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Learning in the zenanas
By Anu Kumar

Among the earliest women’s memoirs of the 19th century are stories of a passionate desire to learn to read. Rassundari Devi, born in 1809, taught herself to read by stealing precious moments from her housework and the responsibilities of caring for her 12 children. Later, she described her craving for knowledge:

I was so immersed in the sea of housework that I was not conscious of what I was going through day and night. After some time the desire to learn how to read properly grew very strong in me. I was angry with myself for wanting to read books. Girls did not read… That was one of the bad aspects of the old system. The other aspects were not so bad. People used to despise women of learning… In fact, older women used to show a great deal of displeasure if they saw a piece of paper in the hands of a woman. But somehow I could not accept this.

Rassundari’s progress was slow but she learnt to read and write, and finally wrote about her own experiences.

Women’s education formed an important part of social reform that was directed towards improving the condition of women.

The first school for girls in India was started by English and American missionaries in the 1810s. In 1819, the first text on women’s education in an Indian language (Bengali) by an Indian, Gourmohan Vidyalamkara, was published by the Female Juvenile Society in Calcutta. By 1827, there were 12 girls’ schools run by missionaries in Hooghly district. A year later, the Ladies Society for Native Female Education in Calcutta and its Vicinity opened schools that were run by a certain Miss Cook. It seems that Muslim women in the poor areas where some of the schools were located were extremely enthusiastic about them.

By the mid-19th century, there were other groups campaigning for women’s education: students influenced by new western ideas, unorthodox Hindus, and the Brahmos, that is, followers of the new movement for reform founded by Ram Mohun Roy. Brahmo and Hindu schools for girls soon began to be opened, catering to girls from the upper castes/classes. First forays into the zenanas (women’s quarters), or andar mahals as they were called in Bengal, were also made around this time by those campaigning for women’s education.

Around the same time, in 1848, Jyotibha Phule, a dalit reformer, founded his first school for girls in Poona. The next year, students of Bombay’s Elphinstone College opened a school for girls and started a monthly magazine for women. By 1852, Phule had opened three schools for girls and one for ‘untouchables’, as the lower castes were then called.

Social reformers encountered a lot of hostility; on a few occasions they were even beaten up. Phule, for example, who lived in Poona, faced the wrath of upper caste Hindus for attempting to raise the status of untouchables, especially girls. Under pressure from conservative Brahmins, his father threw him out of the house and he was ostracised by many members of his own community.

Pandita Ramabai’s story

Pandita Ramabai (1852-1922) was awarded the title of ‘Pandita’ in recognition of her great learning. Ramabai’s first teacher was her mother. Anant Padmanabha Dongre, her father, was a great Vedic scholar who decided to educate his wife despite the objections of his community. Ramabai’s rigorous education began at the age of 8 and continued until she was 14. She memorised the Bhagwata Purana and the Bhagwad Gita, and then studied Sanskrit grammar and vocabulary.

Ramabai was truly remarkable as a pioneer in women’s education and rebel champion of women’s rights. Despite losing both her parents by the age of 16, she travelled all over India, accompanied by her brother, lecturing on female education and social reform. Calcutta’s elite, greatly impressed by her, gave her the honorary prefix ‘Pandita’. Other audiences were outraged and jeered and booed when she attempted to speak.

Ramabai married Bipen Behari Das Medhavi (a dalit) and gave birth to a daughter when she was 23. She lost her husband the very next year.

In Poona, Ramabai began to work towards the education of women through the Arya Mahila Samaj. The Anglo-Catholic community of St Mary the Virgin assisted her when she expressed a desire to study English and medicine. Most of her expenses were also met through the sale of her book Stri Dharma Neeti (Morals for Women), in which she urges women to take charge of their own lives.

Ramabai later wrote The Hindu Caste and Hindu Women, which helped finance her trip to America. Back in India, she established the Sharda Sadan (a school for widows) in Bombay. Financial problems forced her to move the school to Poona. Though the school attracted controversy from caste Hindus, by 1900 the Sadan had trained 80 women who were able to earn their own living through teaching and nursing.

Ramabai saw caste as the great flaw in Hindu society; caste association promoted narrow self-interest and inhibited the development of a democratic spirit. She designed a radically different curriculum. Literature selected for its emphasis on moral models would engender a spirit of caring. Classes in physiology and botany were included to teach students about their own bodies and the physical world in which they lived. Industrial training was included -- in printing, carpentry, tailoring, masonry, woodcutting, weaving and needlework -- as well as training in farming and gardening.

Ramabai’s greatest legacy was her effort (the first in India) to educate widows, and the pupils she left behind to carry on her work.

Although it was missionaries who began the first girls’ school, their efforts were soon matched by Indian reformers. Despite valiant efforts, however, there were no real advances in female education until the second half of the 19th century (after 1850) when the government offered financial support. Even then, moves to organise girls’ schools languished until the urban professional elite joined reformers in supporting formal education for girls. In the last quarter of the 19th century, the number of educated women grew steadily. The breakthrough came with the establishment of government schools like Bethune’s in Calcutta. The Brahmo Samaj, and later the Prarthana Samaj, Arya Samaj and Theosophical Society all supported female education.

The debate then turned to what was the most suitable type of education for women. Before the century was over, a few women came forward to discuss their ideas on female education. By the 20th century, women were ready to design a curriculum and set up schools for girls.

Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain

In 1909, Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (1880-1992) began an institution for Muslim girls in the town of Bhagalpur, Bihar. She set up the school soon after her husband’s death, but the move offended her relatives who drove her out of her marital home. She closed down the school and moved to Calcutta where she set up the Sakhawat Memorial Girls’ School in 1911. Although this was not the first school set up by a Muslim woman, Begum Rokeya’s systematic and committed devotion to this cause made her a pioneer.

Begum Rokeya had been taught English in secret by her brother. Later, her husband gave her lessons in English and encouraged her to write essays. At the age of 21, she was publishing articles about the condition of women. In her stories and essays she commented on the mismatched development of women, lack of economic means, and how women were confined simply to preserving the honour of their community and men. She argued that education would help women fulfil their traditional roles knowledgeably and professionally, and hence contribute to the progress of the nation.

For many reformers, women’s education was seen as a necessary addition to their role as mothers. Since the formative years of a child are spent with the mother, it was all the more important, reformers like Phule argued, that the woman be well educated and have the necessary skills. Keshub Chunder Sen’s Brahmo schools taught cooking, sewing and nursing. 

(Anu Kumar is a writer and journalist based in Delhi)

Infochange News & Features, September 2009 



More In this section
  Widow Nandi and other stories
  Learning in the zenanas
  Women are not for burning