Apr 29, 2022 • 42M

E18 - The Life & Contributions of Fatima Sheikh

Conversation with Dr Tahera Shaikh, Pune-based researcher and author who has extensively researched on the 19th century social reformer

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In this episode, Main Bhi Muslim’s producer and host, Mariyam Haider, speaks with Dr Tahera Shaikh, Pune-based researcher and author who has spent a key part of her research life documenting the lives and contributions of Savitribai Phule and Fatima Sheikh, 19th century India’s social and educational reformers.

In this episode, Dr Tahera shares her findings and understanding of Fatima Sheikh’s role in contributing towards Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule’s causes, while at the same time, breaking down prejudices that plagued the then Muslim and larger Indian community. We discuss their comradeship, its uniqueness within the pantheon of India’s social reformers, and how their approaches towards making education accessible across all segments of the society should continue to be adopted within modern India’s schooling.

Book on Savitribai Phule written by Dr Tahera Shaikh

This interview has been edited for clarity. English transcript below:

Mariyam Haider, Host: Hello Dr Tahera Shaikh. Thank you for joining us at Main Bhi Muslim’s podcast. Thank you for sparing time to talk about a great personality. I welcome you to Main Bhi Muslim. 

Tahera Shaikh, Guest: Thank you Mariyam Haider. Thank you for having me on the program and giving me an opportunity to share my thoughts. Thank you.  

Mariyam: Dr. Tahera, first tell us something about yourself. Share with us as to how you developed interest in the life of Fatima Sheikh. How did you study Fatima Sheikh and how did you conduct your research to write on her?

Shaikh: My name is Shaikh Tahera Abdushakur. I live in Pune. My father Abdusshakur is from Usmanabad. My mother Maimuna Begam comes from Karnataka  (Banglore). My paternal grandfather was a farmer. My maternal grandfather was Hafiz and Alim. My father is a businessman. He is not much educated. He is matriculate only. But my maternal family was an educated family. My Khalu was an Alim and he has authored books also. Hence, I have  been interested in education since my childhood. In Pune, first I started teaching in a school situated in Mominpura. In that school, once a decision was taken to name the newly built hall after Fatima Bi. Before that I had not heard the name of Fatima Bi at all. Thereafter, I started reading about her. Although I had read a few articles about Savitribai Phule, I knew nothing about her (Fatima Shaikh). When we celebrate the birth and death anniversaries of great personalities, we require gathering basic facts about them (to educate the students). Therefore, when we searched material on Savitribai Phule we could only find a few articles. We could not find any book. Then, we (I and my friend Nasrin Ramzan; we had jointly authored two books earlier) decided that we would work on this topic. Since I am settled in Pune, therefore I have studied Marathi till Class X. So, I did not face any difficulty in reading Marathi and Hindi books. Thus, I first began collecting materials. I visited libraries or any other place I knew I could get something from. I stored them on my laptop and then started working on it. I thought I would first write a book about her personal and social life etc. I was of the view that people should know what she had done for our society. You won’t believe that at first I had decided to write just a piece of article on her of not more than 10 pages. But eventually I ended up writing 150 pages. Therefore, I decided to publish this in the form of a book.

Meanwhile, my friend Nasrin decided to work on “Kavyaphule” of Savitribai Phule [collection of poems written by Savitribai Phule, published in 1854]. Thus, I continued my work. And, the book was published on 3rd January, 2015. I had deliberately chosen 3rd  January to release the book, because it happens to be the birthday of Savitribai Phule. A hall named after Savitribai Phule was built in Pune. I released the book in that hall only. Thus, a book—a kind of biography—on her came in the public domain. On the other hand, the work on Fatima Shaikh, also began especially. You won’t believe, I visited every nook and corner in Pune to meet elderly persons who had any knowledge vis-à-vis Fatima Shaikh. But I hardly got anything in writing i.e. any evidence which can be used as reference in the book, because readers would rely on whatever I would write as there was no book on her prior to this one. Therefore, I was very concerned and particular about it while adding things. Unlike Fatima Shaikh, there are plenty of materials and books available on Savitribai Phule and we know basic things about her— for instance when was she born; when did she get married, when did she come to Pune, when did she start her study and when did she start imparting education to children.

But on Fatima Sheikh, very little things were available. Therefore, keeping in view the fact that whatever I would write the same would be used as a reference by the readers, I decided to write only after extensive research and examination. For two to three years, I continued collecting materials and studying them. And, in the meantime, I developed an interest in the idea that people should and must know about a Muslim lady who accompanied Savitribai Phule. As people say had there not been Munshi Ghaffar Baig there would not have been Jyotiba Phule or he would not have been a Mahatma. Thus, Alhamdulillah, finally I succeeded in publishing a book. I was happy eventually. Then, everyone (including writers of Marathi, English and Kannada), started reading it and using reference. Thus, I have had interest in writing articles and books since childhood. First of all, I had written and published a book in 2007. It was a collection of short stories for children. Then, I also wrote a novel, stories for children, short stories etc. I also visited the village of Savitribai Phule . I heard that Savitribai Phule and Fatima Bi had gone to Ahmad Nagar for Teachers’ Training. There I tried to find out some facts in the old registers etc. so as to get facts vis-à-vis date of birth etc. But I did not find any old material or solid evidence. What Savitribai has written about her in the book has only travelled forward. In addition to that, she has mentioned about her several times.

For example, in some programme she (Savitribai) has mentioned that Fatima is with me right now. Likewise, somewhere she has mentioned that she has come to her paternal home in Naya Gaon and she is not worried about Pune because Fatima is there. Thus, it appears that she (Fatima Shaikh) used to be with her (Savitribai Phule) continuously and both worked together. 

Mariyam: In reference to what you were mentioning about your visits to different places for your research, I would like to know from you that what is the biggest challenge we have in the 21st century vis-à-vis girl education in comparison to the challenges Fatima Sheikh and Savitribai Phule would have faced during their movement in the 19th century for educating girls and to establish schools for them?

Shaikh: In those times also girls used to get education. Savitribai Phule was born in 1830. But in that time, colleges and universities had been established in Northern India. Girls were also getting education. And, in other countries too (if we see in reference to Muslims), colleges and universities had been established in big cities and towns and girls were receiving education. In Pune too, in 1820, English had established schools; a Marathi school had also been established. But what is significant is that these schools were very costly. Poor people were not capable of affording the fees of such schools. Only rich children were going to such schools. Savitribai Phule came from a weaker section of the society and this was also the reason why she realized the fact that education was accessible only for the rich. She realized the fact that as to how people who had to struggle for every day’s meal would afford such a costly education; therefore she thought that such schools should be established for them wherein children can receive education free of cost.

As I discussed earlier, Jyotiba had received education from an English school and when his wife also showed interest in getting education he got her admitted in school. But, when his wife stepped out to teach, his father got angry and ultimately he expelled them from his house. But no one gave shelter to them in the society. No one in the society had the courage to head on the society or fight against the value system of that time. At such a crucial time, his friend Usman Sheikh showed courage and let them stay in his house. Usman Sheikh’s Sister Fatima Sheikh also supported him (Jyotiba Phule) like her brother wholeheartedly and allowed the Phule couple to stay with them. The Phule couple had been expelled from their home empty-handed. Therefore, we can imagine the amount of help they would have needed. However, after some time, Jyotiba told them he would not sit idly; he said he wanted to establish schools. Usman Sheikh extended his help to Phule immediately. To begin with, he donated his own land [bada] to establish a school. Not only that, several other Muslims also donated their lands (at that time Muslim constituted six per cent of Pune’s population) for establishing schools. Those schools exist even today. At that time, first schools were established for adult education. Interestingly, within a span of two years only, more than twenty schools were established. Even English were not so fast; nor the Marathi society of that time. They had limited resources in terms of money as well as teachers. Thus, Savitribai and Fatima Sheikh began their work. They also taught children free of cost because Joytiba Phule had no money to pay.

Here the role of Fatima Bi is worth discussing. She stood for a society and a community she did not belong to. The family/society Fatima Bi belonged to was not averse to education. If I may say so, in the family of Muslims, education for girls was allowed since beginning i.e. since the birth of Prophet Muhammad. Rather, receiving education was mandatory for all—male as well female. Hence, Fatima Sheikh herself was educated. However, since Savitribai Phule had stepped out of her home and had decided to fight against the society for the sake of people who were downtrodden and in consequence to which people were upset with her (Savitribai), therefore she (Fatima Sheikh) extended her solidarity to her friend Savitribai Phule wholeheartedly. And, she also stepped out of her home, along with Savitribai Phule, to teach the children who belonged to weaker sections of the society.   

Mariyam: Had Fatima Sheikh and her brother faced any kind of challenge within their own society i.e. Muslim community in that point of time when they decided to extend their support to Savitribai Phule?

Shaikh: It was the end of the 19th century. We know that it was the period of political turmoil. Some people were against Britishers. However, there were also many great leaders—like Jyotiba and others—who were influenced by English education. They were also getting benefit from this. Also, this very education made them prudent enough and they could think of getting freedom. Thus, the new education was impacting people. At that time, it was certainly a matter of concern amongst the Muslim community that why they (Sheikh brother and sister) were heading on with the society for others; why they were making enemies for the sake of others. But what is significant to note is that their friendship (between Sheikh brother and sister and Phule couple) was very strong. They (Sheikh brother and sister) considered what Phule couple was doing a pious work and therefore they saw no reason not to help them. Hence, they showed courage at that time and stood by them openly. No doubt, people harassed them several times. People even pelted stones at them and hurled abuses. But, they did not give up. And, many schools were opened one after another. Within two years, a chain of 20 to 25 schools came into being in Pune/Maharashtra.

Then, people also developed interest in sending their girls for education. People also came forward because these schools gave education to girls in lieu of a meager fee. They (Phule couple) visited the households and persuaded them (people) to educate their girls. Further, at that time, people would not assemble easily. Hence, they (Phule couple) used to gather them in the name of one or another religious and social programme and in such programmes they used to lecture them (people) about education. They used to tell them (people) the benefit of education. They would convince them as to how education would make them wise and free them from slavery. In all these, Fatima Sheikh supported them (Phule couple) wholeheartedly. Now, the question arises as to why Fatima Sheikh did not get as much popularity as she should have? In this regard, I believe it was not an extraordinary thing at that time for a Muslim woman to receive education or teaching others. If we see across India or even outside India, people were receiving education at that time; especially those who belonged to a well off family.

Fatima Sheikh also belonged to a well off family. Her family was financially sound and it can be inferred from the fact that her family donated land to Savitribai for establishing school. On the other hand, for Savitribai it became a significant thing because she established schools for the section of society which was neglected. Nobody cared for them. We have read in history that in olden times untouchability was very prevalent. So, at that point of time when people were not even ready to let untouchables sit or stand beside them or touch their water and food, it was indeed very brave of Savitribai to work for them, sit with them and even take pains for them. And, in all these, Fatima Sheikh supported her. Jyotiba was also impressed with the fact that there was no idea of untouchability amongst English/Christians and Muslims. Phule couple saw that no discrimination was being practiced in their religions. Muslim men as well women were allowed to perform Namaz. Likewise, Christian men as well as women were allowed to visit Church. The Phule couple was very perturbed with the fact that as to why so much of evils were prevalent amongst their people (religion)?Therefore, they worked tirelessly. They would visit every household and convince people to bring in change. They would persuade them to work for the freedom of future generations. 

Mariyam: How did Savitribai and Fatima Sheikh play a role in enhancing the status of 19th century women further in terms of giving representation to them i.e. apart from teachers, women can be social leaders and social activists too?  

Shaikh: They thought only education was not enough for women. They thought other things had to be taken into consideration as well if women had to be in the front row of every field of life and if they had to be made capable to stand as equals in the society. For example, in those times, widow remarriage was considered to be an evil. People were totally against it. But, they started working on it. Thus, Savitribai started all such works for which the entire society stood against her. She observed the practices of other religions i.e. Islam and Christianity. She saw widow remarriage was not considered an evil practice amongst Muslims and Christians. This perturbed her. This made her angry as to why only women in her community were subjected to such atrocities? She was very pained to see widow ladies living their lives in solitary as untouchables. Hence, she headed the society on all fronts. She did all those works which were against the value system of society at that point in time. She felicitated the remarriage of widow ladies. She opened Asharam for orphaned children. She also arranged things for nurturing the abandoned or children born out of wedlock. Along with schools, she also opened hostels for the children who used to come from remote areas. She also worked for farmers and labourers. In fact, she hardly left any field. She worked for everything and everyone.

However, she was obviously an advocate for women empowerment. She believed women should and must come forward in every field. She also firmly believed that people would certainly keep suppressing everyone or anyone (or any society) who is a coward. She was of the view that people should gather courage to speak the truth. People should stand against repression. She believed the atrocity will not stop until and unless we stand against it firmly and speak against it loudly because bearing with the atrocity is tantamount to committing atrocity.

Mariyam:  In reference to Savitribai inspiring and motivating the society of that time i.e. people should stand for each other and stand for the weaker sections of the society (be it a man or a woman, be it an orphaned child or any other oppressed individual), my question to you is that what do you mean by the society? Is it the society of Pune or a society of a particular category?  

Shaikh: Different communities were living there. It consisted of the poor as well as the rich. Upper caste people like Marathas were rich and they were receiving education. But labour class people were the ones who were in miserable condition. They were not capable of sending their children to schools. And, the reason was simple. They did not have money to pay the expenses of education. Hence, they (Phule couple) told them about the significance of education. They told them if they wanted to get something they would have to work hard; they would have to receive education. Only education would make them prudent.

And only after becoming prudent , they would be able to know their rights and thereafter fight for the same. . For example, in our society, most of the women do not know what their rights are. Hence, you would not be able to fight for them until and unless you are aware of your rights. So they convinced people that they should speak up for their rights; they should fight for their rights. 

Mariyam: You mentioned that in the society Fatima Sheikh belonged to (Muslim community), girls receiving education was not an unusual phenomenon at that time and perhaps this is why you did not find enough materials on her life. Now, as you know girl education in Muslim societies are being hampered, especially in places like Karnataka in the name of hijab controversy, likewise Taliban (in Afghanistan) have started a new kind of movement under which they are not allowing girls to receive education after a certain age. What do you think about it? We are talking about a personality in whose times girl education was a common thing, and  today, despite the fact that everyone is aware of the significance of education, the same is being prohibited for girls.  

Shaikh: We have given up valuing what is important and what is right for us. We know that our girls have to receive education. On  one hand we want our girls to be doctors, engineers and teachers; however, on the other hand, we forget that for the same, girls are required to be given freedom to pursue education. Once God as well as the society has given them the right (for example, Savitribai got the rights of girls approved at societal level) to pursue their education, then who are these people to obstruct them from receiving education? Issues like hijab are purely political stunts. These things cannot embargo the education. From my own experience I can tell you that I have done all my courses—M.A.,M.Ed., B.Ed., NET, PhD—in hijab. There was no ban on hijab in Pune College and Pune University. There was an educational environment at my home too. I had been wearing a hijab since the beginning. I did like it too. And, I did not face any difficulty anywhere.

The present hijab controversy is entirely political one. It has been hyped in the media unnecessarily. I believe hijab can never be an impediment in receiving education. If we come to see the pictures of great ladies from our past like Fatima Sheikh, Savitribai, Shivaji Maharaj’s mother Jija Bai (although there are very few photos of them)—you will see all of them with aanchal over their heads. In other words, the imagery of Indian women with aanchal over their heads embodies dignity and righteousness. It is distinct. It is of Indianness. It is part of Indian society. And, aforesaid all women were educated.

For Savitribai, I think she had a habit of writing things. Perhaps Fatima Bi did not have this habit. Savitribai Phule used to write a diary as well. Her speeches are found in her writings too. Her letters have also been published. In the research which is going on for years, we hope something will certainly be found out. For instance, the school where I teach is 130 years old and we are planning to see the old registers, because at that time both of them—Savitribai and Fatima Sheikh—were alive. So, one thing we have understood that Savitribai used to write things. Hence, from her “kavyaphule” [collection of poetry], speeches, letters and diary, we have got to know various things. 

Mariyam: When I was in school and when I read about educational revolution in 19th and 20th century, two names were prominently taught, one is of course Raja Ram Mohan Roy (who is credited for abolishing the Sati Pratha), and another is Sir Syed Ahmad Khan from North India. So, later on, when I started reading about Fatima Shaikh, a significant question arose in my mind that as to why we were not taught about Fatima Sheikh and Savitribai Phule in our schools, because when we read about inspirational figures like them and for the fact that they are women, we as girls get a different kind of encouragement and confidence. So as you said your work has been published in Marathi, Kannada as well as Urdu, I wanted to know whether you have written in Hindi or English too?

Shaikh: No, no. My works have not been published in Kannada. Kannada writers have given the reference of my book in their own works on Savitribai and Fatima Bi. They contacted me and conveyed it to me. I have also written in Urdu and English. I myself have translated my book in Urdu ‘Qayamat Se Pehle Alamat-e Qyamat’ into English. Another book of mine in Urdu is titled ‘Soorah Al-Baqrah’. I have translated this too in English as well as Hindi.

Mariyam: I have two more questions for you. Then, I think we will wind up the interview. First, had Savitribai and Fatima Sheikh been alive today, what would they have thought about our society? How do you visualize?

Shaikh: See, they talked about three issues of the society cumulatively—social, economic and educational conditions. They also worked to implement their ideas in the society. Had they been alive today, first they would have pained to see the absence of unity which was prevalent in their times. They would have pained to see the division which is prevalent in our society at present. We know that for Jyotiba Phule, his father hired a Persian teacher to learn Persian. Likewise, a teacher was also hired to teach English. So, during that time, hatred was not rampant. People used to accept each other. People used to read the teachings of each other’s [religion]. Like many Hindus read Urdu, Muslim studied Hindi, English as well as Marathi. So, hatred was very rare in the society. People used to work together. And, the duo of Fatima Sheikh and Savitribai is an exemplary figure for unity. We know that our Indian culture is in fact a composite culture.  My PhD topic is also on this very subject i.e. national integration spanning the period of 1947 to 2000.

So, in our composite culture, there are many people, other than Savitribai and Fatima Bi, who have worked together. To bring in reform in the society, many efforts were being made by many enthusiasts. Social reformers were motivating people to get educated and revolt against  British imperialism. For example, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Jyotiba Phule and many such personalities got English education and then they taught people to unite and stand against English imperialism as well as the Jagirdars and Nawabs of our own society who were committing atrocities on us. In a way, they were running a movement to awaken people. Likewise, Savitribai and Fatima Bi worked for education. They also worked for improving economic conditions of the people. They motivated people to work hard and get out of poverty. They started many vocational institutes as well, especially for women. Hence, they worked on many issues and ran many movements.

Important thing is that Savitribai used to write what she would do; and therefore many things are available in writing with regard to her works. And, as she has mentioned about Fatima Bi several times, we also know about her. But, the unfortunate thing is that Fatima Bi herself did not write about herself and her works. However, the question arises as to why no one else wrote about her? There was some Urdu magazine which was started for the first time in Pune in the year 1900. This too did not write anything on her. In that way, we would have something in writing as evidence for future generations. We are getting things to know from word of mouth; not many things are in the form of concrete evidence unlike Savitribai about whom many basic things are available in writing.

Since Fatima Bi used to be with Savitribai continuously, therefore people are guessing many things about her—like age, date of birth etc. About these duo women, the most important thing is that they were India’s first trained teachers. There was a Teacher’s Training College in Pune. Jyotiba had got Savitribai enrolled in that college and later on, these women had also gone to Ahmad Nagar. It was a big step to go to a different city for education in those times. And Savitribai’s husband supported her wholeheartedly. 

Mariyam: Since you yourself are an educator, I want to know from you that how would have they (Fatima Shaikh and Savitribai) as educators motivated girls for receiving education? Although you have mentioned that the expensive fee was a big issue at that time for the parents, but how would have they inspired girls and given them a new perspective on life that was not limited to four walls of their homes and that their destiny would change dramatically through education? 

Shaikh: Be it girl or boy, the best thing at that time was that they had prepared a fantastic syllabus. We know that a similar syllabus is prepared for all the schools—whether they are situated in cities or villages. So was the case at that time too. But they prepared different syllabus for schools situated in remote areas and villages. Likewise, they prepared different syllabus for the schools situated in cities. For instance, for students belonging to remote villages, things were taught keeping in view their exposure.

In other words, for example, teaching them about airplanes or trains which they had not seen ever (unlike the children of cities) was not considered feasible for them; and it was held that children may not be able to understand things through such a model of teaching. So, children were taught with  examples of things from their own life and milieu which they could relate to. It was done in order to bring them at par with the students belonging to cities who had exposure to various things. So, it was a great idea to make syllabus from this point of view. It is also significant to note that they were not as big scholar as Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, as you just mentioned, or celebrated teachers and professors of big colleges and universities. 

Mariyam: Do we have access to such syllabus? Do we know as to how they developed it? Or do we have any copy of such syllabus?  

Shaikh:  I have appended a sample of such syllabus in my book. Their first school was established in 1848 and by 1852 they had succeeded in opening more than 25 schools. So it was indeed a great achievement to establish so many schools in such a short span of time.  They prepared the syllabus from various points of view. First, they considered age, understanding ability and atmosphere the child is living in. They were of the view that while teaching children; these factors must be kept in mind. Likewise, another factor which they considered while making syllabus is that there should be different syllabuses for students belonging to villages and cities because their understating abilities differ from each other in view of their surroundings and ambiances.

Students understand things in consonance with their society and milieu. Also, as we know usually a class consists of different kinds of students in terms of understanding aptitude, therefore another significant thing which was proposed was  that a teacher should not drive all the students with one steering. They believed lecturing a class of about 70 children, for example, cannot guarantee  that every student would understand what the teacher has taught. They thought that different groups of students—having different levels of understanding ability—should be formed and then they should be taught differently in order to make all of them at par eventually. Hence, such an approach vis-à-vis the syllabus and method of teaching adhered and advocated by Savitribai and Fatima Sheikh, is not only unique but also worth learning.

Mariyam: In this connection, I would rather like to say that in the 21st century we are far behind the educational standard of Savitribai and Fatima Sheikh (of 19th century) and their implementation of the same. Many more questions are developing in my mind as you are describing things further. However, because of paucity of time, we will have to wrap up. Thank you Dr Shaikh for taking out time. I really appreciate your works and efforts. You are amongst very few scholars who are spending their energies in documenting the lives and works of great personalities like Savitribai and Fatima Sheikh. You are in fact inspiring many people like us to read our female leaders and learn from them, and also work on bringing in change in the society while espousing their teachings. 

Shaikh: It is to be noted that there is a dearth of people—no matter how educated and great they are—who come forward with courage and talk about the change which needs to be brought. So, Savitribai and Fatima Bi were of the view that people—men as well as women—must and should gather courage to fight for their rights. Anyways, yes, I succeeded in publishing books on them. Thank you for those encouraging words. I was keenly interested in   documenting their lives and works. God also gave me  strength. People also appreciated my effort. And, eventually, Maharashtra Academy and Uttar Pradesh Academy also awarded me. 

Shaikh: Thank you Mariyam, thank you so much for inviting me and giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts.  

Transcription done by Syed Kashif.