Begum Rokeya The Legendary Pioneer In Women Liberation28 October 2020
Today’s civilized world widely owes to women emancipation and empowerment. It is an established fact that the gradual and smooth movement of civilization is carried out by equal participation of men as well as women in various sectors of socio-economic development process. Women emancipation has always played a vital role behind the stable and desirable status of today’s world. Our Motherland, Bangladesh, is an embodiment of our expectation and fulfilment of dreams. The overall socio-economic development of the country depends on the progress of its inhabitants. It is an obvious and unavoidable fact that women empowerment is one of the key-points behind the all round development of a nation. Our motherland is also a subject of that concrete reality. Literary legends of Bangladesh have always emphasized on the value of women emancipation. The heartfelt efforts of literary personalities and legends have always been widely reflected in our literature. In this regard the mostly remarkable name that comes to our mind is the name of Begum Rokeya.
Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (1880-1932) was born on 9th December 1880. She belonged to a landed family of Pairaband in Rangpur. She was the daughter of Zahiruddion Abu Ali Haider Saber and Rahatunnesa Chowdhury. Rokeya was born in a society where the existing rules and regulations were deeply hampering to the basic human rights of women. Talent or capability of women never got a respected place in the thoughts of the existing society. Rokeya had the craving to learn, to read, to write. She had the capability and desire to express. She was born with the flame of wisdom and therefore could not be kept confined under the darkness of illiteracy. In a world where women did not get any opportunity to prove their worth Rokeya paved the pioneering path in front of that shackled and suppressed class of society.
Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain commonly known as Begum Rokeya, was an advocate of women's rights. She was a Bengali feminist, thinker, writer, educationist, political activist and widely regarded as a pioneer of women's liberation in South Asia. She was born in a reputed Muslim family. Rokeya emphasized on the fact that education of women is the foremost requisite of women's liberation; hence she established the first school aimed primarily at Bengali Muslim girls in Kolkata. Rokeya is said to have gone from house to house persuading the parents to send their girls to her school. Until her death, she ran the school despite facing hostile criticism and various social obstacles. The Muslim Women’s Association, an organization that fought for women’s education and employment was formed by Begum Rokeya in 1916. In 1926, Rokeya presided over the Bengal Women’s Education Conference convened in Kolkata, the first significant attempt to bring women together in support of women’s education rights. 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 during the Indian Women’s Conference.
Begum Rokeya struggled to establish women rights in this sub-continent. She actually aimed at a double-folded achievement. On one hand she was determined to provide the women with essential educational atmosphere and on the other hand she was working to ensure women’s participation in overall socio-economic development of the country.
In her writings, she pointed out the basic reason behind the suppression on women. She advocated that both men and women should be treated equally as rational beings, and the lack of education is the main reason of women's lagging behind. Her major works always endeavored to spread the message of truth in favour of women which was truly an inseparable portion of the socio-economic development of the nation. The enlightenment of her wisdom is reflected in her major literary creations including Matichur (A String of Sweet Pearls, 1904 & 1922), which is a collection of essays in two volumes expressing her feminist thoughts. Motichur Volume 1 is a collection of essays including Istrijatir Abanati (Woman’s Downfall), Ardhangi (The Female-half) and Griha (Home) that forced women to re-evaluate their role within their homes and seek to create their own identity. In Motichur Volume 1, Rokeya begins with Istrijatir Abanati (Womens Downfall) where she makes women to discuss and reflect on the state of women’s issues in India. She pointed out that women’s jewellery (especially of married women) is a marker of an enslaved woman and thus she parallels the subservient status of women to slavery. Again in Ardhangi (Female-half), she provides a complete study of this issue and clarifies her standpoint on purdah and seclusion by mentioning that the ‘female half’ in society is plagued with mental slavery and a lack of opportunities. Her suggestion voted for the understanding of women by knowing the distinction between purdah and seclusion. Seclusion was identified by Rokeya as the origin of women problems, leaving them in a state where they had little opportunities or almost no opportunity outside the home. She introduced women with the wider outer world by showing them the way to get out of seclusion on their own terms by critically examining their role inside the home. She also addressed the failure of communities and the lack of resources for the advancement and development of women. Rokeya raised her voice against the oppressing attitude towards women which resembled slavery. She endeavoured to break out the shackles that forced the women to live their life almost as prisoners. An elaborate discussion of women’s rights took place in Griha (Home) identifying the state of women’s condition and here in conclusion Rokeya also deals with the idea of the home in a woman’s life. She claims that women should not live suppressed by men, rather both men and women should live in such a home where both would feel safe and valued equally. According to the existing rules of society in most cases home was a prison for women keeping them in a miserable and basically homeless state. She further critiques this has been purposefully orchestrated to hold women in a degraded status by the power of their husbands and families.
Overall, Motichur Volume 1, leads to the conclusion that changing the perception of the ‘home’ is a way to help women progress in society. The collection was successfully designed to elucidate the problem of women’s degraded status in the Indian community. Rokeya challenged women to question the patriarchal system in place and encouraged them to construct their individual identity.
‘Sultana's Dream’ (1905) is a science fiction novella based on feminism set in Ladyland ruled by women. Rokeya’s work Sultana’s Dream is a notable feminist attempt at imagining a feminist utopia, named ‘Ladyland’, the story endeavours to draw a lot of inspiration from the authoress’ own life experiences as a female child born to an upper class Muslim family. According to the family tradition women were under strict observance of Purdah system that secluded them to the domestic realm.
Rokeya’s father was highly encouraging towards his sons. Western education and he always gave utmost thought to secure their position as civil servants in the colonial administration. On the other hand the female members of the family were restricted to educate themselves through any educational institutions. Fortunately Rokeya’s brother bore an opposite principle. Without paying heed to the constant familial stet questioning, Rokeya’s brothers educated Rokeya and her elder sister Karimunnessa at home. Rokeya’s elder sister was married off before the age of fourteen after being sent to her maternal grandparents place because of her father’s objection to studying Bengali. Rokeya expressed her grief in one of her works mentioning that marriage prevented her sister from getting educated. But Rokeya herself was fortunate enough to get married with Khan Bahadur Sakhawat Hussain, who supported her wholeheartedly in her journey towards emancipation. Rokeya was encouraged by her civil servant husband to continue with her education after marriage. Rokeya’s husband, Khan Bahadur Sakhawat Hussain was an Urdu speaking, western educated, and ‘liberal’ minded deputy magistrate of Bhagalpur. He acted as the source of encouragement in Rokeya’s life which leads her to write in Bengali which helped her to connect with the common people. She later published Motichur in 1905 and Sultana’s Dream in 1908 and thus gradually was getting showered with success. Rokeya’s exceptional work Sultana’s Dream is based on an imagined Lady land where women seem to have access to public spaces without being restricted by suppressing social customs. The conversion of Lady land from a male dominated space was conceived as unrealistic by Sultana. She visualized herself as free spirit. She first reclaimed a public space where she was not subjected to male gaze and surveillance.
Various emotions felt by women facing patriarchal oppression have been revealed in this story. The writing style depicts emotions of anger, fear and constant urge to challenge male authority. Several attempts are notable here at engaging the female reader and reminding them of their own worth and question the patriarchal power that confines them to the domestic realm. In the story, women have been described as more rational and scientific than men, wherein Sara (the protagonist’s imaginary friend) is a scientific researcher who considers women as superior to men. When it comes to discussing women’s traditional work, Sultana is taken by surprise with Sara’s assertion of men being unworthy to work for women. Sultana is delighted to see the way women manage and control everything. She questions her friend with the similar patriarchal assumptions about women being unfit to work rationally and outside the house.
The reader gets constant reminder of the social customs plaguing women’s emancipation. It focuses on women’s need to attain more education. It also draws a challenging line in front of social customs like child marriage and Purdah system. Rokeya draws information from her own childhood memories where women including her mother and other female members of the family observed the Purdah system and the way her sister was married off before the age of fifteen. Through the story, she attempts to bring the issues that hindered women’s emancipation. She comments on the same through highlighting the sexual transformation of Purdah system from being about seclusion of women to male seclusion.
Women are presented as scientific researchers and men as capable of advancing military power. Rokeya sketched the female characters applying her own thoughts and imagination In the fictional dream, religion is given attributes of ‘Love and Truth’ in which killing of another human being is considered a crime. The Lady land customs defy relations of kinship followed under male dominated world.
Through Sultana’s Dream which was written during colonial rule, Rokeya highlighted the relevance of equality, women’s education and freedom. In addition to this, Rokeya through this story, quite successfully ridicules patriarchal oppression faced by women. This literary master piece provide women with the thought of self determination and emancipation. Therefore, as a feminist utopia, Sultana’s Dream offers no space for male domination and oppression. Various oppressive social customs were unveiled through Sultana’s Dream that were practised to dominate women. Rokeya’s childhood memories and bitter experience as a woman are also reflected through Sultana’s voice. The unavoidable and firmly established philosophy of women emancipation is expressed in an elaborated way.
Padmarag ("Essence of the Lotus", 1924) a depiction of the dreadful picture of married lives of Bengali girls in general. Padmarag advocates for a female-founded and female-administrated community in contemporary Bengal. It deals with a world where women from diverse sectors, regions, and ethnicities, with unhappy histories of patriarchal and familial stet oppression, work in harmony in an educative and philanthropic project. Their set of activities ranging from formal education to propagating crafts and caring for the sick and the destitute overwhelms the readers. A series of personal narratives of the women working in the institution have been offered here, this narration recount and indict the familial and marital oppression. With a bold and stable attitude Rokeya became the mouthpiece of the suppressed women. She appeared as the source of courageous hope and inspiration. In Rokeya’s voice it was boldly stated that Hindus, Brahmos, Muslims, and Christians, black women and white women, all suffer from patriarchal oppression, and all need to receive refuge and education from communities of competent women working together to reform society. Women from all spheres joined Rokeya under the same flag of uncompromising, ambitious, and insectarian values. Rokeya penned a completely new diagram of social structure for the sake of a better world filled with human values and prosperity. Generically, this ambitious and unusual work is very hybrid. This free flowing narration proves itself not only as a rebellious piece but also as a successful masterpiece of literature blended with generous dashes of melodrama and romance, with disasters, coincidences, and rich plot line. ‘Padmarag’ can also be considered as a polemical, passionate intellectual treatise on feminism, social welfare, and education. Strikingly, cohabiting with the melodrama in the work is a contrasting strand which is realistic and gritty, particularly in its depiction of a female-administered school and institution. Readers may have a glance of Rokeya’s own experience of running a pioneering school for Muslim girls. Padmarag has wryly humorous descriptions of the thousand trials faced by the administrators of a girls’ school. She thus also gives us an embellishment of pioneering working women typing, writing, teaching, or taking care of a thousand other duties, trying to create a utopia in an unhelpful, lacklustre workaday world. The first section of this essay draws the reader’s attention towards the personal narration of suffering and growth of the Tarini Bhavan workers and inmates. In the second section readers attempt to analyze the ideological contours of the reformist, gentlewoman-centred feminist project in the novella. The third section deals with Rokeya’s humorous attitude, realistic account of working women leading and administering an educative and philanthropic institution. The fourth section focuses on the eponymous heroine of the work, Padmarag/ Siddika/ Zainab. The fifth is a neatly constructed examining process of the striking and unusual ending of the work, in which Rokeya refuses to give her heroine the conventional ending of the courtship novel, and rejects marriage and heterosexual domesticity as the tools of women’s lives: Women who were high-minded, educated and at the same time suffering have been exploded by Rokeya through the process of being absorbed in the romance style courtship narratives. The penultimate section analyses the overarching framework of female-centred education, crucial to this work, to Rokeya’s life and thought, and to the movement for women’s emancipation in South Asia then as now. Gradually readers reach the conclusion where the work and oeuvre of Rokeya as a source of rich insight for insectaria has been explained. Here Rokeya put in forth her demand for a gender-just human developing social structure, particularly the furthering of education, in South Asia. Abarodhbasini (The Confined Women, 1931) is an another dynamic creation which has been created with the purpose of uprooting the unjust customs of society. It’s a spirited attack on the extreme forms of purdah that endangered women's lives and thoughts. In fact Rokeya successfully portrays the true picture of human rights by claiming the equal position for both men and woman in the existing society through her overwhelming literary eruption.
Being a Muslim at heart this great legendary woman has always bore in the deep of her heart one of the most important and essential philosophies of Islam. In Suratul Baqarah of the Holy Quran the role and status of a woman in society is clearly mentioned. There Almighty Allah says, “They (the wives) are your garments and ye (the husbands) are their garments.” [Al-Quran, Sura Baqara: 187] In this verse Allah (SWT) says that both men and women are complementary to each other. Thus women must play an equally vital role for the betterment of civilization. Society that leaves women behind never sees the face of success in true sense.
Begum Rokeya appeared with the lamp of education in the midst of darkness. Today’s women of 21st century are moving ahead boldly raising their head leaving all the unjust obstacles behind proving their praiseworthy capability. Today Women are living their life with sense of dignity. Today’s women owe to that great legendary feminist Begum Rokeya whose inflamed dreams and desires burnt the shackles and launched a new era of freedom and emancipation for women.
Anis Fatema is a Teacher, Columnist, Translator, Short Story Writer and Poet, Present Address: 230, Namapara, Khilkhet, Dhaka.