Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain rebelled against chauvinistic social mores and defined feminism and women’s rights among Muslims in the subcontinent. Her ideas would surprise even many “liberated” women of today.

“Where are the men?” I asked her.

“In their proper places, where they ought to be.”

“Pray let me know what you mean by “their proper places”.”

“O, I see my mistake, you cannot know our customs, as you were never here before. We shut our men indoors.”

“Just as we are kept in the zenana?”

“Exactly so…How unfair it is to shut in the harmless women and let loose the men.”

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“Why do you allow yourselves to be shut up?”

“Because it cannot be helped as they are stronger than women.”

“A lion is stronger than a man, but it does not enable him to dominate the human race. You have neglected the duty you owe to yourselves and you have lost your natural rights by shutting your eyes to your own interests.”

“Even their brains are bigger and heavier than women’s. Are they not?”

“Yes, but what of that? An elephant also has got a bigger and heavier brain than a man has. Yet man can enchain elephants and employ them, according to their own wishes.”

—Sultana’s Dream (1906) Feminist Utopian Writing by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain

Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (1880-1932) was an early feminist and author. She was unique in her time as the only one to demand equality for women, rather than education so that they could be better helpmates to men. A free thinker, she did not even pay lip service to many of the holiest cows of those days, or indeed today.

Her scathing writing, laced with wit, humour and logic, spared nobody, not men, not religion, nor women themselves. She wrote profusely in Bengali and English in a number of genres—short stories, poems, essays, novels and satirical writings.

She was a proponent of women’s education as a means to get out of their abanati (diminution). Education for self-development was an end in itself and further it could lead to employment and economic independence. To that end, she set up a school which still exists, and headed various women’s associations. She herself had received no formal education.

She was a rare feminist who could see the emancipation of women in modern terms, with equality as an inalienable right.

Sometimes praised, often reviled in her time, she was variously called “a shameless woman”, “a misanthrope”, “a radical misguided by the proselytizing propaganda of Christian missionaries”, and a “sexist”.

To understand her context: With the British Raj, educated men, especially in 19th century Bengal, started working to remove the many evils they saw in the treatment of women in India, both Hindu and Muslim. Sati, purdah and extreme seclusion, child marriage, polygamy at unimaginable levels (50-80 wives!) called Kulinism, prohibition of widow remarriage, almost no property rights, and lack of education were some of the issues.

Reformers like Ram Mohan Roy and Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar managed to get legislation passed combating many of these evils. Schools for girls were set up, the first being Bethune College in Calcutta, established in 1849.

Women’s education was especially espoused by the Brahmo Samaj. While most of the proponents were men, you also had women like Sarla Devi Chaudharani from the Tagore family.

However, the aim of the reform movement was not to make women independent or equal partners of men in family or public life, rather it was to make them better equipped to fulfil their conventional roles as wives and mothers. An educated woman would be a better companion to her now-educated husband, a more competent housewife, and raise healthier and more developed children—in Brahmo terms, be a Sakhi, Sugrihini and Sumata.

This is an old thought of even the most liberal reformers.

The Buddha said in the Samyutta Nikaya, consoling Prasenjit, the king of Kosala, on the birth of a daughter: “A female child may prove an even better offspring than a male one. For she may grow up wise and virtuous. She will honour her mother-in-law and be faithful to her husband (patibrata). The boy she may bear may do good deeds.”

Keshab Chandra Sen (1838-1884), the eminent Brahmo reformer, thought that education was meant “to make the woman more adept at running the household”. He believed that for a woman, to be a good wife and a good mother was far more important than to be able to write MA or BA after her name. Therefore only those things that were likely to be useful in running a household better were taught to the girls who attended his Victoria College.

Additionally, with the rise of nationalism, the most sacred role for women became motherhood and the keepers of our glorious traditions.

Surprisingly, many of these issues are still current. In the debate about whether women should work, the classic argument offered is that if a woman is denied self-expression and is unhappy, it will make her family unhappy. If she is fulfilled she will be a better mother. As if the only reason a woman is allowed to be happy, or exercise choices about her own life, is to better her family. Her own happiness is not considered an acceptable end in itself.

Here, Rokeya was far ahead of her environment and her time, and had the clarity of vision to see that women were equal and capable of all professions that men followed, and their education and economic empowerment were for their own betterment, and not to make them better adjuncts to men, or a better-functioning cog in society. Also, gender equality was a goal in itself, not just a sub-goal of nationalism. Not only that, she had the courage to say this in her writing, in the most hard-hitting terms. We still have trouble articulating this.

Education and economic independence were prerequisites for this equality. She did not see the exercise of power by women through agency—influencing their sons, husbands etc—as an adequate substitute for direct exercise of power or choice.

Rokeya was born in a rich zamindari family in Pairaband, North Bengal. Her father was Zahiruddin Muhammad Abu Ali Saber, of Iranian descent. Her mother Rahatunnessa was the first of four wives, one of whom was European, and they had 15 children amongst them.

Strict purdah was observed in her family, in an extreme form, where even small girls could not only not meet male but also female strangers. She wrote about this in Aborodhbasini (The Woman Who Lives In A Prison), her indictment of the purdah system, which she dedicated to her mother. Rokeya later bitterly recounted:

“From the age of five, I had to observe purdah even before ladies who were not family members…If suddenly some ladies came calling, someone at home would give me a warning, and I would run helter-skelter as if I were in mortal fear of my life. I would go and hide myself…sometimes in the kitchen behind a large wicker basket…sometimes inside a grass mat kept rolled up by a maidservant…some other time under a bed.”

Her father spoke seven languages, and realized the importance of English in the British Raj. He sent his sons to the prestigious St Xaviers College in Calcutta to learn English, and become part of the new English-speaking Bengali elite. This they did, with her elder brother Ibrahim later joining the Indian Civil Service and becoming a district magistrate.

As far as the women were concerned, it was a totally different story. As per the norm prevailing in their elite Muslim group, they were taught to recite the Quran in Arabic by rote, and taught some Urdu letters, to be able to read didactic tracts on appropriate behaviour for women, and religious sermons. Bengali was not taught as it was considered the language of the lower classes, nor was English; learning these languages would also create exposure to un-Islamic influences.

The fate of her elder sister Karimunnessa deeply influenced Rokeya. Karimunnessa, very talented, and thirsty for learning, secretly learnt writing Bengali; when discovered in her transgressions, she was hastily married off at the age of 14. Karimunnessa wrote profusely in Bengali, but very little managed to see the light of the day, though she did manage to publish a little.

Rokeya saw the enormous waste of human potential caused by the purdah and said of her sister: “Had her community not rigidly suppressed her talent, she could have shone as a bright star.”

She also had this to say: “Although Islam has successfully prevented the physical killing of baby girls, yet Muslims have been glibly and frantically wrecking the mind, intellect and judgment of their daughters till the present day. Many consider it a mark of honour to keep their daughters ignorant and deprive them of knowledge and understanding of the world by cooping them up within the four walls of the house.”

She saw that the fear of falling outside societal norms and missing out on a rich groom would cause fathers to keep girls uneducated, and scathingly attacked this.

“Our jewelleries—what are these if not the symbol of our bondage? Handcuffs for prisoners are made of steel; ours are made of gold and silver and we call them bangles. Perhaps in imitation of dog collars we have fashioned our neckbands, strung with jewels. Horses and elephants are tethered with iron chains and we happily put gold chains around our necks.”

She however had the good fortune of getting support from her progressive brother Ibrahim, who would teach her late at night by the faint candlelight when everybody, particularly her father, had gone to sleep.  She managed to learn five languages: Bangla, English, Urdu, Persian and Arabic. Ibrahim taught her English: once he held a big, illustrated English book before Rokeya and said: “Little sister, if you can learn this language, all the doors to the treasures of the world will be open for you.”

Her brother, keen that she should continue to live in a liberal environment, found for her a progressive husband, Sakhawat Hossain, a non-Bengali civil servant from Bhagalpur. He was educated in London, a 38-year old widower in 1896 when they got married. Rokeya was 16.

She lived happily in Bhagalpur for 13 years, encouraged by her husband to read widely in Bangla and English, and to socialize with educated Hindu and Christian women. She had two daughters, who unfortunately died in their infancy. She was encouraged to articulate her fiercely independent feminist thinking, some of which would shock people even today, let alone a hundred years ago. As early as 1905, she suggested that husbands should not be called swami, as was the norm in Bengal, but ardhang (literally, half of the same body).

Her first published work was Pipasha (Thirst) in Bangla in 1902.

She then published her tour de force, Sultana’s Dream, written in English in 1905. Sultana’s Dream is a feminist utopian fantasy, where she envisions a world of role reversal, in which women rule and control all administrative and social matters, while men are kept in seclusion in the mardanas (men’s enclosures) to mind babies, to cook and to do all sorts of domestic work. This is combined with prescient science fiction—the women professors in the universities have invented solar power, water harvesting from the atmosphere, and flying machines. Her account of writing the book:

“My adorable late husband was on a tour; I was totally alone in the house and wrote something to pass my time. After coming back, he asked me what I was doing during those two days. In reply to his query, I showed him the draft of Sultana’s Dream. He read the whole piece in one go while standing and exclaimed: ‘A terrible revenge!’ Then he sent the draft to the then Commissioner (of Bhagalpur) Mr McPherson for possible (language) correction. When the writing came back from McPherson, it was noticed that he did not make any pen-mark on the draft. Rather he sent a note attached that read: ‘The ideas expressed in it are quite delightful and full of originality and they are written in perfect English….I wonder if she has foretold here the manner in which we may be able to move about in the air at some future time. Her suggestions on this point are most ingenious.’”

It was published in The Indian Ladies’ Magazine in 1905, and later as a book, and still later, Rokeya translated it into Bengali and had it published for greater reach.

Her husband passed away in 1909. A great believer in women’s education, he left money to start a girl’s school, which she immediately did. She however had to move to Calcutta in 1910 because of property disputes. She moved the school with her. Sakhawat Memorial Girl’s School was her life’s work until she died in 1932. It survives till date, run by the West Bengal Government.

In 1911, the school had only eight pupils. By 1930, especially after official approval by the Vicereine, it became well-established as the leading school for Muslim girls. In spite of her personal opposition to the purdah, she ran it as a purdah school, where the girls were taught reading and writing in Urdu, Persian, Bengali and English, gardening, home nursing, music, making handicrafts, cooking, sewing and physical fitness, as well as recitation of the Quran. As there were not many competent female teachers at that time in Calcutta, Begum Rokeya herself used to train the teachers she appointed from Madras, Gaya, Agra and other places.

She however campaigned to make chemistry, botany, horticulture, personal hygiene, healthcare, nutrition, physical education, gymnastics and painting and other fine arts open to women. She wanted girls to be physically strong, and encouraged physical training for girls, teaching them how to play with swords or rods.

In Sultana’s Dream, she portrays Sister Sara as someone who is proficient in a number of modern branches of knowledge such as history, politics, military strategy, education and science, while the men in the short novel are busy with masculine vanity, greed, boastfulness and war-making.

In actual day-to-day life, she had to make compromises which must have troubled her greatly. She herself was in purdah in public, as she needed it as a strategy to preserve her school. She said that she did not wish the school to die, “so I had to make a compromise in the interest of my school by observing purdah”. The purdah school bus was like a large almirah on wheels where the girls could barely breathe.

In her writing, both fiction and non-fiction, she saw education as the means for women to gain equality in professional life, and become economically independent.

Rokeya, almost alone, dared to say that marriage was not the ultimate goal, and family was not the ultimate end. Even today, educated and “liberated” women find it difficult to openly say what she said a hundred years ago.

“Education must be both for physical and mental advancement. Women must know that they were not born into this world merely to be decorative pieces in fine dresses and expensive jewelleries…. Their life is not to be dedicated for the sole purpose of pleasing their husbands, let them not be dependent on others for upkeep.”

“To care for one’s husband and his home is not the be-all and end-all of a woman’s life. God has given us a very precious life—not to be misspent in cooking and domestic chores.”

“Educate the daughters properly and let them go out and fend for themselves.“

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“Why should we not have access to gainful employment? What do we lack? In fact, why should we not employ the labour and energy that we expend on domestic chores in our husbands’ homes to run our own enterprises?”

“From office workers to lawyers to magistrates and even judges—we shall get entry to all jobs and professions…. Perhaps 50 years down the road we may see a woman installed as a viceroy.”

“May I ask Astronomer sir, why do we not find your wife with you? When you are engaged in measuring the distance between the earth and the sun or the stars, why is your wife occupied in the measurement of pillow covers?”

In her crusade for equality for women, she faced a lot of opposition, both from men and women. She often tried to justify her deviation from the mores by saying this was a purer form of Islam, but at other times, she simply rebelled, and placed the imperative of equality above the religious mores.

“The opponents of the female education say that women will be unruly…fie! They call themselves Muslims and yet go against the basic tenet of Islam which gives equal right to education. If men are not led astray once educated, why should women?”

“Whenever a woman has tried to raise her head, she has been brought down to her knees on the grounds of religious impiety or scriptural taboo… What we could not accept as correct, we had to in the belief that it had the authority of a religious dictum… Men have always propagated such religious texts as edicts of God to keep us women in the dark… the scriptures are nothing but a set of regulating systems prescribed by men. You hear that the prescriptions were laid down by saints. If a woman could have become a saint, perhaps she would have prescribed opposite regulations… We must not allow ourselves to bow down to the undue authority exercised by men in the name of religion. It has been seen time and time again that the stricter the religious restrictions, the more severe is the women’s victimization.”

She herself, though a practicing Muslim, was a liberal in terms of religion.

From Sultana’s Dream:

“Our religion is based on Love and Truth. It is our religious duty to love one another and to be absolutely truthful.”

On the highest level of the house of religion, “there is just one chamber inhabited by only people, all the same; there are no Hindus, no Muslims; all are worshipping only one God. In the final analysis, there is nothing—except the great God.”

Rokeya also founded and headed many women’s associations, which organized conferences, vocational training etc for women. She headed the Bengal branch of Anjuman-i-Khawatin-i- Islam. She strongly supported women’s right to vote. She did not believe in relying on male help to achieve women’s goals. “You all club together and form various associations to protect your rights and demands.”

Though her work life was spent in Calcutta, Rokeya is today a heroine for Bangladesh, both for her defense of Bangla over Urdu as the true mother tongue for the Muslims of Bengal, as also the essential progenitor of the women’s movement in Bangladesh, one of the most successful and powerful women’s movements in the world.

The date of her death, 9 December, is now commemorated as “Rokeya Day” in Bangladesh. There is a women’s hall of residence in Dhaka University, and the newly-built public university in Rangpur (2008) was named Begum Rokeya University to honour the “legendary woman scholar who pioneered and promoted female education in the Indo-Pak-Bangla subcontinent”.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has said that if Rokeya had not shown the path, women in present-day Bangladesh would not be working in offices, courts, mills and factories, in fields and farms, and in trade and commerce. It is time to honour this extraordinary lady in India too.

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