Updated: Oct 26, 2021
There are numerous inspirational stories of Indian women that persisted through misfortune and with education, matured to the people everyone strives to be. One such woman, Rukhmabai Raut, was one of the most successful women in the field of medicine and is invigorating hundreds of young girls today to fulfill their dreams.
Rukhmabai was born in 1864, and in her adolescent years, her father passed away. Soon after, her mother remarried a man named Dr. Sakharam Arjun who was a doctor, professor, and social activist. Instead of having a normal childhood, Rukhmabai was soon married off to a young man named Dadaji (who was 19), when she was only 11 years old. At the time, these marriages were not prohibited, and in fact, were promoted in various households in India. However, her husband did not live with her, and Rukhmabai proceeded with her education. Dadaji and Rukhmabai were rarely in contact with each other until Rukhmabai’s mother passed away. Dadaji was interested in the money Rukhmabai inherited and began to insist Rukhmabai live with him instead of her stepdad. He eventually sent a letter to Dr. Sakharam arguing this, but Dr. Sakharam refused his request.
In 1885, Dadaji brought his argument to court. Because Rukhmabai had been married off as a young child, and the marriage was involuntary, Justice Pinhey ruled in her favor (she was now an adult and could not be forced). However, this case received a lot of backlash and criticism, opposers asserting that the judge did not respect Hindu customs. Still, there was praise for the bold decision made. A writer going by the name of ‘Hindu Lady’ also became quite popular while the case was being contested, and it turned out that Rukhmabai was the anonymous writer, attempting to spread awareness about women’s status, power, and marriage in society.
In 1887, Rukhmabai was ordered to either stay with her husband or live in jail for six months. She chose to spend time in jail and soon wrote to Queen Elizabeth about her experience with her husband. The queen overruled the court’s verdict and dissolved Dadaji’s relationship with Rukhmabai while giving him some compensation. This action was a large catalyst for the Age of Consent Act being passed in 1891, ruling that child marriage was illegal in the British Empire.
Several people supported Rukhmabai throughout her career journey, including Dr. Edith Pechey, who helped raise funds for her education, and the Countess of Dufferin's Fund for Supplying Medical Aid to the Women of India, Adelaide Manning. Others formed a committee called the “Rukhmabai Defense Committee” to help her continue her education. Rukhmabai went to the London School of Medicine and received her Doctor of Medicine there. She soon accepted an offer to be a part of a hospital in Surat, where she served as the chief medical officer for over thirty-five years. She also established the Red Cross Society in Rajkot. Even after retirement, Rukhmabai constantly advocated for women’s rights, writing a pamphlet called Purdah - the need for abolition, arguing that widows did not have enough opportunity to actively contribute to society.
Dr. Rukhmabai’s life has been documented in books and movies such as Enslaved Daughters by Sudhir Chandra, and the movie, Doctor Rukhmabai, starring Tannishtha Chatterjee. Overall, Rukhmabai was an amazing woman: she fought for her causes, liberty, consent, completed her education, and persevered to be one of the first and best doctors India ever had.