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Fatima Sheikh: The woman who reshaped Indian education with Savitribai Phule

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Many sources claim her birth anniversary falls on 9 January, but not much else is known about her, except that she was India’s first female Muslim teacher.

New Delhi: Like the other women who have contributed to the making of modern India, Fatima Sheikh of Pune is consistently overlooked.

Widely regarded as the first female Muslim teacher in India, she has been mentioned multiple times on Twitter, with accounts claiming 9 January to be her birth anniversary. While there is no evidence to support this, what is known is that Fatima Sheikh worked with Savitribai Phule to set up the first school for girls in her own house. Together, the two women pioneered reform at a time when education was reserved only for upper caste males and female educators were unheard of.

Fatima and her brother, Usman Sheikh, offered refuge to Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule when they were forced to leave their home in Pune for challenging the norm and educating Dalits and women. It was in their house that Savitribai opened the first school for girls, in 1848.

Fatima accompanied Savitribai in her journey to gain legitimacy as a teacher, and apparently trained at the same institute as she did. She taught at all the five schools the Phules opened, and continued to teach until 1856, when Savitribai fell ill and moved back to her mother’s house.

However, little else is known about Fatima’s life. There are extremely few reliable sources on her history: the year of her birth is not known, and it is unclear what happened to her after 1856. In fact, one article on Fatima ends with a postscript inviting any additional information that readers might have.

According to internet archives, Savitribai referred to Fatima with great admiration and respect, in her letters to Jyotirao. Apart from her brother, the only people she was linked to were the Phules and another woman, Saguna Bai, who apparently helped Fatima and Savitribai teach.

Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule’s struggle against the caste system and monopoly of male education was difficult enough, but little attention is given to the fact that they were joined in their mission by a woman like Fatima Sheikh, who faced the dual stigma of being both a Muslim and woman. It is also extremely significant that she, as a minority, taught children from other religions as well.

Her contributions to society are truly intersectional, and the amount of resistance she must have faced is unfathomable. There is no mention of a male figure in her life apart from her brother, which is indicative of the fact that her life was rebellion against the patriarchy and orthodoxy of 19th century life.

A few bids have been made to mark her contributions to history. Her name is forever linked to the landmark societal reforms the Phules brought about. In 2014, her contributions to Marathi society were acknowledged by Balbharati, the Maharashtra State Bureau of Textbook Production and Curriculum Research.

Nearly two centuries have passed since Fatima challenged the status quo to ensure that all children have access to education, no matter their caste, gender, or religion. It is a small consolation that some young children in Maharashtra today might stumble across her name in a textbook in school, and hopefully recognise the role she played in creating this present for them.

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