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Doctor Rukhmabai: The Feminist Who Addressed Woman's Right to Consent in the 1800s

In a time when higher education for women was unheard of Rukhmabai not only got a degree in medicine but also helped many underprivileged women by giving them proper treatment or providing them employment.

Simantini Dey | CNN-News18

Updated:March 8, 2018, 5:30 PM IST
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Doctor Rukhmabai: The Feminist Who Addressed Woman's Right to Consent in the 1800s
In a time when higher education for women was unheard of Rukhmabai not only got a degree in medicine but also helped many underprivileged women by giving them proper treatment or providing them employment.

To the wrongs that need resistance,


To the right that needs assistance,


To the future in the distance,


Give yourselves. 



With this quote by Carrie Chapman Catt begins the Marathi film by Ananth Narayan Mahadevan, Doctor Rukhmabai. Based on the life of the first practising lady doctor of India, Rukhmabai, the film is a beautiful tribute to the early women's movement in our country. It takes us back to a time when a vibrant new strand of feminism was taking its roots in colonial India and several Indian and British women were fighting for the rights of the oppressed sex.



Doctor Rukhmabai, which was screened on the eve of International Women's Day by the women of Indian Merchants Chamber, is yet to get a release date. Featuring Tannishtha Chatterjee as Rukhmabai, it is a small film that mirrors big flaws of the Indian society of not only the 18th century but also of today.


As the film unfolds, the audience is compelled to see that the issues that Rukhmabai fought almost 120 years ago, such as marital consent and rape, religious superstitions, racism, and misogyny are still tormenting the lives of women in India.



One of the themes that formed the core of the film, and was one of the biggest issues that Rukhmabai fought in real life was the matter of a woman's consent in marriage. Rukhmabai was a child bride, who was married off to a 19-year-old boy at the age of 11. However, her father refused to send her to her husband's house until she finished her education and became a woman.



As she turned into an intelligent, educated and opinionated woman, under her father's tutelage, the stark difference between her and her illiterate unemployed husband became apparent. When the time came for her to leave her father's house, she refused to go, and her father supported her decision. Her husband and his family, however, refused to let matters rest. They filed a legal petition asking the English court to command Rukhmabai to return to her husband and fulfill her conjugal duties. Thus began one of the most historic legal battles of India, which gave birth to many heated debates in the press and public domain. Even well-known personalities of that time, from Bal Gangadhar Tilak to Rudyard Kipling participated. This case finally helped in the enactment of the Age of Consent Act in 1891, which raised the age of consent to 12 years for women in British India.



Rukhmabai is perhaps the only Indian woman in the 1800s to be in news for both her personal and professional life. While on one hand she fought and won the right to marital consent for women, on the other, she pursued her dream of becoming a doctor and went to England to finish her training in medicine.Although there were many women who actively started the women's movement in colonial India -- like Savitribai Phule, Tarabai Shinde, and Pandita Ramabai-- Rukhmabai most certainly was a torchbearer of Indian feminism.



In a time when higher education for women was unheard of she not only got a degree in medicine but also helped many underprivileged women by giving them proper treatment or providing them employment. She was constantly targeted by religious groups and traditionalists for being a divorcee -- from being pelted with stones to being sneered at, she faced a lot of unjust behaviour --but that did not deter her from the path to serve the people of her country. She refused to be the guest of honour in a European club because her assistant, another Indian woman, was denied entry to the club. In the 1800s there were many prejudices around modern medicine and technology. People feared hospitals as unholy places and did not go there for treatment. In order to change their mindsets, Rukhmabai helped pregnant animals give birth inside her hospital premises to show that there was no evil in there.



Today, with movements such as #MeToo and Time's Up, women come together in solidarity to fight the patriarchy and its prejudices together. However, 120 years ago when Rukhmabai started this fight, she had little support. For the most part, it was a lonely battle that she fought bravely on behalf of all of us. She did not give in, and neither did the women who followed her, but despite that the social evils that we are fighting today are same as the ones Rukhmabai had fought, which only tells us, that the roots of Patriarchy go so deep in our society that even 120 years of struggle and fight were not enough to uproot them.

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