It was during 1980’s when Indian women didn’t have much right to speak neither for themselves nor on any other issue. They were expected to keep mum. But there was a brave and determined woman who broke all such barriers imposed on women. Rukhmabai Bhikaji was married when she was just 11 years old. She challenged her husband’s claim to marital rights in an iconic court case this led the court to pass the “Age of Consent Act” in 1981.
Before becoming India’s first practicing lady doctor she went to study medicine in London. After she completed her study of medicine she became the first lady doctor in 1894.
Rukhmabai was born in the year 1864 in Bombay, her mother herself had suffered because of the custom of child marriage. Her mother was married at the age of 14, she gave birth to Rukhmabai when she was 15 years old and she became a widow at the age of 17. Rukhmabai’s mother married Sakharam Arjun, who was a doctor and professor of botany at Mumbai’s Grant Medical College, seven years later he was also a supporter of education and social reforms in India.
Under social pressure Rukhmabai’s mother married her off when she was just 11 years old to Dadaji Bhikaji who was 19 years old. According to the customs, Rukhmabai did not live with her husband and stayed with her parents in their house. During the tenure of her stay with her parents, she followed her step father’s each and every instruction to educate herself, against the norms of the society.
Rakhmabai, soon found out that her husband had an hatred for education and was a man of questionable character. Where on one hand Dadaji, Rukhmabai’s husband was absolutely disobedient and had hardly serious about his life, Rukhmabai turned out to be be very intelligent and cultured young woman. She was terrified living in a claustrophobic relationship, she decided she cannot live with this man anymore.
In March 1884 her Husband demanded that she should come and live with him, while this time she was studying in school. She refused to go back and stay with her husband. Dadaji petitioned the Bombay High Court for restitution of marital rights of a husband over his wife. He wanted the court to give orders to Rukhmabai to go and stay with him.
Rukhmabai refused to go and stay with her husband, to which the court gave her two options, either to go and stay with her husband or to face imprisonment and go to jail. Rukhmabai said she would prefer to go to jail than staying in marriage which she doesn’t want. Her argument that she cannot be forced to stay in a marriage that was conducted when she was incapable taking decisions.
In 19th century this case was the most publicized court case in Bombay indeed in India. This case caught the attention even in British press during 1880’s bringing the issue of child marriage and rights of women to light. A group of Indian reformers, including Behramji Malabari and Ramabai Ranade, formed the Rukhmabai Defence Committee to bring the case to public attention. Pandita Ramabai social reformer, education pioneer champion wrote in anger
“The government advocated education and emancipation but when a woman refused to “be a slave” the government comes to break her spirit allowing its law to become instrument for riveting her chains.”
In Dadaji accepted monetrary compensation in return of dissolution of marriage in the year 1888. As a result of which the two parties came to compromise and Rukmabai was saved from imprisonment. She paid her own legal costs and had refused to all offers of financial assistance. Despite the out-of-court settlement, this case became a landmark in colonial India for raising issues of age, consent and choice for women in marriage.
Now free to persue her education Rukmabai decided to train her self as a doctor she was supported by Edith Phipson, the British director of Bombay’s Cama Hospital. Rukhmabai underwent an English language course and went to England in 1889 to study at the London School of Medicine for Women. She also obtained qualifications at Edinburgh, Glasgow and Brussels before graduating in 1894.
Rukamabi returned to her country after finishing her studies and obtaining a position as Chief Medical Officer in Surat. This was the beginning of her journey of 35 years of career in medicine, during which she also wrote against child marriages and on women’s seclusion in the community. She never married again and remained active insocial reforms till her death in 1955 at the age of 91.
Rukhmabai was one of the most important figures fighting for the cause of women’s rights in colonial India.