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Finding Fatima Sheikh

The story of a woman who in the 1800s co-founded 18 schools for girls, fighting caste and gender prejudice at each step

The central illustration in the card is a bust-length image of social reformer and educator Fatima Sheikh. The black-and-white illustration depicts her in a saree with the pallu covering her head, wearing bangles and holding a book playfully titled “How To Change The World.” Sheikh is loosely silhouetted by petals of a flower, arranged around her form as though it were a halo. She is also surrounded by musical notes and motifs of foliage like leaves. The upper-two corners of the card contain floral illustrations.

Text on the card reads: 

In 1800s ka India, a woman called Fatima Sheikh was part of a special dream. But who was she?

Most of us know Fatima Sheikh as being associated with Savitribai Phule. But other than that, like many women, much of her story is lost to history. No news reports. No diary entries to rely upon. Lekin, historians have tried to recreate her life story, from scattered references and anecdotes. 

Here’s one version…

The card contains  a chronological description of Fatima Sheikh’s girlhood. It contains the years 1831, 1837 and 1842, marking key events in her life. The card also depicts outlined maps, referring to the locations of Agra, Malegaon and Pune where these events took place. A dotted line connects all three illustrations of the maps. The upper-two corners of this card contain floral illustrations as well.

Text on the card reads: 

1831 – A girl was born in Agra (possibly) in a community of weavers (probably). She was named Fatima.

1837 – Fatima Sheikh’s family moved to Malegaon, because of the Agra famine. Her parents died shortly after. Her brother Usman became her guardian.

1842 – A drought hit Malegaon. There was also a locust invasion. Usman and Fatima shifted to Pune. Munshi Gafar Baig, a Persian scholar, took them under his wing.

This card contains a similar illustration of Fatima Sheikh as in Card 1. The floral silhouette and book titled ‘How To Change The World,’ are also present. In this figure, she appears with a graduation cap perched over her head.

Text on the card reads: 

We know a little bit about Fatima’s education. 

She was literate (this was not uncommon for Muslim women from some well-to-do families at the time). 

She taught young girls embroidery and tailoring. 

She learnt basic mathematics from her brother Usman, so she could keep her own accounts. 

It is surmised that she attended Mrs Mitchell’s Normal School, Pune.

The central illustration on this card is arranged at the bottom – it depicts Fatima Sheikh and Savitribai Phule mischievously glancing towards each other. Curling vines, leaves and other foliage surround them. They also have one speech bubble each which says ‘Aap jaisa joi meri zindagi mein aaye…’ and ‘Toh baat ban jaaye!’ The floral illustrations in the upper two corners of the card are now replaced with foliage.

Text on the card reads: 

It’s possibly at Mrs Mitchell Normal School that Fatima Sheikh met Savitribai Phule, another pioneer in women’s education in India.

Some historians say that the two met at a different school: the teacher training institute set up by Cynthia Farrar, a Christian missionary, in Ahmednagar.

Irrespective of where they met, a beautiful friendship blossomed. Fatima shared in Savitribai's vision: to set up a school for girls from all segments of society.

The card once again contains an illustration of Fatima Sheikh in the bottom-right corner clutching the volume of ‘How To Change the World.’ This time, her eyebrows are scrunched, denoting an expression of confusion and sadness. Three small illustrations of smelly feces are arranged around her – depicting that dung was thrown at her, as well as suggesting verbal taunts/abuse.

Text on the card reads: 

Jan 1, 1848: Savitribai Phule and her husband Jotiba opened their first school for girls in Bhidewada, Pune. Fatima joined them as a teacher. 

Opposition came quickly. After all they taught girls, and many of their students were from the Mahar and Mang communities. Upper castes forbade them from even drinking water from nearby water sources. Fatima and Savitribai would buy water for them. 

People flung dung at the teachers and students as they made their way to school. 

And Fatima had to bear criticism from both, Hindus & Muslims.

The card depicts Fatima Sheikh and Savitribai Phule on either side of the outline of a house-shaped structure. It is titled ‘The Indigenous/Swadeshi Library.’ Underneath Sheikh and Phule are two other women in black-and-white shown with graduation caps. The card also depicts the forms of other girls in the background.

Text on the card reads: 

Jotiba Phule’s father also had to face the backlash against the school. Under pressure, he asked Jotiba and Savitribai, to leave the house in 1849. Munshi Gafar Baig (Usman and Fatima’s guardian) came to Jotiba’s help. Baig encouraged Usman to offer shelter and support to the Phules. 

In the Sheikhs’ home, they co-founded, with Fatima, another school for girls - The Indigenous/Swadeshi Library. 

Between 1848 and 1853, the trio opened 18 schools for girls! Girls learned history, geography, grammar, and arithmetic. Fatima went door to door, convincing parents to school their daughters. By the end of 1851, over 150 girls had joined the school.

The card depicts an illustration of Fatima Sheikh and one of her students, in a graduation cap. This woman is now also surrounded by the floral silhouette like Fatima’s, suggesting educational enlightenment. Both of them are standing on a podium before a dais with microphones. The background shows a large crowd of people as part of the audience. The upper-two corners of the card contain floral illustrations.

Text on the card reads: 

1852: On Makar Sankranti, Fatima and Savitribai hosted a haldi-kumkum ceremony for the local women. Here, Savitribai spoke to them about the link between education and emancipation. 

1853: Having faced resistance, Fatima and Savitribai wanted to showcase the value of their work. On 12th February, they organised a prize distribution ceremony and invited an audience of local elites and Britishers.

They quizzed the girls on stage. The girls answered all the questions correctly. It was a success!

Savitribai wanted to expand the scope of her work. She trusted Fatima the most. She appointed Fatima the headmistress of their schools.

The card contains an slightly tilted illustration of a wedding invitation in the bottom right corner. On a background of white, it contains an intricately worked blue border and titled ‘Nikahnama.’ It also contains the names Fatima and Barkat, and an image of Fatima Sheikh. The invitation also has two pink-coloured hearts with pictures of Savitribai Phule and Jotiba Phule inside them. 

Text on the card reads: 

As per the custom of the time, Fatima Sheikh was (probably) betrothed as a child. But, for reasons unknown, the person to whom she was engaged never came for her when she attained puberty. Historians estimate that it was sometime after 1856, that Fatima Sheikh married Barkat, the owner of a hotel in Agra. It was Jotiba and Savitribai who gave him her hand in marriage, at the wedding ceremony.

Fatima moved to Agra, and eventually lost touch with the Phules. Her last meeting with Savitribai was at Cynthia Farrar’s funeral, in 1862 (probably).

The card contains a real-life picture of Fatima Sheikh, based on the negative of a photograph. The picture shows Sheikh sitting alongside Savitribai Phule, one another adult and two children. The upper-two corners of the card contain floral illustrations.

Text on the card reads: 

This is the only known picture of Fatima Sheikh. It is based on the negative of a photograph printed in Majur - a Pune newspaper published between 1924 and 1930. 

Another direct reference to Fatima is found in a letter by Savitribai to Jotiba, dated 10 October, 1856. Savitribai, recovering from an illness at her maika, writes, “I know my absence causes Fatima so much trouble. We are blessed that she is not the kind to grumble.”

The card contains a Google-created doodle of Fatima Sheikh. It displays Sheikh with a blue pallu and two open books in the background. The books and Sheikh are enveloped in a lotus-like illustration with the upper petals coloured in yellow and the side petals coloured in blue, spreading sidewards. 

Text on the card reads: 

On January 9, 2022, Google commemorated Fatima Sheikh with a doodle.

The story of the friendship between Savitribai and Fatima shows us how love, care and solidarity can be revolutionary. 

So here’s to this true example of ishq and inquilab!


1. Krantijoti Savitribai Phule: Life and Personality by Dr Tahera Shaikh

2. Savitribai Phule: Her Life, Her Relationships, Her Legacy by Reeta Ramamurthy Gupta

3. ‘MBM E18-The Life and Contributions of Fatima Sheikh’, an episode on  the Main Bhi Muslim podcast 

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