Human Rights

Begum Rokeya: pioneer of feminism in Bengal

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, commonly known as Begum Rokeya, was pioneer of feminism in Bengal. She was a writer, thinker, educationist, freedom fighter and reformer. She was an advocate of women’s rights in the Indian subcontinent during the British rule.

With an expansive outlook and profound insight into the history of the region, and the challenges facing the time and society in which she lived, she was an anachronism: her progressive worldview and advanced thinking were leaps and bounds ahead of her time. Her contemporaries lived in utter awe: Here was a woman, clad in a simple Saree, keeping abreast, and at times, outdoing the progresses enjoyed by first-world contemporaries; The only of her kind in the entire South Asia.

Born in the village of Pairabondh in Mithapukur, (lying in present-day Bangladesh) into a prominent Rangpur family in 1880, Rokeya enjoyed the privilege of a hitherto unprecedented liberal family. However, this entitlement was bittersweet in the absolute sense: her father was an ostensibly well-educated and affluent upper-class zamindar but strictly enforced the code of the Islamic veil. Observance of dress and behavioural codes ascribed to women was stern, but Rokeya was adamant upon questioning and challenging this ethos.

She depicted literary inclinations and an intellectual bent of mind early on, to mixed reactions from her family but her consistent exhibition of these supposedly vagrant tendencies was disapproved of, particularly her insistent desire to learn Bengali and English. This partly owed to Arabic and the Islamic lingua-franca Persian, being the preference of haute Islamic families of Northern India and vernacular appeared unflattering and unsavoury to their palates, and partly to the general disdain towards female education. Her keen interest ultimately compelled her elder brother to support her, tutoring her elder sister Karim-un-nissa (another linguistic enthusiast) and her, in their much-coveted disciplines, when the rest of her family were fast asleep.

At the age of 18, she was married to a 38-year old Bahadur Sakhawat Hussain, the England-educated deputy magistrate of Bhagalpur. He encouraged her literary passion and actively supported of her choices. At his deathbed, he entrusted her with a will and specifically apportioned sum in order to start a school primarily for Muslim women. With her husband’s implement, she mustered the courage to put pen to paper.

Through her writings, she vocalised against the challenges and had the long-term vision for the emancipation of Bengali Muslim women, at a time when it was unthinkable for anyone to even broach their concerns. She never succumbed to the tempt of seeking majoritarian legitimisation.

She illuminated how a grossly literal misinterpretation of religious texts and tenets, and a deep-seated, thickset patriarchal mentality deprived females of their rights. Rokeya had a firm belief in her religon and her activism never underscored a departure from the Islamic faith. Her adherence to the fundamental tenets, while hoisting fundamentalists on their own petard, and showing both critics and proponents of Islam, how it was intrinsically non-discriminatory, led to her widespread popularity.

However, Rokeya never succumbed to the attempts to detach her from her religion, or be cajoled into denouncing it, but only to set society, which had since deviated, to the inherently egalitarian tenets of Islam. While her feet remained anchored to the substrate of her cultural niche, her heads soared the vastnesses of philosophy and her eyes saw several decades ahead. Her grass-root simplicity never compromised her stature, which lent her a keen far-sight, into ideas as  feminist utopia, concepts that eluded the most avant-garde of elite occidental intellectuals, let alone a modest woman with relatively humble, third-world origins.

Rokeya’s writings mainly revolve around the repression of women. Prominent among her works are Sultanar Swapna (Sultana’s Dream), Padmarag, and Abarodhbasini. At the knell of partition of Bengal, amidst divisive partisanship, stoked conflict and erupting clamor in 1905, she drafted her Magnum opus Sultanar Swapna, one of the earliest literary or artistic conceptions of feminist utopia. She also composed several other novels and short stories.

She contended that women were impeded by their ignorance of their own rights and diligence. In 1909, she set up the Sakhawat Memorial Girl’s School, the first school for Muslim women in the region, commencing with five students. She campaigned door to door, trying to persuade Muslim families to allow their daughters to attend school. She also ran a slum literacy programme in Kolkata, constituting work teams to visit women in the jhopar pattis (slums) to teach them reading, writing, personal hygiene and child care.

It was unprecedented in her society for a woman to talk about gender equality. She stated, “We [women] constitute one half of the society, and if we are left behind, how can the society progress?” She realised that lack of education and low level of literacy lay at the heart of the compound grinding chain of thresholds that entrapped women in perpetual, grinding cycles.

Rokeya also recognised the importance of women’s economic independence. In 1916, she lay the foundation stone of the Anjuman-e-Khawateen-e-Islam (Muslim Women’s Society), an organisation that spearheaded the strife for women’s education, employment and economic self-sufficiency, which was to act as the cornerstone for the feminist movement in Bengal and subsequently Bangladesh, decades later. Its members canvassed for women’s legal and political rights, sponsored women’s attendance at school, provided shelter to orphans, offered legal and financial assistance to widows and frequently proclaimed their independence within their respective societal backgrounds.

She was engaged in debates and conferences regarding the advancement of women until her death on 9 December 1932, shortly after presiding over a session of the Indian Women’s Conference. Till her last days, Begum Rokeya was preoccupied with her writings, reformist endeavours and social service.

Pertaining to Rokeya, a simile of a tree is invoked: She stood as a steadfast oak. As she strived to reach the skies, she stayed firm-footed in her culture and niche. Her determination and choice were her own: unshakeable and firm-beliver, irreverent to either native or colonial patriarchy.

Bangladesh observes Rokeya Day on 9 December every year to commemorate her works and legacy, and confers a namesake padak (medallion) upon individual women achievers, in recognition of their excellence or exceptional feminist endeavours. In 2004, Rokeya was ranked number 6 in BBC’s poll of the Greatest Bengalis of all time.