Begum Rokeya : The Pioneer Feminist of Bangladesh

Volume 4 Issue 56 | July 29, 2005 |  Reflection

Begum Rokeya
The Pioneer Feminist of Bangladesh

Rubaiyat Hossain

Begum Rokeya is the founding pillar of Bangali Muslim feminism. Her writings, actions, and resistances strategically pin point, analyse, and resolve gender biased social, cultural and political practices. Single–handedly she pushed through the dark veil of seclusion to usher in women’s education, mobility with moderate purdah, and economic independence. Besides establishing a girls school she was also the founder of Anjuman-e-Khawatin-e-Islam (1916), which functioned nothing short of what we recognise today as NGOs. Rokeya’s personal life was overwhelmed with tragedies with the lack of her mother’s love and attention, early loss of her husband, and finally the loss of her two precious baby daughters in infancy. She suffered immensely from a wave of criticisms and various obstacles in initiating social change for women. But she worked relentlessly literally till her last breath to bring changes to women’s downtrodden status. Begum Rokeya offered Bangali Muslim women books instead of kitchen utensils. She told them about the vast world outside the bundles of saris and jewellery, inspired them to break out of the patriarchal framework and taste their own individualities, and finally she called out to them with a sense of feminist sisterhood–Jago Go Bhogini (Wake Up Sisters)!

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain was born in 1880 in Rangpur. Her father was a local zamindar and preferred to maintain strict purdah for the women in his family. Women in the household were taught only Arabic in order to read the Holy Quran, but as Rownak Jahan pointed out, “defying custom, and valuing their Bangali identity over their religious one, Rokeya and her gifted elder sister, Karimunnesa persisted in learning Bangla.” The names of Sakhawat Hossain and Rokeya’s brother Ibrahim Saber are often attached to Rokeya’s free expression and action, however, Karimunnesa, Rokeya’s sister, remained one of the key sources of inspiration for Rokeya’s struggle for women’s rights. Karimunnesa was an extremely talented young girl, who not only taught herself Bangla, but also wrote poetry in perfect verse. She was married off before the age of 15, thus, her thirst for knowledge was brought to an abrupt and forceful end. The waste of potential in the case of Karimunnesa terrified Rokeya to an extent that spreading education among women and ensuring their individual rights became Rokeya’s life long mission. Karimunnesa’s failure became the pillar of Rokeya’s success. Rokeya continued her studies with her elder brother Saber without the knowledge of other members of the family and continued to feed her passion for knowledge after getting married at the age of 16 to Syed Shakhawat Hossain, a widower of 39, in 1896.

Rokeya was well-versed in Bangla, English, Urdu, Arabic and Persian, but chose to write the bulk of her literature in Bangla except for a few pieces in English, including her first novel Sultana’s Dream (1905). Rokeya started writing her reformist pieces for various different magazines starting from 1903, which were later published under the title Motichur in 1908. Motichur part two was published in 1921, Padmaraga (novel) in 1924 and Oborodhbashini or the Secluded Ones in 1928. Rokeya Racanavali published by the Bangla Academy in 1973 included her unpublished writings and letters both in Bangla and English including her unpublished poetry. Begum Rokeya died on December 9, 1932, and up until 11 pm on December 8, 1932, she was working on an unfinished article titled, ‘Narir Odhikar’ or Women’s Rights. Two major organisational contributions Rokeya made for attaining women’s rights were her school and ‘Anjuman-e-Khawatin-e-Islam’ (Muslim Women’s Association). Sakhawat Memorial Girls’ School started off with eight students in 1911 in Kolkata, and by 1915 the number of students increased to 84. By 1930 the school had become a high school, including all ten grades. The curriculum included physical education, handicrafts, sewing, cooking, nursing, home economics, and gardening, in addition to regular courses in Bangla, English, Urdu, Persian, and Arabic. Rokeya emphasised on physical education because she believed that it was important to make women physically stronger, fit and confident. Rokeya also recognised the importance of women’s economic independence. Her curriculum therefore, included vocational training in crafts and sewing. She realised the importance organised action for changing women’s position and raising public opinion for it, therefore, she founded Anjuman-e-Khawatin-e-Islam in 1916. The activities of this organisation related directly to the disadvantaged and poor women. It offered financial support for widows, rescued and sheltered battered women, helped poor families to marry their daughters, and above all helped poor women to gain literacy. Rokeya ran a slum literacy programme in Kolkata by forming work teams to visit women in the slums to teach them reading, writing, personal hygiene and child care. Even though Rokeya made important contributions through her organisational effort, her writing remains her most significant gift to Bangladeshi women. Rokeya’s words are most surprisingly very relevant to our current status as women today. Even though Rokeya’s dreams regarding women’s education have been somewhat realised, her vision regarding women’s equality has not yet been established.

Begum Rokeya believed that men and women were created differently, but equally. In her views, the subjugated position of women was not due to Allah’s will, but due to men’s immorality, “there is a saying, ‘Man proposed, God disposes,’ but my bitter experience shows that, ‘God gives, Man robs’.” Rokeya believed that, “Allah has made no distinction in the general life of male and female–both are equally bound to seek food, drink, sleep and pray five times a day.” Rokeya used a fascinating logic to enforce the notion of gender equality within an Islamic framework, “[h]ad God Himself intended women to be inferior, He would have ordained it so that mothers would have given birth to daughters at the end of the fifth month of pregnancy. The supply of mother’s milk would naturally have been half of that in case of a son. But that is not the case. How can it be? Is not God just and most merciful?” (translated by Rownak Jahan).

Begum Rokeya coined the term ‘manoshik dashhotto’ or mental slavery to describe the loss of individuality in women, and identified this psychological phenomenon as the main force behind women’s subjugation. She believed that social systems like seclusion and purdah intentionally made women unfit and weak for survival in the public realm. Rokeya believed that men deliberately refuse women equal opportunities to cultivate their minds with the purpose of sustaining women’s dependence on men and further perpetuating women’s dependence on their own inferior status. Rokeya used examples of women who earn more than their husbands, but still submit to the men folk at home to point out that the framework of women’s subjugation exceed economic parameters. In Begum Rokeya’s view, manoshik dashhotto is at the core of women’s subjugated position. She summoned women to overthrow the invisible bondages of our brains, to strip off the transparent patriarchal exploitation, “The seeds of higher attributes have been destroyed in the female minds. Our inside, outside, brain, heart–all have become enslaved (dashi hoiyaa poryiachee). We are not entitled to have the freedom of our heart or perform the actions of our choice. Neither do we notice any effort to gain our freedom as women. Therefore, I want to say:Jago, Jago Go Bhogini!”

( Wake up, Wake up Sisters!)

 Copyright (R) 2005

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2 Responses to Begum Rokeya : The Pioneer Feminist of Bangladesh

  1. Asshini Katiyar says:

    Very motivational !!! Keep it up RUBAIYAT !!! I feel that more women like Begum Rokeya in this partial society…….😝😓👦👧

  2. Saima Nawar says:

    Begum Rokeya’s contribution was the best of all

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