Dr Bhikaji holds the accolade of being the first woman in India to formally practice medicine, a remarkable achievement in a time when modern medicine was in its infancy. In addition to this, Dr Bhikaji made pioneering steps for women at a time when it was traditional, particularly within India, for women to stay at home.
A career in medicine
In current day India, it is a matter of pride for a daughter to wish to practise medicine. For Bhikaji, this was not the case. The ratio of females undertaking the National Eligibility and Entrance Test — the standard entrance exam required to enter medical school in India — is currently 56.36 percent. This is indicative of huge strides for gender equality in the medical field in India since Bhikaji’s time.
Bhikaji was married off to a man eight years her senior at the age of eleven. In a highly public court case she disputed the marriage, arguing her age prevented her from consenting. The Indian court overruled her protest. Following this Bhikaji wrote letters to the Times of India which reached the attention of British monarch Queen Victoria, who overturned the court’s ruling, annulling the marriage.
Legally separating from her husband in 1888, Bhikaji moved to London to study at the London School of Medicine for Women. Widespread public support was garnered. Bhikaji was supported in her studies by Dr. Edith Pechey of Bombay’s Cama Hospital, as well as many activists, and fellow Indians in England.
Upon completion of her medical studies Dr Bhikaji returned to India in 1894. She would go on to practise medicine in Surat, Rajkot, and Bombay for the next 35 years. She passed away on September 25, 1955.
Dr Bhikaji: A role model for women
Dr Rakhmabai Bhikaji is a role model for the advancement of women’s rights in India.
Despite improvements, India has a long way to go to ensure women stand equal to men. A poll by the World Economic Forum ranks India 108 of 144 in a global gender gap report. Women still lag behind men in access to education. There are also far more men than women in the workforce.
Though Dr Bhikaji achieved much in her life, she remains a relatively unknown figure in India. Her example, however, could inspire young women to seek an education, a decision which could empower them enough to continue to strive for gender equality within India.