Making the Right Choices – Dr. Rukhmabai

Swapna Narayanan

Often times, we end up accepting a lot of things in our lives, without questioning or resisting. Invariably it is either the context within our family or the general prevalent trends of the society that hold us back. For some reason, we are not taught to question it and fight out what is dished out to us by life.

Today let me tell you about a daring woman who chose to question what was dished out to her by fate and managed to snatch back her life from the circumstances that existed back then and carve out a life of her own choosing.

It was her choice and she ensured she chooses what she likes.

Dr. Rukhmabai Raut (1864-1955) was among the first practicing women physicians in our country along with Dr. Kadambini Ganguly and Dr. Anandi Bai Joshi. (Though Dr. Anandi Bai Joshi was the first to qualify as a doctor, she never got down to practice owing to her ill health and eventual untimely demise.)

Along with being one of the first few women to travel abroad for her medicine degree, third to be precise (after Dr. Ganguly & Dr. Joshi who were a few years senior to her), Rukhmabai had many firsts to her credit. She was instrumental in pushing the Age of Consent Act, 1891 which abolished child marriages, airing her feminist views using the media, refusing to use her father’s name or husband’s name as her surname and insisting that the Registrar of Medical Council registers her as only Dr. Rukhmabai, and much more.

Rukhmabai lost her father when she was just two years old, and her mother (Jayantibai) remarried. Her step father was a doctor, a professor and most importantly a forward-thinking man. However, in spite of that, Rukhmabai’s mother got her married to Dadaji Bhikaji when she was 11 years old. Dadaji was 19 years old then, so her stepfather stepped in and ensured Dadaji moves into their house and both of them complete their education. Dadaji was with them for a few years, but eventually left home as he was not inclined to education. Rukhmabai continued living at home, and pursued her education. When she was grown up and had started menstruating, Dadaji came back and wanted to take her with him.

Rukhmabai refused to go with him, as by now she had a goal and her goals would never see the light of day with someone like Dadaji who denounced education and modern thinking. Her stepfather supported her.

Extremely angered, Dadaji filed a case against her and requested ‘restitution of conjugal rights.’ The judge decreed that this cannot be forced upon, as this was a unique case where Rukhmabai was married off in a stage of what he termed as ‘helpless infancy’. The judgment created furore in the community and was perceived as completely denouncing the Hindu customs and rituals. Very prominent names wrote commentaries against the verdict and said they go against the fundamental ethos of a Hindu marriage. However, there were a few who silently welcomed the judgement. They vouched that it is an educated woman’s choice which must be respected.

While this entire hullabaloo was going on, there were some strong feminist articles being published in a prominent newspaper under the name of ‘The Hindu Lady’. This column showcased the viewpoints of women and their perspectives on various social issues of the times. The voice was strong, the issues were relevant, and the perspectives were unheard of! A breather to open up the issues and see things from another angle.

And guess who was penning these articles under a pseudonym? None other than Rukhmabai herself!

One of her pieces went something like this:

You, gentlemen, anxiously long for the regeneration of India. If arts and sciences flourish, if trade and industry progress among our people, you think everything will come right. India will prosper. But do you seriously believe (I beseech you to consider calmly) that such a happy state of things is possible when you allow boys and girls to be fathers and mothers before they are hardly out of their teens? Do you expect anything good or great from a boy-husband and a girl-wife saddled with the cares and anxieties of an increasing family, and having to fight their way through the hard realities of life? Do you think that the sons and daughters of such parents, who want strength of body and mind themselves, will be capable of achieving the bright future which — pray excuse me for saying so — you fondly anticipate for them?

Well – if you do not give a woman a pedestal to air her voice, she will find one of her own and still say it.

Owing to the level of furore caused by the judgment in her favour, the case came up for retrial again, and the new judgment in 1887 ordered Rukhmabai to either go back to live with Dadaji or choose six months of imprisonment.

Rukhmabai wrote back that she would prefer imprisonment over living with her husband.

Again, a move that shocked many.

Eventually she wrote to Queen Victoria who nullified the marriage. Rukhmabai wrote:

Everywhere it is considered one of the greatest blessings of God that we are under the protection of our beloved Queen Victoria’s Government, which has its worldwide fame for best administration. If such a Government cannot help unyoke us Hindu women, what Government on earth has the power to relieve the daughters of India from their present miseries? This 50th year of our Queen’s accession to the most renowned throne is the jubilee year in which every town and every village in her dominion is to show their loyalty in the best way it can, and wish the mother Queen a long happy life, to rule over us for many years with peace and prosperity. At such an unusual occasion, will the mother listen to an earnest appeal from her millions of Indian daughters and grant them a few simple words of change into the book on Hindu law – that ‘marriages performed before the respective ages of 20 in boys and 15 in girls shall not be considered legal in the eyes of the law if brought before the Court.’ This mere sentence will be sufficient for the present to have enough check on child marriages, without creating a great vexation among the ignorant masses. This jubilee year must leave some expression on us Hindu women, and nothing will be more gratefully received than the introduction of this mere sentence into our law books. It is the work of a day if God wished it, but without His aid every effort seems to be in vain. So far, dear lady, I have dwelt on your patience, for which an apology is necessary. With best compliments – I remain yours very sincerely, Rukhmabai. (click here for source)

Queen Victoria, who at that point was already concerned about women rights and issues in India, signed a special decree to dissolve Rukhmabai’s marriage and absolve her imprisonment decree. Eventually, this set the ball rolling for the Age of Consent Act in 1891 which legally set a limit for the age at which one could marry. 

After all this, in 1889 she went to London School of Medicine for Women and completed her degree in Medicine. In 1895, she came back to India and joined the Women’s Hospital in Surat and later worked in Women’s Hospital in Rajkot till her retirement.

As the clichéd saying goes, when life gives lemons, make lemonade out of it. I would add, do ensure you add a flavour of your choice to it – sweet, salt or both sweet and salt. Or even pepper or chilli.

The choice is yours and yours only.

*All images used in this article are either Eyra’s own design or widely and freely available on the internet.*

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