Dr. Rakhmabai Raut
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You Englishmen think that if trade in India prospers you will get your taxes. But you turn a blind eye to the condition of women in the country ruled by a lady, Queen Victoria, where child brides are subject to sexual relations against their consent.” — A Hindu Lady.
Nineteen-year-old Rakhmabai Raut’s letters to the editor of the Times of India in the late 1800s were reflective of the social structure that stifled the girl child in British India. Rakhmabai’s subsequent odyssey to England resulted in Queen Victoria’s government passing the Age of Consent Act of 1891, which raised the age of consent from the prevailing 11to 15 years.
Tutored by her stepfather, Dr Sakharam Arjun, and mentored by visiting English doctor Edith Phipson, she wasn’t aware that she would create history as India’s first practicing lady doctor. Just breaking into her twenties, Raut picked up the baton from social reformers like Pandita Ramabai and recognised the need for female doctors in India. She advocated the need for medical schools to admit girls so that women doctors could be made available in circumstances where women were uncomfortable being treated by males. There were several ailments that called for a female doctor. But the total absence of female doctors left many women suffering for want of proper attention. The aversion of pregnant ladies to being admitted to hospitals (“hospitals are places where people die, not born (sic)”) was another norm she attempted to break after obtaining a medical degree from Scotland.
On Christmas Day, 2017 — her 152nd death anniversary — Rakhmabai’s rebellion in the age of a highly conservative society led by Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s doctrines evokes several issues that she had addressed emphatically and with which we still grapple in a supposedly far more liberated time. Her recruiting and training of prospective female doctors in Surat and then Rajkot set the ball rolling.
But despite female doctors being in abundance today, very few are full-time practitioners. There still is a serious shortage of female doctors in India. According to a paper in the medical journal Lancet titled ‘Human Resources for Health in India (2011)’, only 17% of all allopathic doctors, and 6% of those in rural areas, are women, reflecting the lopsided percentage when set against the demand in modern India.
Discrimination at the workplace is another deterring factor. Strangely, Rakhmabai faced it during her stint at the Cama hospital, leading to her being ostracised from Bombay as it was then known. She preferred to migrate to Surat where medical facilities were poor and no doctors from the city were willing to go there.
Educating the girl child was taboo in the 19th century. Rakhmabai found herself confined to her home with her stepfather encouraging her to pursue medicine. But the mandatory marriage came in the way, forcing the 11-year-old girl to refuse to stay with her 19-year-old husband as her studies would be affected.
What followed was a big upheaval that became “the most shocking news of the time”. Rakhmabai’s in-laws filed a case that ended up as a battle in the high court of Bombay under a British judge. In what threatened to change existing marriage laws and raise dust on child marriage and abuse, Rakhmabai stood steadfast in her intentions, and, despite losing the case, refused to bend before her husband.
Her determination saw her undertake a five-month journey by sea to England where the rewards, included rubbing shoulders with the likes of Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Bertrand Russell. Strangely, England only offered a course in the medical sciences for women. A degree had to be obtained from Scotland, prompting Rakhmabai to address the Prince: “Your country is no different from ours”.
In 2013, Malala Yousafzai’s address to the United Nations regretting that she was shot because she wanted to be educated is a grim reminder of the need for the social corrections that Rakhmabai had sought to implement. There may be greater awareness about women’s empowerment all over the globe, but several instances of violence against women and girls constitute a widespread violation of human rights as well as a significant limitation of the movement. Rakhmabai was stoned on the streets of the city because she had dared to desert her husband, defy the Hindu marriage laws and seek education in a foreign nation. Her grit and conviction saw her continue despite being shaken. Would every woman who finds herself in such a situation today find the strength to emulate her? Rakhmabai has left behind quite a few issues struggling to be resolved.
In a letter to the Times of India on April 9, 1887, Rakhmabai stated that she would rather go to jail than stay with her husband, a move that would be considered radical even in modern times. The lady, quite clearly, was ahead of her time. She has left a strong message for the women of the world to pick up today, a call to effect a transformation that would be in the better interests of women and society.
The author, Ananth Narayan Mahadevan, is a filmmaker and actor whose latest film, “Doctor Rakhmabai”, is a biopic that has been acclaimed and awarded at several international festivals and is slated for theatrical exhibition