Rukhmabai was an Indian physician and feminist. She is best known for being one of the first practicing women doctors in colonial India as well as being involved in a landmark legal case involving her marriage as a child bride between 1884 and 1888. The case raised significant public debate across several topics, which most prominently included law vs tradition, social reform vs conservatism and feminism in both British-ruled India and England. This ultimately contributed to the Age of Consent Act in 1891.
Rukhmabai (22 November 1864 ) was born to Janardhan Pandurang and Jayantibai in a Marathi family. Her father passed away when she was aged two and her mother seventeen. Six years after her husband’s demise, Jayantibai married the widower Sakharam Arjun, an eminent physician and social activist in Bombay. Remarriage of widows was permitted among the Suthar community – the caste to which Rukhmabai’s mother belonged.
Two and a half years later, 11-year-old Rukhmabai was married to the 19 year old Dadaji Bhikaji, a cousin of her step-father. It was agreed that deviating from the contemporary social norms, Dadaji would stay with Rukhmabai’s family as a gharjawai and be fully provided for by them. The expectation was for him to acquire education in due course and “become a good man”. Six months into the marriage, Rukhmabai having reached puberty, the traditional event of Garbhadhan was held signalling the time for ritual consummation of marriage. But Dr Sakharam Arjun, being an eminent physician of reformist tendencies, did not permit early consummation.
This displeased Bhikaji, now aged 20, who also resented the attempts of Rukhmabai’s family to make him “a good man“. In addition to his aversion for education, the compulsion to go to sixth standard of school at an age when he should have been at the university was particularly distressing. In the meanwhile, Bhikaji lost his mother and against the advise of Sakharam Arjun, took to living with his maternal uncle Narayan Dhurmaji. The environment of Dhurmaji’s home pushed Bhikaji further into a life of indolence and waywardness. He eventually accumulated debts which he hoped to clear using the property that accompanied Rukhmabai into the house. Rukhmabai refused to move in to the household of Dhurmaji to live with Bhikaji, a decision supported by her step-father.
In contrast, in the same years Rukhmabai studied at home using books from a Free Church Mission library. Because of her father’s association with religious and social reformers she also came into contact with prominent names like Vishnu Shastri Pandit, a strong proponent of women’s causes in Western India at the time, along with European men and women exposing her to liberal reformism. With her mother, she also regularly attended the weekly meetings of the Prarthanä Samäj and Arya Mahilä Samäj.
Rukhmabai received support from the likes of Dr. Edith Pechey (then working at the Cama Hospital) who not only encouraged her but helped raise funds for her further education. Other supporters included Shivajirao Holkar who donated 500 Rupees for “demonstrating courage to intervene against traditions“, suffrage activists like Eva McLaren and Walter McLaren, the Countess of Dufferin’s Fund for Supplying Medical Aid to the Women of India, Adelaide Manning and others who helped establish “The Rukhmabai Defence Committee” to help gather fund towards supporting her cause of continuing education. In 1889, Rukhmabai set sail to study medicine in England.
In 1894, she received her Doctor of Medicine from the London School of Medicine for Women having also studied at the Royal Free Hospital. Doctors Kadambini Ganguly and Anandi Gopal Joshi were the first Indian women to have received medical degrees in 1886. But only Dr. Ganguly went on to practice medicine, making Rukhmabai the second woman to both receive a medical degree and practice medicine.
In 1895, she returned to India and worked as the Chief Medical Officer at the Women’s Hospital in Surat. In 1918, she turned down the offer of a role in the Woman’s Medical Service, opting instead to work at the Zenana (Woman’s) State Hospital in Rajkot until her retirement in 1929. She established the Red Cross Society at Rajkot. Rukhmabai chose to settle in Bombay after her retirement.
In 1929 after her retirement, she publishing a pamphlet titled “Purdah – the need for its abolition” arguing that young widows were being denied the chance to actively contribute to Indian society.Rukhmabai died, aged 90, from lung cancer on 25 September 1955.Agency