A A 19th century Indian feminist who fought for women’s freedoms, trained them in public speaking, teaching and weaving, Ramabai Ranade played a monumental role in bringing women into space public – just like Savitribai Phule and Fatima Sheikh did. And yet, MP Gandhi called Ramabai the epitome of “everything a Hindu widow could be”.
Born on January 25, 1862 in the Sangli district of Maharashtra, the world of Ramabai was one in which the feminist movement still lacked a spark. Under social, religious and community constraints, very few women could defend the privileges of chicken feeding, let alone education or work. But Ramabai, with his steely strength, could extend his horizon beyond his small village of Devrashtre.
She joined India’s women’s suffrage movement, chaired the first Indian Women’s Conference in 1904, and raised her voice for the rights of Indian workers in Fiji and Kenya. She now rests in the history books as the first woman to write a Marathi language autobiography titled Amchya Ayushyatil Kahi Athavani.
Where Raja Ram Mohan Roy cried out against the practices of sati and child marriage in Bengal, Ramabai Ranade found refuge with Judge Mahadev Govind Ranade, to whom she was married at the age of 11. Graduates’, was known for leading the social reform movement in Maharashtra.
Their early marriage laid the foundation for their idealistic philosophy – Ramabai, an illiterate wife, was put on the path to a solid education and training, despite opposition from her family. A true feminist ally, Govind Ranade sent a young Ramabai to school, where she learned to speak Marathi, English and Bengali fluently.
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The new “Indian woman”
At the age of 18, Ramabai joined the Prarthana Samaj – founded by her husband – a liberal center in 19th century Maharashtra. Recognizing the importance of rituals and religion to the women around him, the Ramabai gatherings were far from didactic, caricatural lectures that lacked wit.
What she added to the Prarthana Samaj was an element of communal harmony, celebration and cross-cultural unison. His gatherings involved the Marathi tradition of halaad kuku, a festival where women apply turmeric and vermilion to each other and sing kirtans, popularized in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film Bajirao Mastani (2015). Through these rituals, Ramabai was able to teach them the importance of education and also train them in skills such as public speaking.
At the turn of the century, between 1893 and 1901, the Hindu Ladies Social Club and Literary Club at Ramabai in Bombay became famous for teaching women the art of public speaking, sewing and weaving. Essentially, she has become India’s ‘new woman’ – an eclectic mix of sophisticated modernity and traditional affiliation.
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Seva Sadan, a legacy
By the time Florence Nightingale died in 1910, Ramabai was taking shape as India’s pioneer nurse.
Her legacy is perhaps best represented by the Seva Sadan Society, which she founded in 1909 in Poona. The organization remains strong over a century later, with a message on its website that reads: “The girl child is often neglected and denied a normal childhood, including her right to an education and a life of equal opportunity.
The Ramabai Seva Sadan Medical and Nursing Association started with a simple question to other women: “Don’t you have a father or a brother in your house?” When you are sick, don’t you take care of them? So why don’t you see a father or a brother among the male patients? »
From that moment, Ramabai succeeded in training women as nurses and serving patients with utmost dedication.
Ramabai Ranade’s relevance has seeped into popular culture in multiple ways. On August 15, 1962, the Indo-Australian Post issued a stamp depicting Ramabai on the occasion of her centenary of birth for her contribution to women’s rights and social activities. In 2012, Zee Marathi aired a TV series titled Unch Maaza Zoka based on his life.
Ramabai’s contributions to the women’s movement in India can hardly be relegated to the fringes of history. Along with other feminist stalwarts like Pandita Ramabai and Tarabai Shinde, she stands tall.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)