Mir Monaz Haque
On 9th December people of Bangladesh commemorated the Begum Rokeya Day in memory of the first Muslim Women Educationist who fought for the
equal rights of man and woman in undivided Bengal. Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain
was born in 1880 in a village called Pairaband in the district Rangpur and died on the 9th December 1932. Widely regarded as Bengal's earliest and boldest writer for women empowerment, Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain was a pioneering and creative educationist and social activist, and the school she founded in Kolkata, the Sakhawat Memorial School for girls, still thrives. As a social activist, she organised middle-class women in undertaking
slum development and training poor women in income-generating activities.
Writing as a way to raise popular consciousness, Rokeya used humour, irony and satire to focus attention on the injustices faced by Bengali Muslim women. She criticised oppressive social customs forced upon women in the name of religion, asserting that the glory of God could be best displayed by women fulfilling their potential as human beings.
She wrote several novels and essays. Her best known publications are Sultana's Dream (1905), Padmarag (1924), Motichur (1903) and Oborodhbasini (1931). Sultana's Dream, written in English (to test her proficiency in English), is a delightful ironical and satirical work set in Ladyland, where the men are in curtain 'purdah' and the women go out and work.
An extraordinary novella with generous dashes of melodrama and romance, disasters and coincidences, Padmarag, written in Bengali (1924) and translated here for the first time, describes a female-founded and female-administered community set in contemporary Bengal, where women from diverse regions and ethnicities, with unhappy histories of patriarchal oppression, better their lot by concrete social action. Both Sultana's Dream and Padmarag discuss in playful, fascinating, and intelligent ways the question of women's education.
A Western writer's comment on Rokeya's sentiments:
"Feminism is indigenous in roots as opposed to foreign influence. Although male support of indigenous feminist sentiments seems to be more common among the formally-educated (locally and abroad). Rokeya herself says that if she had not had her brother and husband's support, she would not have been able to write and contribute to the advancement of Muslim women in her country.
In the personal life of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, writing and activism were intertwined. The connection between these has however increasingly become difficult in the world of academia."
Rokeya did not reject veiling altogether as she herself wore a veil. She advocated modesty and said that veiling should not be in a manner that would hinder education for women.
Her primary concern was formal education for women. For Rokeya, women (veiled or unveiled) need to be self-sufficient. And in order to get support from men in her country, she argued that women become better 'home-managers' when educated. However, her ultimate goal was that women, and particularly Muslim women in her country, would reach their fullest potentials as human beings, would be able to pursue their own interests rather than relying on the men in their lives for their well-being.
As it has been often the case, feminist literature has been used many times by male leaders not to advance women's causes but to unite both sexes against colonial and imperialistic powers. Unfortunately for women, when the country gained Independence and the society reinstated its traditions, their interests once again got relegated to the background. Subsequently, gender oppression, already present in customs, is reinforced. No doubt, this sort of process was taking place during the partitioning of India in 1947, and in 1971, when Bangladesh declared its Independence.
All through her life Rokeya wrote impassioned, highly intelligent polemics about the oppression, discrimination, pain, and obstacles to development faced by women, both within her own community, and by women belonging to all communities.