Fatima Sheikh: The Forgotten Pioneer of Girl Education in India!

We all remember Savitri Bai Phule who started the first girl's school in India but there is one more woman who played a vital role in this pioneering step.

Hitanshu Bhatt
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Fatima Sheikh

While we famously regard Savitri Bai Phule as the "first female teacher of India", Fatima Sheikh is one name that we rarely mention when it comes to the inception of education in India. 

In the 1800s when educating girls and the backward class was considered taboo, Savitri Bai Phule and Jyotirao Phule were the frontrunners for the educational revolution in India. But there was another woman who stood shoulder to shoulder with them in fighting the evil thoughts of the society. Fatima Sheikh; an educator and a social reformer played a vital role in starting the first girls' school in India along with the Phule's. 

Who Was Fatima? 

fatima sheikh
Source - Fatima Sheikh

Fatima was born on 9th January 1831 into a middle-class Muslim family. She lived with her brother, Usman Sheikh, in Pune. During that period, especially for girls, the opportunity for education was scarce. However, Fatima defied societal norms and likely became one of the first women in the Muslim community to receive an education.

Her brother, who was a childhood friend of Mahatma Jyotiba Phule, shared a progressive outlook on girls' education. His influence encouraged Fatima to pursue education, but she didn't stop there. She aimed to extend the reach of education to young minds in society. Inspired by the work of Savitri Bai, she joined her mission.

The Duo that Broke Barriers

savitri bai phule and fatima sheikh
Source - Fatima Sheikh on the left and Savitri Bai Phule on the right 

The duo got along well and started the first women's school in Pune in 1848. Initially, the school had only six students, which was a significant number considering the prevailing conservative attitudes in society. Convincing parents to send their children to school was not easy because they feared the elders' restrictions within the family. They even received threats from upper-class individuals to cease their work. Protestors even attempted to intimidate Jyotiba's father. Under pressure, he gave his son an ultimatum: either close the school or leave his house. Jyotiba and Savitribai chose to leave their home. No one was willing to provide shelter to the couple, but Usman offered a portion of his farmhouse for them to live in and another part for providing education to girls.

Savitri Bai Phule and Fatima Sheikh
Source - Fatima Seikh and Savitri Bai Phule at their school in a newspaper cut-out 

Despite all the torture and backlash faced by society, the duo didn't stop. In 1850, they finally established an institution called 'The Native Female School' in Pune. A total of 18 schools were opened around Pune city under this establishment. In addition to providing education to girls, Fatima also extended her hand to the Bahujan community, which is considered a backward caste.

Although not often discussed, Fatima was a pillar of girls' education in India and deserves attention. Both Savitri and Fatima had an equal share in spreading the light of education in India to girls and Dalits.

first female teacher of India Savitri Bai Phule and Jyotirao Phule first woman to get an education from the Muslim community first women's school in Pune first women's school The Native Female School