massive backlash from the people living in their community. Ultimately, in 1849 they had to leave their house due to the conservative views of their family. That was the time when Fatima Begum Sheikh (known as Fatima Sheikh), and her brother Usman Sheikh entered in their life.

Role of Fatima Sheikh

When the Phules were forced to leave their house in 1849, it was Fatima Sheikh and Usman Sheikh who supported and gave them shelter in their house in Poona (now Pune). The couple used the Sheikh’s house for setting a school in the same year. It was Usman Sheikh, who encouraged Fatima Sheikh to get educated from Jyotirao Phule, who also used to teach his wife Savitribai. Fatima just did not restrict herself to get educated, but she also enrolled herself into a professional teacher training course along with Savitribai, who were the only female students in the training institute at that time. She is considered to be colleague of Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule.

Credits: Unknown

Fatima’s role in promoting women education is not just restricted to providing asylum to the Phule couple and to getting educated herself. In fact, while reading about Fatima Sheikh I learnt that she was not absolutely illiterate. According to Nasreen Sayyed, who is a leading scholar on Fatima; says, Fatima Sheikh knew how to read and write already, her brother Usman who was a friend of Jyotiba, had encouraged Fatima to take up the teacher training course. She went along with Savitribai to the Normal School and they both graduated together. She was the first Muslim woman teacher of India”. ‘Indigenous Library’ which was apparently India’s first all girls school, was the result of both Savitribai and Fatima Sheikh’s efforts and hardwork. It was opened in her house. In the 1850s, Fatima also helped the Phules in establishing two educational trusts. In fact she used to teach in all the five schools which the couple had opened. Some historical archives claim that Fatima used to do a lot of door-to-door campaigning in her neighbourhood and community, educating families especially from the marginalised section on the importance of female education, and pushing them to send their girls to attend school.

Obstacles on the way

Fatima’s journey was no different from that of other social reformers of that time. Like Savitribai, even Fatima Sheikh faced a lot of opposition from the local community. She must have been targeted by both, the Brahminical class for promoting education in the lower caste families and by the orthodox Muslims of her community. In fact, she should be appreciated more than Savitribai, as she being a Muslim fought against the caste system. In those times Muslims girls were allowed to attend Madarsa (an institution for the study of Islamic theology and religious law), but the orthodox Muslims and the clerics had opposed Fatima’s project to introduce modern education to Muslim girls.

Unfortunately, not much information is available to us about the life of Fatima Sheikh. Savitribai often used to mention about her in her letters to Jyotirao Phule, mentioning about the amount of hardwork she used to put in while teaching in their schools and campaigning for female education. Although historians did give her any recognition in their books, she is still regarded as the ‘First Muslim Women Teacher of the 19th Century’ by many. She has now, after almost 200 years, started gaining recognition for her role in promoting female education and women empowerment in the Dalit and Muslim communities.

Why should we remember her on Women’s Day?

This question of why should we remember her on Women’s Day might rise in many minds. After all she is not the only social reformer who did not get recognition in the books of history, but if we remember the contributions of Savitribai Phule then definitely Fatima Sheikh shouldn’t be left alone. We should remember her for the message of love and compassion she gave by not only providing shelter to the Phules but also assisting them in teaching the underprivileged. She should be remembered as a heroic woman who fought against the bigotry of ‘Brahminical patriarchy’ and also vehemently challenged the caste system in the 19th century. She stood up against the male dominated society and actively worked for education for females and women empowerment. Being a Muslim woman she also fought against the patriarchy and orthodoxy of the Muslims of those times. Fatima Sheikh indeed should be remembered and admired, especially in these dark times we are living in.

Credits: Unknown

In fact according to me, every woman who has received modern education in the last three generations and is a working professional owes a lot to the early women reformers like Fatima Sheikh. She is probably the most underrated and unsung women reformer our country ever had and this is exactly why I decided to bring her unheard story out on this Women’s Day.

Sahil Kazmi
BBA, Jamia Millia Islamia

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Written by Sahil Kazmi

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