Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hosain (1880-1932)
Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain was born in 1880 in the village of Pairaband
in the colonial British province of Bengal Presidency, which later
became the northern part of Bangladesh. Born into an upper-class
landowning Muslim family, Rokeya was not allowed to attend school,
or even to learn Bengali or English, to prevent "contamination"
from non-Muslim ideas. While her father was fairly forward looking
in educating his two sons, he was not particularly interested in
educating his three daughters. She was taught to read Arabic and
Urdu, in order to be able to read the Koran and books on "proper"
conduct for women.
According to one of her biographers, she so valued her identity
as a Bengali that she defied custom and persisted in learning Bengali
under the supervision of one of her brothers. To this brother, Rokeya
Hosain remained grateful all her life. She wrote in dedicating her
novel Padmaraga to him, "You have moulded me from childhood.
. . your love is sweeter than honey which after all has a bitter
after-taste; [your love] is pure and divine like Kausar" [the
stream of nectar flowing in heaven mentioned in the holy Quaran].He
taught Rokeya and her sister (who also became a writer) English
and Bangla secretly at night. She remained grateful to this brother
all her life.
In 1896, when Rokeya was sixteen years old, she married Khan Bahadur
Sakhawat Hossain, the Deputy Magistrate of Bhagalpur. Her husband
wanted from her not the traditional duty and obedience, but love
and sympathy. He was proud of her quick intelligence and encouraged
her to befriend educated Hindu and Christian women and to learn
English. Many of her friends also encouraged Rokeya Hosain in pursuing
her philanthropic and reformist activities. Sakhawat Hosain died
in 1909, and left to his wife a considerable portion of his savings
to be spent on women's education. Rokeya Hosain carried out her
husband's wish by establishing a girl's school (Shakawat memorial
school) in Bhagalpur and then moved it to Calcutta, where it continues
At a very early age, Rokeya Hosain made up her mind to fight against
the unthinking observance of customs, especially those that struck
her to be absurd or unjust. Rokeya wrote courageously against restrictions
on women and to promote their emancipation, which she believed would
come by breaking the gender division of labor. When women were able
to undertake whatever profession they chose, she argued, then segregation
and discrimination would cease.
Despite her outspokenness on issues such as purdah, her actions
as a reformer were invariably tactful and strategic. All her life
she herself used the burqa (the full covering of the body) when
she appeared in public. In her school and among friends and relatives,
she covered her head with the end of her sari. She pointed out that
some form of veiling or protecting oneself from public exposure
was common to all civilized societies of her time. She proposed
a form of purdah that covered the body well without confining it.
She supported a "necessary and moderate" purdah which
would not be an obstacle to women achieving their potential. Initially,
her requests for help in furthering women's education were ignored
by the rich and influential Muslims of Calcutta. So, in 1916 she
founded the Anjuman-e-Khawatin-e-Islamm (Muslim Women's Association),
and slowly began to win support for helping disadvantaged women.
Hosain saw her writing as a means of challenging people to reconsider
some of the basic principles of their society and thereby effect
social reform. Her's was the project of consciousness raising, and
so she wrote mostly in Bangla. She strategized to adopt a style
that would best carry out her purposes. She had a keen eye for the
vulnerable points of her opponents, and used humor, irony, satire,
and pathos to make her case. While her writings focused on the lives
of Bengali Muslim women, she was deeply concerned with larger issues
affecting the Bengali Muslim community as a whole
Rokeya wrote Sultana's Dream in 1905 to test her proficiency in
English. Her husband, who read the manuscript through without sitting
down, was impressed. "A terrible revenge," he commented.
He persuaded her to send it to the Madras-based, English language
periodical the Indian Ladies Magazine, where it was published and
well-received. In 1908 it appeared as a book.
Her concern with reforming and revitalizing the Bengali Muslim
community was shared by other Muslim authors of the time who saw
powerful rivals in both the Christian English and the Indian Hindus.
These writers felt that if Muslims in Bengal were to survive as
a distinct group and change their status as a weak minority, they
had to accept certain aspects of modernity such as scientific thinking
and education without damaging the fabric of Islam. The debates
these writers fostered were silent on the question of women's position
until Rokeya Hosain raised it. She challenged traditionalist beliefs
about the innate superiority of men on religious grounds. Similarly,
she argued for the education of women as "the development of
God-given faculties by regular exercise of these faculties."
She argued that education led to self-realization and the fullest
development of women's potential as human beings, and thereby displayed
God's glory. This argument did not prevent her from also encouraging
women to educate themselves not only in the arts but also in the
sciences, so that they could work and become economically independent.
Today in Bangladesh, December 9 is celebrated as Rokeya Day. To
mark the significant of the day, national dailies publishes special
supplements and the city road crossings are decorated with posters
and festoons. Similar programmes are also be arranged at district
and thana level on the occasion. Begum Rokeya Smriti Complex having
library, auditorium and research centre at pairaband the birthplace
of Begum Rokeya has been built at a cost of Tk 3.30 crore for carrying
out women development and research works. The Begum Rokeya Smriti
Complex would be elevated to a women university in future.
Some Books by Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hosain
Motichur, Part 1. Culcutta: Gurudas Chattopadhyaya & Sons. A collection of articles published from 1903-4 in various journals.
Sultana's Dream. Calcutta: S. K. Lahiri & Co. Originally published in The Indian Ladies' Magazine, Madras, 1905. Originally written in English and translated by the author into Bengali. Perhaps the first piece of utopian literature to be written in that country.
Motichur, Part 2. Calcutta: Mrs. Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain. Dedicated to Apajan Karimunessa Khanam.
Avarodhbasini ("The Secluded Ones"). Calcutta: Mohammadi Book Agency. Dedicated to Ammajan Rahatunnessa Sabera Chowdhurani. Also appeared as a series of columns in the Monthly Mohammadi, 1928-30.
Rokeya Racanavali ("Collected Works of Rokeya"). Ed. Abdul Quadir. Dhaka: Bangla Academy.
Sultana's Dream and Selections from The Secluded Ones. Ed. and trans. by Roushan Jahan. Afterword by Hanna Papanek. New York: The Feminist Press.
"Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain." in Women Writing In India. Vol. I: 600 B.C. to the Early 20th Century. Eds. Susie Tharu and K. Lalita. New York: The Feminist Press.