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RUKHMABAI (1864–1955)

Rukhmabai was a child bride who refused to live with her husband. Later she became a doctor. Her case, turning on the question of the rights and wrongs of child marriage, became a cause célèbre in Bombay (now Mumbai) in the 1880s, with Rukhmabai’s rights being pleaded by no less a personality than Pandita Ramabai.

Rukhmabai’s mother had herself suffered because of the custom of child marriage: she had married at age fourteen, had Rukhmabai a year later and was a widow at seventeen. However, seven years later she remarried, this time to a doctor and professor of botany at Grant Medical College in Mumbai, Sakram Arjun. Rukhmabai’s mother gave in to social pressure and married off Rukhmabai at the age of eleven to Dadaji Bhikaji, then aged nineteen. Rukhmabai did not live with her husband but stayed in her parents’ house and studied in school until her husband demanded in 1884 that she come and live with him. She refused, was tried by a court and sentenced to prison for denying her husband’s conjugal rights. Pandita Ramabai exploded with rage, not just at the obtuseness and connivance of the colonial rulers who had passed such a judgment, but also at those sections of society, led by B.G. Tilak, who nodded approvingly at the step. Rukhmabai defended herself by appealing to English law which could not compel her to live with her husband and consummate the marriage against her wishes. She also alleged that her husband was motivated by financial gain in trying to force her to live with him. The issues of child marriage and the lack of education for girls and women hit the headlines in London and heated discourses on the question of whether English law should override Hindu law filled the pages of the Times for many months. Rukhmabai was only saved when Queen Victoria intervened and issued a proclamation dissolving her marriage and commuting the sentence.

Dr Edith Pechey-Phipson (q.v.) at the Cama Women’s Hospital, raised a fund to help pay for Rukhmabai’s medical education in London. Rukhmabai qualified from the London School of Medicine for Women in 1894 and returned to India to head a hospital in Pune. Rukhmabai became Chief Medical Officer of Hospitals in Surat and Rajkot, continuing to write against the harmful effects on women of purdah and life in the zenana. She never married again as although her husband had finally accepted financial compensation not to continue with his claims, her legal situation in Hindu law as neither married nor unmarried, was never clear. She died in 1955 aged ninety one.
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