Literature Desk :
Rokeya’s Urdu-speaking husband, Khan Bahadur Sakhawat Hussain, was the Deputy Magistrate of Bhagalpur, which is now a district under the Indian state of Bihar. He continued her brother’s work by encouraging her to keep learning Bangla and English. He also suggested that she write, and on his advice she adopted Bangla as the principal language for her literary works because it was the language of the masses. She launched her literary career in 1902 with a Bangla story entitled Pipasa (Thirst).
Sakhawat Hussain had encouraged his wifa to set aside money to start a school primarily for Muslim women. Five months after his death, Rokeya established a high school in her beloved husband’s memory, naming it Sakhawat Memorial Girls’ High School. It remains one of the Kolkata city’s most popular schools for girls and is now run by the state government of West Bengal.
Begum Rokeya’s organisation Anjuman-e-Khawateen-e-Islal was active in holding debates and conferences regarding the status of women and education. She advocated reform, particularly for women, and believed that parochialism and excessive conservatism were principally responsible for the relatively slow development of Muslims in British India.
As such, she is one of the first Islamic feminists. She was inspired by the traditional Islamic learning as enunciated in the Qur’an, and believed that Islamic teachings had been distorted; her organisation Anjuman-e-Khawateen-e-Islam organised many events for social reforms based on the original teachings of Islam, that, according to her, were lost.
Begum Rokeya remained busy with the school, the association, and her writings for the rest of her life. She died of heart problems on December 9, 1932. In Bangladesh, December 9 is celebrated as Rokeya Day.
Begum Rokeya was an inspiring figure who contributed much to the struggle to liberate women from the bondage of social malaises. Her life can be seen in the context of other social reformers within what was then India. To raise popular consciousness, especially among women, she wrote a number of articles, stories and novels, mostly in Bengali.
Begum Rokeya used humour, irony, and satire to focus attention on the injustices faced by Bengali-speaking Muslim women. She criticised oppressive social customs forced upon women that were based upon a corrupted version of Islam, asserting that women fulfilling their potential as human beings could best display the glory of Allah.
Begum Rokeya wrote courageously against restrictions on women in order to promote their emancipation, which, she believed, would come about by breaking the gender division of labour. She rejected discrimination for women in the public arena and believed that discrimination would cease only when women were able to undertake whatever profession they chose.
Rokeya’s works are: Sultana’s Dream, a notable early work of feminist science fiction involving a utopian male/female role-reversal, Oborodhbashini ('The woman in captivity'), Motichur, Padoorag ('Essence of the Lotus'), Narir Adhikar ('The Rights of Women'), an unfinished essay for the Islamic Women’s Association.
“Our good Queen liked science very much. She circulated an order that all the women in her country should be educated. Accordingly a number of girls' schools were founded and supported by the government. Education was spread far and wide among women. And early marriage also was stopped. No woman was to be allowed to marry before she was twenty-one. I must tell you that, before this change we had been kept in strict purdah.”
“How the tables are turned,” I interposed with a laugh.
“But the seclusion is the same,” she said. “In a few years we had separate universities, where no men were admitted.”
‘In the capital, where our Queen lives, there are two universities.
One of these invented a wonderful balloon, to which they attached a number of pipes. By means of this captive balloon, which they managed to keep afloat above the cloud-land, they could draw as much water from the atmosphere as they pleased. As the water was incessant1y being drawn by the university people no cloud gathered and the ingenious Lady Principal stopped rain and storms thereby.’
'Really! Now I understand why there is no mud here!' said I. But I could not understand how it was possible to accumulate water in the pipes. She explained to me how it was done, but I was unable to understand her, as my scientific knowledge was very limited. However, she went on, 'When the other university came to know of this, they became exceedingly jealous and tried to do something more extraordinary still. They invented an installment by which they could collect as much sun-heat as they wanted. And they kept the heat stored up to be distributed among others as required.
'While the women were engaged in scientific research, the men of this country were busy increasing their military power. When they came to know that the female universities were able to draw water from the atmosphere and collect heat from the sun, they only laughed at the members of the universities and called the whole thing 'a sentimental nightmare!'
Your achievements are very wonderful indeed! But tell me, how you managed to put the men of your country into the zenana. Did you entrap them first?'
'It is not likely that they would surrender their free and open air life of their own accord and confine themselves within the four walls of the zenana! They must have been overpowered.'
'Yes, they have been!'
'By whom? By some lady-warriors, I suppose?'
'No, not by arms.'
Yes, it cannot be so. Men's arms are stronger than women's.'
'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.'
Well said, but tell me please, how it all actually happened. I am dying to know it!'
Women's brains are somewhat quicker than men's. Ten years ago, when the military officers called our scientific discoveries 'a sentimental nigltmare,' some of the young ladies wanted to say something in reply to those remarks. But both the Lady Principals restrained them and said, they should reply not by word, but by deed, if ever they got the opportunity. And they had not long to wait for that opportunity.' n
(From "Sultana's Dream" by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossin)
[Rokeya's science-fiction short story, Sultana's Dream, is set in a utopian future where women rule and the men are locked away at home, very much like the practice of purdah that kept most women in the home in Sakhwat's time (and yes, to some extent today too)]