“Let us remember: One book, one pen, one child, and one teacher can change the world.” - Malala Yousafzai
Teachers build the foundation of an empowered nation by educating the masses and inculcating a sense of responsibility in them. By transferring the power of knowledge, they inspire new generations to build a better tomorrow. However, their efforts go in vain when a stringent education system refuses to bend its rules and accommodate new ideas. Unequal opportunities, bad infrastructure, and lack of funding are few among the many problems that plague the Indian education system.
Women as leaders, and as teachers, have always shown fearless initiative in making the education system more inclusive. While these women have strived to incorporate a considerable shift in educational policies and patterns, their names seem to be slowly fading from our minds and from the pages of history. Let’s get to know some of these exceptional women and rekindle the flame.
Vimla Kaul spent all her life training and educating unprivileged children in Delhi who did not have enough resources to go to school. She believed in the idea that education is a need, a necessity that should not have a price tag attached to it. She says she has never turned a single student away for being slow in learning. She says, “Many government schools do children a disservice. They don’t teach them properly, and then follow a no-detention policy. What you are left with are teenagers who can’t construct a basic sentence in either English or Hindi.”
A prolific Marathi writer and a philanthropist, Savitribai Phule was a woman ahead of her time. She pioneered in providing education to girls at a time when the caste system’s hold was the strongest. Belonging to a lower caste herself, she was forbidden from pursuing formal education; she was educated by her husband Jyotirao Phule. Thereafter, she founded India’s first all-girls school in Pune and attracted tremendous cynicism from society in return. She faced more criticism in the course of her life and was hurt both mentally and physically. Such was the rage of Brahmanism that she was pelted with stones for her work as a pathbreaking educationist.
Begum Hamida Habibulla
Hamid Habibulla belonged to an affluent family and, from the very beginning, was a keen student who wanted to pursue higher studies in Cambridge. She trained to be a teacher at Whitelands College, London, and upon her return, went on to carve a six-decade-long legacy as an educator. Known for her ground-breaking work in providing education to the unprivileged and marginalised sections, especially educating girls who were pulled out of school due to financial constraints, Hamida Habibulla, along with her mother-in-law, founded Talimgah-e-niswan, a school for girls belonging to the minority sector. The school now has more than 3500 students and continues to grow exponentially. As a leader, she has left a deep imprint on our minds for her trailblazing work in the refinement of educational policies in India.
A contemporary of Savitribai Phule, Fatima Sheikh was an Indian educator who went on to become one of India’s first female Muslim teachers. She started her journey by joining forces with the Phules and educating Dalit girls. Belonging to a marginalised community and being a minority herself, Fatima’s struggle was twice as hard. She went against her family to carve a niche for herself as an educator and faced multiple hardships throughout her life. However, with the aim to create a path for more Muslim women to join the profession, she persisted and became a driving force behind a silent educational revolution in India.
While these women dominated historical times with their pioneering work that dismantled obstacles to education, there are women educationists today who are striving to bring a considerable change in the Indian education system. Roshni Mukherjee leveraged the power of the internet to establish ExamFear and reached thousands of students willing to learn but without the right resources.
Geeta Dharamrajan is a Padma Shri awardee, a writer, teacher, and founder of Katha, an establishment that works towards upskilling people from rural areas and slums in Delhi, Haryana, Arunachal Pradesh, and Maharashtra. At a tender age of 11, Mukti Dangli lost her eyesight but not her determination to grow; she started Pragnachakshu Mahila Seva Kunj, an NGO for visually impaired women in India, in 1995. The institute now houses more than 400 students and trains them in computer languages and teaching.
These extraordinary women are working tirelessly to fill the gaps in our education system, inspiring many by their fearless display of leadership, foresight, and persistence against all odds.
(Edited by Varsha Roysam)