Women’s literature has often been denied the right to hold prominence in the world, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries. The culture of female writing has been much ignored due to the position of women in male-dominated societies for ages. It is still not unheard of to see literature classes or anthologies in which women are greatly outnumbered by male writers. But what makes the history of women writers so peculiar and rich is their unique area of writing.
In India, particularly, we saw a surge of female writers during colonial rule, perhaps due to the urge to speak out against injustice. Be it Maitreyi Devi or Ismat Chugtai, these women created a space for the group of people marginalized by history to be remembered. One such writer was Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, also known as Begum Rokeya, who was once denied education and went on to build India’s 1st school for Muslim girls.
Begum Rokeya was a Bengali writer and activist, who wrote the first feminist science-fiction.
Born in 1880, Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain popularly known as Begum Rokeya was one of the first female activists of Colonial India. She belonged to a Bengali Muslim family in Rangpur, Bengal. Her family was a firm believer in the purdah system and thus Rokeya, unlike her brothers, was denied education. She was only taught to read Arabic, a language important to be able to interpret Quran. In all sense, Rokeya was forbidden to learn English and Bangla as her family thought that girls who receive education might get manipulated by the ideas of the West.
Though, Rokeya longed for education her sister Karimunnessa managed to learn how to read and write secretly. She taught this to Rokeya as well but when their parents got to know about their secret endeavor, Karimunnessa was married off at the tender age of just 14 to put a hold on her thirst for knowledge. This impacted Rokeya a great deal as she saw her sister’s dreams getting shattered right in front of her. Rokeya was also married as soon as she turned 18 to a much older man who was somewhere between his 40s.
Unlike the conservative in-laws of that time, Rokeya’s husband, Khan Bahadur Sakhawat Hossain, was an open-minded person who encouraged Rokeya to read and write. He also advised her to adopt Bengali as her primary language. It was through his support that Rokeya managed to start her literary career and published her first essay Pipasa in 1902. Just three years later in 1905, she launched a book named Motichur. The same year she wrote one of her most prominent works ‘Sultana’s Dreams’ in which she reimagined herself as a woman named Sultana who woke up in a feminist-led reality.
Sultana’s Dream’s concerns about gender roles in India are particularly interesting when applied to the private sphere. It’s a book written from a feminist POV, which was a unique way of storytelling in the times when there were hardly any rights for women. She introduced the concept of using science and technology to make life more peaceful. Rokeya’s other work ‘Lady Principal’ was also one of her unique visions of science, history, and politics. Though the book was deemed “a sentimental nightmare” by men, it is undeniably a very important piece of art promoting liberation in a then-conservative society.
Rokeya faced extreme rejection and resistance from society but her attempt to bring reform to patriarchal slumber is today praised by historians. Rokeya believed that the education of Muslim women was the only key to their liberation. In 1909, when her husband passed away, he left her an amount of Rs. 10 lakhs. Begum Rokeya used this sum to open India’s first school for Musil girls- Sakhawat Memorial Girls’ High School in Bhagalpur.
The challenge was not opening the school but bringing students to take admission. As the school was only meant to be an all-girls Muslim school, her target customers weren’t an easy deal to crack. She went door-to-door convincing parents to send their daughters to school but most of them were unwillingly to accept change. Only 8 families agreed that too with a condition that the purdah would be strictly maintained. Rokeya agreed to their demands and arranged for horse carriages to ferry girls to ensure complete Purdah.
Rokeya’s school sailed in 1911 with only 8 students, but soon the number surged when the word got out. The girls learned lessons in Bangla, English, Urdu, and Persian, as well as activities like physical education, music, cooking, first aid, nursing, and more. The school was then shifted to Calcutta and remained there for 24 years. Today, managed by the state government, Sakhawat Memorial Girls’ High School continues to be in service.
In 1924, Rokeya’s published her novel Padmaraga and another in 1928 Oborodhbashini, both dealt with bringing reform in society. She also launched Anjuman-e-Khawanteen-e-Islam (Islamic Women’s Association) in 1916. It was an organization committed to helping women coming from poorer backgrounds. The organization aimed at providing education, health care, and childcare to struggling women.
Begum Rokeya died of heart problems on 9 December 1932 at the age of 52, much before India experienced partition. The day is since celebrated as Rokeya Day in Bangladesh. Rokeya died as a pioneer of the feminist writer and her work continues to inspire generations. Many female authors such as Sufia Kamal and Tahmima Anam were firm followers of Begum Rokeya.