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27 January 2020

Fatima Sheikh: The Muslim Feminist Forgotten By Indian History

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By Prapti Sarkar

Fatima Sheikh was one of the first Muslim teachers of India, who took to teaching Dalit children at the school run by Savitribai and Jyotiba Phule. However, like many women who fought against injustice, this educator and social reformer’s memory has been wiped out of Indian consciousness. To this day, she remains lost in the pages of history, despite her close association with Savitribai and Jyotiba Phule.

Why Should We Know Fatima Sheikh?

Fatima Sheikh was, according to some, India’s first Muslim woman educator. She and Savitribai became pioneers in education at a time when it was reserved for upper-caste men. She helped Savitribai set up their first girls’ school called “Indigenous Library”, in her own house, thus challenging the upper-caste Hindus as well as the orthodox Muslims.

What Makes Her Badass

Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule had to leave their home because they wanted to educate women and Dalits. For going against his Brahamanical views, Savitribai’s father-in-law threw them out of the house. In such trying times, Fatima Sheikh offered refuge to the couple. That home soon became the first girls’ school in the country. She taught at all five schools that the Phules went on to establish and she taught children of all religions and castes.

Biggest Battles She Faced

Little is known of Fatima Sheikh’s life beyond her involvement with the Phules. However, the resistance she faced must have been even more. She was marginalized not only as a woman but also as a Muslim woman. The upper caste people reacted vehemently and even violently to the start of these schools. They pelted stones and cow dung at Fatima and Savitribai while they would be on their way. But both the women remained undeterred. The journey was even tougher for Fatima Sheikh. Both the Hindu as well as the Muslim community shunned her. However, she never gave up and continued to go door to door, encouraging families and parents especially those from the Muslim community to send their daughters to school. As several writings say, Fatima used to spent hours counselling parents who did not wish to send their girls to schools.

Life Lessons We Can Learn From Her

Fatima Sheikh’s life stands as a testament to social reforms that were championed by Indian women in the pre-independence era, despite facing immense social resistance. She is an important figure in Muslim history and we, as a society, must give her the due credit. Her work is also of a large significance as she probably marked the first joint struggle of the Dalits and the Muslims. The unity amongst the oppressed groups has always directed the struggle of liberation, as was later seen in larger movements.

(Courtesy: SheThePeople)

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