Begum Rokeya: An uncompromising Bengali Muslim woman

Monirul Haque Rony :
Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain was born on 9 December 1880 in an extremely conservative aristocratic family in Payraband village of Rangpur. Not only her family but the whole society at that time was governed by strict religious restrictions. Despite being born into that orthodox Muslim family, she was a woman of modern thinking and mentality. It was almost impossible for women to get an education outside the family of that time. But she came out of that conservative society in spite of hundreds of obstacles with the encouragement of her elder brothers and sisters and later in the company of her husband and tried to realize women’s rights.
Begum Rokeya rose above sympathy and emphasized the emotional and economic enfranchisement of women. She looked at the society around her with a tender heart and a rational mind. She realized that if women were not economically independent, they would never be freed from the enslavement of men. She wanted equal rights for women to be established in the society and they come forward for development along with men. She urged the women to stand on their own feet in their strength. That’s why she holds the pen in her strong hand. In the story “Sultana’s Dream”, she has shown the society to the woman of her imagination. She could not accept that women would be confined to the gynaeceum, kitchen and in the rhythm of poetry. For this reason, she has explained it to the society by writing ‘Abhorodhabasini’ in the light of real knowledge.
Begum Rokeya realized that it was not easy to establish the woman of her imagination in the society. So, it is important to change the mindset of society as well as women. And that is why there is no alternative to women’s education. But in the society of that time, getting a formal education for women without the shackles of family was just a fantasy. At that time education was considered as the sole right of men. She locked the door of that society and established ‘Sakhawat Memorial Girls School’ in Bhagalpur in 1909 with only 8 female students in her husband’s name. Establishing a school for girls was not an easy task where girls had no access to education. But she did not lose her morale. She went from house to house explaining the importance of women’s education and bringing the girls to the schools. She gave them education. She did not stop just by establishing a the schools. She also campaigned for women’s education to spread the message of women’s freedom from house to house. Nevertheless, the society of that time did not take this initiative cordially. On the contrary, many have seen it with the eyes of condemnation and hatred. Yet nothing could stop her.
After the establishment of the school, Begum Rokeya realized that an institutional basis was needed for the pursuit of the demands of Muslim women. And so in 1916 she set up a women’s organization called ‘Anjumane Khawatine Islam’ to lay the organizational foundation for attaining the various demands of Muslim women in Bengal and acquiring leadership qualities. It was an institutional step of Begum Rokeya’s women’s movement.
In the family and society in which Begum Rokeya grew up, Urdu, Persian and Arabic were the dominant languages. Speaking and studying these languages was a lot like religious rites. English was considered a foreign language. Bengal was also seen with reluctance. Although she could speak and write fluent English, she did not walk that way. She saw that there was no alternative to Bangali to awaken the women’s society of Bengal. That is why she wrote all her works in Bengali. She first wrote a book in English called ‘Sultana’s Dream’ but later translated it into Bengali herself. She had a strong attraction and love for Bengal. At that time, writing in Bengali against the flow of society was also a kind of revolutionary work. Evidence of her steadfastness towards the Bengali language can be found in her strong statement in favor of the Bengali language at the Bengal Muslim Conference in 1930 which was an adventure in the context of that era.
Begum Rokeya has worked for the welfare and freedom of women till her death. In all her meditations-knowledge, thoughts-consciousness, mind and heart were women. Establishing equal rights for women in a patriarchal society was her cherished dream. While it is a matter of debate as to how far the dream of women that she dreamed of at this stage of the twenty-first century has come true today, there is no denying that the movement she started for women’s empowerment or women’s liberation will remain unforgettable for ages. The pioneer of Bengali Muslim women’s awakening, the social reformer, passed away on 9 December 1932 in Calcutta.

(Monirul Haque is Lecturer, Department of Social Work, Savar Government College).