Fatima Sheikh: Coming out of the shadows of Savitri Bai Phule

The statue of Fatima Sheikh unveiled in Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh.
The statue of Fatima Sheikh unveiled in Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh.Photo courtesy- Twitter

On 5th January this year when a statue was being unveiled at an Urdu School of a town in the Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh, very few people knew about the personality known by the name of Fatima Sheikh.

When Jyotiba Rao Phule and his wife Savitri Bai Phule were thrown out of their home by his father for their reformist views, none gave them shelter as they were jeered as outcastes. The only people who dared to help them were a brother sister duo-Usman Sheikh and Fatima Shiekh. Not only did the beleaguered couple find shelter in their home but the premises of the siblings was destined to transform into a revolutionary monument- the first school for girls in India by a native.

The impediments faced by them in pursuance of their noble mission is imaginable, considering the society which opposed vehemently, any scope of empowerment of women, especially through education. The gravity of the task can be gauged from the fact that even Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the renowned muslim reformer, philosopher, and educationist who founded Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College, the pre-cursor to Aligarh Muslim University, himself was against women education.

Priyanka Sonkar, Assistant Professor at Benaras Hindu University remembers Fatima Sheikh as a strong and determined woman. She says “It was a very commendable work of Fatima that she not only sheltered the Phule couple but also helped in setting up a school and taught there. She faced double barrier because of being a muslim woman, just like any dalit woman had to face troubles those days. The women who know about the trajectory of women education in India know the contributions made by Fatima Sheikh but the hindu society does not know about this and attempts are being made to erase the names of Muslims from the textbooks.”

The statue of Fatima Sheikh unveiled in Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh.
Savitribai Phule: The reformer who braved stones and abuses to educate the girls and downtrodden

However, we have to remember that Savitri Bai Phule too was an unknown figure few decades ago and she was pulled up from oblivion by Bahujan activists of Maharashtra. Thanks to the efforts of Bahujan Samaj Party government in Uttar Pradesh, she has a national recognition now. Today there are many institutions in the name of Savitri Bai Phule, including a state-level University in Pune. Also, she was remembered by the Prime Minister, recently on her birthday, and also by the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh, despite her reformists opinions specially about the Brahmins.

At this juncture, we can hope that as the name of Savitri Bai Phule ascends the popularity charts, the name of Fatima Sheikh, too will gain traction but not only as her collaborator but in her own stead as India’s first Muslim women teacher. The decision of the Andhra Pradesh government to devote a chapter on Fatima's life in the state curriculum to be studied by students in standard 8th of Urdu medium schools is a welcoming decision and should be seen as the first step in recognizing the contribution of the great personality as the pioneer of women education.

The statue of Fatima Sheikh unveiled in Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh.
JYOTIBA PHULE: The Anti-Caste Crusader Who Weaponised Education

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