In the 1880s, at a time when Indian women hardly had any rights to speak of, a gutsy and determined woman did the impossible. Married at the age of 11, child bride Rukhmabai Bhikaji contested her husband’s claim to conjugal rights in an iconic court case that led to the passage of the Age of Consent Act in 1891.
She then went on to study medicine in London before becoming India’s first practising lady doctor in 1894.
Rukhmabai was born in Bombay in 1864 to a woman who had herself suffered because of the custom of child marriage – she had married at the age of 14, given birth to Rukhmabai at 15, and become a widow at 17. Seven years later, Rukhmabai’s mother married Sakharam Arjun, a doctor and professor of botany at Mumbai’s Grant Medical College; he was a supporter of education and social reform in India.
Driven by social pressure, Rukhmabai’s mother married off 11-year-old Rukhmabai to Dadaji Bhikaji, then aged 19. In accordance with the prevailing customs, Rukhmabai did not live with her husband but stayed in her parents’ house in the years following her marriage. During this period, she diligently followed her stepfather’s instructions to educate herself, much against the norms of the time.
Soon, Rukhmabai found out that her husband was a man of questionable character with an aversion for education. In contrast to Dadaji’s waywardness, Rukhmabai had evolved during the same years into an intelligent and cultured young woman. Terrified at the prospect of living in a claustrophobic relationship, she decided she did not want to remain married to such a man.
Rukhmabai was still studying in school when her husband Dadaji Bhikaji demanded in March 1884 that she come and live with him. She refused, and Dadaji petitioned the Bombay High Court for restitution of conjugal rights of a husband over his wife. In simple terms, he wanted the court to direct his wife Rukhmabai to move into his house and live with him.
Young Rukhmabai steadfastly refused to go with her husband and the court gave her two options – to either comply with its orders or face imprisonment and go to jail. Rukhmabai stood her ground, stating that she preferred courting imprisonment for violating orders than remaining in a marriage that she did not want. Her argument that she could not be compelled into a marriage that was conducted at an age when she was incapable of giving consent was an argument hitherto unheard of and unimaginable.
This initiated one of the most publicised court cases in Bombay and indeed in India, in the 19th century. The case also garnered much attention in the British press during the 1880s, bringing the issue of child marriage and the rights of women to the fore. A group of Indian reformers, including Behramji Malabari and Ramabai Ranade, formed the Rukhmabai Defence Committee to bring the case to public attention. Social reformer, education pioneer and a champion for the emancipation of women, Pandita Ramabai wrote in anger:
“The government advocated education and emancipation but when a woman refused to “be a slave” the government comes to break her spirit allowing its law to become instrument for riveting her chains.”
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Under the pseudonym ‘A Hindu Lady’, Rukhmabai contributed two brilliantly timed letters to Times of India. Written with a feminist perspective, the letters were on the theme of child marriage, enforced widowhood and status of women in society. Here is an extract from a letter written by Rukhmabai to Times of India on June 26, 1885, and reproduced in the book Child Marriages in India by Jaya Sagade:
“This wicked practice of child marriage has destroyed the happiness of my life. It comes between me and the things which I prize above all others – study and mental cultivation.Without the least fault of mine I am doomed to seclusion; every aspiration of mine to rise above my ignorant sisters is looked down upon with suspicion and is interpreted in the most uncharitable manner.”
In 1888, Dadaji accepted monetary compensation in lieu of dissolution of the marriage. As a result, the two parties came to a compromise and Rukhmabai was saved from imprisonment. She had also refused all offers of financial assistance and had paid her own legal costs. Despite the out-of-court settlement, this case became a landmark in colonial India for raising issues of age, consent and choice for women in marriage.
Finally free to pursue her education, Rukhmabai decided to train as a doctor. Supported by Edith Pechey Phipson, the British director of Bombay’s Cama Hospital, Rukhmabai underwent an English language course and went to England in 1889 to study at the London School of Medicine for Women. She also obtained qualifications at Edinburgh, Glasgow and Brussels before graduating in 1894.
After finishing her studies and obtaining a position as Chief Medical Officer in Surat, Rukhmabai returned to her country, which, ironically, still ostracised her. This marked the commencement of a distinguished 35-year career in medicine, during which she continued to write against child marriage and women’s seclusion (purdah). She never married again and remained active in social reform till her death in 1955 at the age of 91.
Dr Rukhmabai has the honour of being the first practising lady doctor of India. Though Anandi Gopal Joshi was the first Indian woman to qualify as a doctor, she never practised medicine. Ill with tuberculosis when she returned to India after her education, Anandibai could not convert her degree into a successful profession due to her untimely death. Just like Rukhmabai, Anandibai had also taken a bold step to fight society and go against the flow to become a doctor.
You can read her remarkable story here: Do You Know What Made Anandi Joshi Become India’s First Lady Doctor At A Time When No Girl Was Educated In India?
Rukhmabai was one of the most important figures fighting for the cause of women’s rights in colonial India. Her defiance of social conventions and customs that discriminated against women shook up a lot of people in the conservative Indian society of the 1880s and led to the passage of the Age of Consent Act in 1891. She then endured years of humiliation with extraordinary courage and determination, inspiring many other women to take up medicine and social service in the coming years.
An upcoming movie by Ananth Mahadevan, Rukhmabai Bhimrao Raut, traces the journey of India’ s first practising doctor, Rukhmabai. Actress Tannishtha Chatterjee will be playing the lead role in this period film.