A rarely remembered social reformer, Fatima Sheikh was among the first Indian Muslim woman educator. Speculated to be the first Muslim woman education of the 19th century. A peer of Jyotibai and Savitribai Phule, Fatima Sheikh made tremendous contributions to Indian women’s education, especially those belonging to marginalised sections of society.
Jyotirao and Savitribai Phule are widely known pioneers of Indian women’s education movements. Revered for their persistent efforts for securing individual rights, they are celebrated leaders in Indian political history. However, little do we know about Fatima Sheikh. A woman who played an important part in the lives of Jyotirao and Savitribai, without whom they would not have implemented their ideas in the ways they did. Like many women social reformers, Fatima Sheikh has been ignored in history. So little is known about her that even her birth anniversary is speculated and not confirmed. The question then arises, why are we not celebrating her and why is so little known about her?
Jyotirao and Savitribai’s liberal ideas of women’s education and emancipation were not accepted by society at large. This included their families. When Jyotirao and Savitribai were made to leave their ancestral home, it was Fatima who gave them refuge in her house. It is also said that it was the same house and building where Fatima lived that was used to start a school for women by the Phules. Fatima also started teaching in the same school as Savitribai Phule. She was so resilient in her efforts towards women’s education that she used to spend hours counseling parents who did not wish to send their girls to schools. She is also speculated to be the first Muslim woman teacher of the 19th century, who went on to inspire other Muslim women to do the same. Savitribai and Fatima were accompanied by Saguna Bai, who also went on to become a leader of the education movement for Indian women. Yet another woman mercilessly ignored by history.
Not to say that Savitribai was easily able to find space in history but the consistent elusion of Fatima from the pages of history draws a clear picture of the exclusion of Muslim women reformers from social and political areas of the society. Owing to the little to no documentation of her work or life, not much is known about Fatima. It is, however, not hard to assume the kind of struggles a Muslim woman fighting for women’s education and emancipation would have had to face at the time.. Supporting Hindu leaders who were extremely vocal about the ill deeds of the caste system and who encouraged women’s education, she was reprimanded by the Hindu-dominated society as well as the Muslim community. This could also be the reason why she has been ignored by both Hindu and Muslim scholars.
It is fair to assume that Fatima valued individual rights over social validation. The same is evident through her unapologetic and revolutionary contributions. It was one thing to go against a community you belong to but it was a whole other thing to speak up against the dominant community. This tells us about the liberal ideas of education, progress, and individuality she possessed and wanted to inculcate in society.
There have been some attempts to recognize her work. Apart from her association with the Phules, the Maharashtra State Bureau of Textbook Production and Curriculum Research included a brief profile in their textbooks in 2014.
Special attention should also be paid to the friendship that Fatima formed with the Phules on the grounds of having the same ideologies of freedom, equality, and feminism. The lengths that Fatima went to maintain this friendship, be it going against her community and giving space to a Hindu woman in a Muslim household or supporting ideas that were frowned upon by the society at large throws light on the existence of female friendship that is based on mutual respect and admiration. It also marks the start of an extremely important friendship between the representatives of the Dalit and Muslim communities and the paths this friendship opened up for other members of the said communities. This relationship implemented the ideology of secularism in its purest form and went beyond the restrictive shackles of sameness of one’s social category.
Needless to say, Fatima’s contributions to society are of utmost importance concerning women’s rights and education. The amount of resistance and opposition she must have faced at the time is unfathomable. The lack of mention of any male figure in her life except her brother Usman can be indicative of the fact that her life was a rebellion in every sense against the patriarchal and orthodox nature of life in the 19th century.
Almost two centuries have passed since Fatima challenged the status quo to ensure that all children from all sections of the society have access to education despite their caste, class, gender, and religion. It is important to recognize her efforts and inculcate her ideas of freedom and equality in our day-to-day lives.