Rukhmabai – A Woman who Fought the System and WonMay 25, 2018
Stories of feisty women who fought prejudices and emerged victoriously are always an inspiration to the women of today. There have been instances of such iron women all through the history of India. In this article, let us go back in history and get to know about a bold woman who practised medicine in British-India after fighting against all odds.
Rukhmabai was born in Maharashtra, India in 1864. She is known to have been one of the first few women in colonial India to practice western medicine. Anandibai Joshi and Kadambini Ganguly are often credited as the first women to have studied western medicine. Anandibai passed away at the age of 22 and therefore never got to practice medicine as a profession while Kadambini Ganguly went on to practice medicine. Rukhmabai is a lesser known personality and her life story is quite an inspiration. Let us delve a little deeper into her story.
She was married to her step-father's cousin when she was just 11 years old. Even though she continued to live with her mother after her marriage, a year later when she attained puberty and the time to consummate the marriage came, she showed her displeasure. Supported by her step-father, she refrained from consummating the marriage and this eventually led to her husband moving out and living elsewhere.
After a certain point, her husband sent her a legal notice that Rukhmabai should come and live with him. The case was widely speculated about in the media as it was one-of-a-kind. Many staunch Hindus defended Rukhmabai’s husband and criticised Rukhmabai for not respecting the rules of the community. However, Rukhmabai maintained that she was married off at an age when she had no capacity to make a decision and that nobody should compel her to live with her husband. The court ruled in her favour and the ruling was bashed by the Hindu community.
A retrial of the same case was taken up and this time the new judge ruled in favour of Rukhmabai’s husband. Following this, Rukhmabai appealed to Queen Victoria who then overruled the court verdict and said that Rukhmabai should not be forced to live with her husband.
In a time where child marriages were very common and when women had no voice in such issues, Rukhmabai’s case was revolutionary. It indirectly led to the Age of Consent Act, 1891 which increased the age of consent to 12 from 10.
Following this, Rukhmabai, who was an ardent reader of books, began pursuing medical education in England with the help of several charitable personalities who lauded her courage. After receiving her doctorate, she practised medicine in Surat and then later in Rajkot. She settled in Mumbai after retirement.
Even though her name is given as Rukhmabai Raut in several places, she never used a surname in her life. She had always signed medical documents as just Rukhmabai.
She passed away in 1955 at the age of 90. In her lifetime, she also wrote many books and articles that questioned misogynistic practices. She always voiced out her views that women need to be given equal respect and should have the freedom to write their own destiny. She was a woman who spoke out for women empowerment and also lived a life that proved her words right.