Roquiah Sakhawat

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s Enduring Legacy

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain was a leading feminist writer who wrote from Bengal in the early half of the 20th century. Her works were almost exclusively on the identity and crisis based on social issues that plagued women during her time. She is remembered for her efforts to describe the plight of women and their issues in her works. Among her most important works is Sultana’s Dream.

Rokeya was born in an upper-class Muslim family and she was not allowed to attend school or learn Bengali because her family did not want her thoughts to be “contaminated” by non-Muslim ideas. Instead, at her family’s insistence, she learned Arabic and Urdu and various other texts written to enhance a woman’s understanding of what she was meant to do in the family household; what her duties were. Indeed, witnessing the role of women in society and their limitations first-hand inspired her views and these views are visible in her writings. In fact, in 1926, at the Bengal Women’s Education Conference, Rokeya went so far as to strongly condemn men for withholding education from women in the name of religion. As she addressed the conference, she said,

“The opponents of the female education say that women will be unruly … fie! They call themselves Muslims and yet go against the basic tenet of Islam which gives equal right to education. If men are not led astray once educated, why should women?”

She studied from her home in secret where her brother taught her English. She had by then, already begun to write in Urdu and Bengali and was a published poet. In 1905, she wrote her seminal work, Sultana’s Dream. Her husband urged her to publish it and she sent it to the English Language periodical, The Indian Ladies Magazine. The story, about a feminist utopia where the women of a country have taken over the reins of governance from the martial, patriarchal regime of men, was well-received.

The story is unusually simplistic in its time and place. There is no sense of grandeur to it but rather a comical touch to it. The cruel but hilarious portrayal of men in the story is a matter to think about as it directly approaches the attitude towards women that it is built upon.

 

Written about a land where there is no semblance of weather, it serves as a metaphor for the emotions of both men and women. Men being temperate and uncontrollable as the weather while women being in control of themselves and therefore being able to control the weather. This delineation of the roles of women in society is a marked departure from previous writings about women and a major motif of Rokeya’s writings.

There is also an element of role reversal in the story which deals with the depiction of men in “mardanas” as opposed to the usual practice of women in their zenanas. Indeed, the idea of a zenana is frowned upon quite clearly in the story with the Queen of Ladyland stating that “no trade was possible with countries where the women were kept in the zenanas and so unable to come and trade with us.” (Hossain, 11)

Thus, sultana’s dream not only represents the ideal for women, but also exhibits a place of hope and seclusion if not inclusion, a place where women are free and finally, come into their own.

 

Just like the story, Rokeya’s vision was no less idealistic. Her impact was powerful back then; it is even more impactful today. Her argument, that a society swimming in patriarchy truly needs the liberating hands of empowered women, will find many takers today.

In a century of women’s liberation movements, her achievements stand out in brick and mortar, in the form of a girl’s school in Calcutta (now Kolkata). Rokeya’s husband was enthusiastic about his wife’s work and was particularly pleased with her desire to educate girls and to empower them. In order to facilitate this, he left Rokeya Rs 10,000 to set up a school for girls after his death. She soon started the school in 1909 in Bhagalpur in the memory of her husband. That school was short-lived. Due to some family problems, she had to move to Calcutta, where she re-opened the Sakhawat Memorial Girls’ School in 1910. This institution expanded slowly, but surely. In fact, by the time she died in 1932, the school had evolved to such an extent that it was a fully-realized high school offering education upto matriculation and even taught courses in English and Bengali. Today, this same school is a thriving government-funded institution.

Many believe that Rokeya’s influence is more prevalent in Bangladesh. “Although Calcutta was the centre of [Rokeya’s] literary, educational and political activism, she is regarded as an iconic figure in what is now Bangladesh, where she is best recognised and indisputably exerts a posthumous public influence. All subsequent feminist writers and literary practitioners of the country owe an enormous debt to her relentless and pioneering intellectual work and leadership.” (Hasan 179)

 

Despite this, it is easy to argue that Rokeya, like her vision, did not belong to one sphere of life but had succeeded in reaching a broad spectrum of cultural spaces. Rokeya’s life has been an astonishing one in many ways. She was a Muslim woman, raised to toe the lines of patriarchy, to acclimatise to the norm, and yet, she ventured forth and tread her own path. Not just that, she even managed to bring other people into the fold with her.

 

 

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