Rukhmabai Raut is India’s first woman to become a practicing female doctor. Before she could even venture into the world of medicine, Rukhmabai had to fight a court case to overturn her child marriage to Dadaji Bhikaji. In those times, women were expected to serve their husbands and merely look after their home and hearth. Defying all odds, Raut refused to serve her husband and instead, pursued her education to become a highly-successful doctor. Apart from being an inspiration to several young women and girls around the world, she wrote numerous articles on pertinent social reform issues. Before India witnessed its first formal feminist movement, Rukhmabai had established herself as an activist for gender equality and feminism.
Rukhmabai Raut was born to a small family in Maharashtra on November 22, 1864. Very early in her childhood, she lost her father. Her mother, Jayantibai, remarried when Raut was eight years old. Her step-father, Sakharam Arjun, was a widower and a distinguished doctor. However, the death of her father was not the greatest sorrow of her childhood. Rukhmabai was married off to Dadaji Bhikaji, Sakharam’s poor relative when she was merely eleven years old. At the time of marriage, Bhikaji was nineteen and therefore, old enough to realize the terms of the relationship that he had entered into. Eleven-year-old Raut realized that she did not want to be married to Bhikaji and thus, refused to move into his house after marriage. Consequently, Bhikaji became a “gharjamai” and lived with Raut in her stepfather’s house.
Sakharam’s vision for his step-daughter
Sakharam Arjun was a learned man and wanted his poor relative Bhikaji, to be educated too. He sternly believed that once Bhikaji was educated, he would find a good job, become a “good man” and be able to provide for his wife. But, he was unwilling to build a better future for his family. Instead, he wanted to consummate his marriage as soon as she became an adolescent. Soon enough, Rukhmabai turned twelve, and Bhikaji started wooing her. Dismayed at his unwillingness to educate, Sakharam Arjun provided him with an ultimatum. He said that Bhikaji would be eligible to become his son-in-law only after he proved himself to be an independent, hard-working provider. Angry that his father-in-law would not allow him to become close to his wife, Bhikaji left home and started living with his maternal uncle.
Bhikaji’s upbringing and childhood
Bhikaji’s maternal uncle, Narayan Dhurmaji, was misogynistic and negatively influenced his nephew. He believed that women must be treated as inferior family members- kept in the house to look after it, perform domestic chores, and please their men. Looking at the way that his uncle treated his wife, he felt that he deserved to treat his wife in the same manner. He became a lazy, homely person who rarely left his bed. He picked up bad habits such as drinking and gambling and borrowed money from several people. Dhurmaji helped him pay off his debts but on a condition. He wanted Bhikaji to pursue his marital relation with Rukhmabai so that he could inherit Rukhmabai’s house and wealth. Since Bhikaji was indebted to him, the wealth and property would eventually fall into his hands.
Rukhmabai’s first steps into social reform and education
Meanwhile, Sakharam Arjun encouraged Rukhmabai to receive formal education. He introduced her to several British families in the hope that Raut would become liberal-minded too. Looking at the well-educated daughters and wives of British men, she was inspired to finish her schooling. She had been forced to abandon school as soon as she married Bhikaji and wanted to return to studying again. Unfortunately, girls’ schools were few, so she began self-learning at home. Under the guidance of her step-father, Raut slowly began reading and writing. Sometime later, she submitted an anonymous article to the Times of India detailing the plight of girls who had to leave schooling mid-way due to early marriage. She became interested in social reform, especially issues pertaining to women and young girls in India. She wrote extensively about the plight of child brides, Hindu widows, and other Indian women who had suffered due to patriarchy.
In 1885, Bhikaji sent a legal letter to Sakharam Arjun demanding that he send back his daughter to live with him. Sakharam wrote back, tacitly stating that presently, his son-in-law could not provide for his daughter. But, if Bhikaji was ready to board, lodge, feed, and clothe Rukhmabai, he would not stop her from going. Misinterpreting Sakharam’s reply, Bhikaji sent a party of three people to pick up Rukhmabai. Rukhmabai refused to go, stating that not only was her husband poor and therefore ill-equipped to house her, he was also unhealthy and sick. She also alleged that Dadaji wanted to consummate the marriage because he was motivated by financial gains. Two years later, both sides prepared to take the matter to court. In court, Raut argued that she was not bound to stay married to Bhikaji since the marriage had taken place before she could willingly consent to it. Justice Pinhey ruled in Rukhmabai’s favour and affirmed that Raut could not be forced to live with her husband.
Unfortunately, the public opinion was largely in opposition to the ruling, and therefore, a retrial was conducted. During this retrial, Raut was ordered to live with her husband or face imprisonment for at least six months. Putting on a brave face, she wrote a letter to the counsel declaring that she would rather stay in jail than pursue a forced marriage. Finally, the case was overturned by Queen Victoria when she annulled the court’s final order. Bhikaji was paid a paltry amount for this settlement, and Raut went to England to pursue higher education.
Raut’s court case inspired the passage of the “Age of Consent Act” in 1891. Since Queen Victoria had to annul Raut’s marriage, the British government in India realized the need to avoid such cases in the future. Consequently, they banned the practice of child marriage in India and set a legal age under which no child/young adult could be forced to marry. Rukhmabai’s fight against Bhikaji had been a turning point for women’s rights in India. Even though she had no direct say in the formulation of the act, her example compelled the Indian government to look into the pertinent matter of child marriage and consensual relationships.
Higher Education and practicing physician
Inspired by her step-father, Raut decided to pursue a career in Medicine. In 1889, she flew to London and studied at the London School of Medicine for Women. Not only did Raut study medicine, but also she continued to pursue her passion as a writer in London. She wrote passionately about social issues under the pseudonym of “A Hindu Lady”. In 1894, she graduated from college after obtaining extra credentials from other educational centres in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Brussels.
Once she returned to India, Rukhmabai practiced medicine in Bombay. A while later, she took up the position of Chief Medical Officer in Surat. She continued to work in Surat till 1917 when she quit. From 1918, she began work as the Chief Medical Officer of Zenana Hospital at Rajkot. She continued to work there until her retirement in 1930.
Rukhmabai’s story is one of courage, determination, and perseverance. Having been raised by a liberal-minded father, she knew that she could demand equal rights and opportunities as men and other young boys. Even after being married at a young age, she did not forgo her right to education and studied hard to become the first practicing female doctor in India. Although her actions invited a lot of criticism and insult from India’s rigid patriarchal society, she continued to stand up for what she believed in. Taking inspiration from her struggle and determination, several young Indian women today, can boldly choose to dream for a life of their liking.
Pratha Content Writer