Google India on Wednesday paid homage to Rukhmabai Raut, the first Indian woman to practice medicine in colonial India, with a doodle.
“Today’s Doodle by illustrator Shreya Gupta shows the courageous doctor among her patients, doing the dedicated work of a skilled physician,” said Google’s blog post on its doodles.
But Rukhmabai has another feather in her cap. If women in modern India can assert their rights of consent, it is due to Rukhmabai refusing to recognise her marriage and the case filed by her husband thereafter.
Born on this day in 1864 in Bombay, Rukhmabai was the only daughter of Janardhan Pandurang and Jayantibai. She lost her father when she was eight years old and was married off at the age of 11 to Dadaji Bhikaji. Her mother later married Sakharam Arjun, an eminent physician and the founding member of Bombay Natural History Society.
Rukhmabai continued to stay with her mother and step-father even after marriage. Seven years later, Dadaji moved court seeking it to order his wife to live with him. Rukhmabai refused to move in with her husband stating that a woman cannot be compelled to stay in a wedlock when she is not interested. Her decision was supported by her step-father who helped her fight the case in court. The Dadaji vs. Rukhmabai case that went on for three years triggered a debate in both England and India. The verdict went in favour of Dadaji. The court ordered Rukhmabai to live with her husband or face six months imprisonment. A brave Rukhmabai said she was willing to opt the latter.
The verdict was subsequently overruled by Queen Victoria. This prompted the government to bring the Age of Consent Act, 1891, despite opposition from conservative Indians.
Rukhmabai legally separated from her husband in 1888 and moved to England to study medicine. She got support from Dr. Edith Pechey of Bombay’s Cama Hospital, activists, and fellow Indians in England to complete her course in the London School of Medicine for Women. She returned to India in 1894 and practised in Surat, Rajkot, and Bombay for the next 35 years. She passed away on September 25, 1955.
Incidentally, Google has created two more doodles today. Users in Russia will be seeing a slideshow depicting the life and times of writer Vladimir Dal, who compiled the Explanatory Dictionary of the Living Great Russian Language.
1. She was a victim of child marriage
Born in Bombay to Janardhan Pandurang and Jayantibai, Rukhmabai later went on to live with her mother and stepfather, professor and doctor Sakharam Arjun, after father died young. However, at the young age of 11, she was married off to a 19-year-old Dadaji Bhikaji. The couple, however, never lived together, and Rukhmabai chose to finish her education.
2. She refused to live with her husband
After her mother’s death, Rukhmabai was the heir to a lofty inheritance, which is when Dadaji decided to get in touch with her with the vested interest of staking claim to the wealth. Rukhmabai, however, contested that she did not consider their marriage legitimate, and continued to live with her stepfather while simultaneously furthering her education – arguing that the marriage had taken place when she was not in the age or position to consent to it.
3. She fought a historic legal case
Dadaji decided to press legal charges against Rukhmabai and her stepfather in March 1884, accusing Sakharam of coercing his daughter not to live with Dadaji. A year later, Dadaji sought “restitution of conjugal rights”. Justice Robert Hill Pinhey boldly passed a judgement independent of any British precedents – for they only applied to consenting adults – or even Hindu Law for no one had resisted child marriage so fervently. This judgement stated that Rukhmabai could not be forced to stay married to Dadaji for she was an innocent child when she was married off and had no say in the matter. The society resisted this tooth and nail and considered this a direct attack on Hindu traditions and norms.
4. She became an anonymous journalist
The case was reopened in 1886. In order to lobby for her stance, she authored a series of articles, with the pseudonym ‘A Hindu Lady,’ highlighting the plight of women in the context of child marriage and the restrictions placed on their life after widowhood. At a time when every newspaper was critical of her decisions, this series came to be highly talked about – and it was discovered much later that she was the author. The case reopened in 1887, giving Rukhmabai two options – to either go live with Dadaji or spend six months in jail, but Rukhmabai said she would gladly accept the latter. She then went on to seek out Queen Victoria, who overruled the court’s verdict and dissolved the marriage, albeit awarding Dadaji two thousand rupees.
5. She changed an age-old law in Britain
Tales of this verdict travelled far and wide and even came to British shores, where they received widespread media attention. This conversation subsequently contributed to the passage of the Age of Consent Act, 1891, which criminalised child marriage in the British Empire.
6. She fulfilled her dream of becoming a doctor
Through the support of stalwart Dr Edith Pechey, Rukhmabai was able to procure her degree in medicine from the London School of Medicine For Women. She even started providing medical aid to women in India through support from Eva McLaren, Walter McLaren and the Countess of Dufferin’s Fund. After studying from 1989-1894, she returned to India in 1894 and joined a hospital in Surat, where she served as the chief medical officer for 35 years. She retired around 1930, and eventually, breathed her last in 1955, at the age of 91.
Rukhmabai’s story is that of a woman who was not afraid to stand up for everything she believed in.