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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Mary-Beard Photo by Chris Boland / www.chrisboland.com

Book Review – Mary Beard’s Women and Power

Feminism vs Androboulon… Mansplaining vs Muthos… Minorities vs Herland

Linguists dabbling in irony might consider Mary Beard’s name itself a dichotomy. Mother Mary vs Mary Magdelene is the classic example of the patriarchal narrative between mother and whore. As she writes about Women and Power, Mary Beard draws similarly upon classical narratives as ancient as the Greeks to the Trump era of ‘presidential’ expressions such as “Grabbing the Pussy.” As Telemachus tells Penelope in the Greek classic, Odyssey, “Speech is the business of men.” Muthos or authoritative public speech as opposed to women’s chatting or gossiping requires androboulon (thinking as a man). In the new millennium, “Misogyny in politics or in the workplace” has extended to digital discourse. Even as male dominance is frequently exercised in the world of Wikipedia contributors, the contemporary version of mansplaining is adequately being countered by feminists and female-identifying persons alike.

As Beard examines the dilemma of women’s voice and representation by drawing on allegorical references in historical records and contemporary discourse, the trajectory of patriarchal continuance is highlighted from overt declarations to subliminal disavowal of women’s right to expression or a rightful place in society’s power hierarchies. “Gendered speaking” is probably most obvious in male opposition to Miss Triggs’ suggestion in the corporate boardroom, a fact recently depicted in the Stranger Things as Nancy pitches a story during the local newspaper’s daily briefing. “Do words matter?” Beard asks and replies, “they do because the underpinning idiom that acts to remove the authority, the force, even the humour of what women have to say… effectively repositions women to the domestic sphere devoid of muthos.”

More relevant is ‘The Public Voice of Women’ in governance with Elizabeth Warren disallowed from reading Coretta Scott King’s letter during the Senatorial debate, and the Afghan government reportedly turning off mics in Parliament when they don’t want to hear the women speak. This despite the fact that women in power frequently seek to subvert expectations of feminine fashion with “regulation trouser suits” in an attempt “similar to lowering the timbre” for that muthos tone.

Based on two lectures by Beard in 2014 and 2017 respectively, Women and Power explores the reasons why “conventional definitions of power, knowledge, expertise, and authority exclude women?” Simultaneously, the authority of women in power are diminished by portrayals such as Thatcher hitting with handbags, or Trump as Perseus holding the Medusa Hillary head.

Of course, the author does consider that in Twitterland, “women are not the only ones who may feel themselves voiceless.” Those who consider intersectionality as crucial to understanding the deeper connections between micro-aggressions and public hostility would argue minorities within minorities combine with shared sociocultural experiences to provide a framework of public discourse and private interactions. Beard argues that, “We should be thinking more about the fault lines and fractures that underlie dominant male discourse.”

“Shared metaphors of women’s access to power represent exteriority – ‘knocking on the door,’ ‘storming the citadel,’ or ‘smashing the glass ceiling.’” Even as UK newspapers announced “Women Prepare for a Power Grab in the Church, Police, and BBC,” the appointment of Cressida Dick as Met Commissioner could be argued as subliminal male acceptance due to the Commissioner’s last name. But that is feminism – questioning hierarchies of power in society, advocating for equal rights and opportunities, and ensuring a paradigm shift in conventional definitions of power and public authority.

The Tamasha of Women Empowerment in India

I don’t remember when was the last time I walked out of a movie feeling so content yet wanting to run back into the hall and experience it all over again. Despite the inconveniences of poor health and a bad choice of seats, the cheers from the audience, the hilarious narration and the inspiring story only left me wanting for more. As the end credit rolled and I walked out with a new found sense of optimism, there indeed were questions lingering all over my head. And I believe the questions that the movie leaves us with are more important than the movie itself.

Continue reading “The Tamasha of Women Empowerment in India”

Illusion or Disillusion

Haven’t we all wished to rewrite the fate of a certain fictional character because we thought they deserved better? Haven’t we all wanted to know what were our favourite characters thinking during the toughest of their times ?  While some of us create an alternate destiny  and let them live happily ever after in our heads, there also a few of us who write a fan fiction as an ode to our favourite characters. But then there are others who feel strongly about them that they can go on to write a full-fledged novel based on those emotions.  Continue reading “Illusion or Disillusion”

Culture Crops – Banning the termites!

“…but how can we ban porn access?” – cried the person in khadi kurta and a squeaky clean white dhoti.

“Why not?” Another person pounded his heavy fist on the desk and stood up in anger. Dressed in khadi kurta and squeaky clean white dhoti, this man additionally had a Gandhi topi (cap) on his head which was gravitating towards the floor in a strange way as if it had life in it and deep down in its cardiac cavity thought that the head that it housed didn’t deserve the place.

“Okay, let me tell you something very clearly. I will resign if a ban is effected on porn access.” – came the reply.

“And what’s your rationale behind that?” – asked the Ban-Nar (pronounced like Vaanar in Hindi by replacing v with b, meaning the one who bans, variation – Ban as in Ban, and Nar taken from Hindi meaning-Man, effectively – the banning man).

The question was put in a sharp and stinging voice. The Ban-Ban (pronounced like bang-bang but only after eliminating both the spots taken by G, they were always against bans) had no answer.

There were more intelligent ones in the room.
“I will tell you why a ban is not right for us.” – said the man in khadi kurta and squeaky clean black trousers and additionally a black sleeveless Nehru jacket on his kurta. He had no Gandhi cap. Nehru jacket was a sign of intelligence. Gandhi cap wasn’t. Such people were known as Nehru-Coats who almost every time hijacked discussions and manifested a certain flair in their earnestness of debating eloquently. They almost never had a subject of their own to discuss and were always looking to bump into whatever was going on. They held the highest offices in the government because of their perceived erudition.

“Us?” – Ban-Nar was surprised.

“Yes, let me ask you this. What’s the average age of the people in this room?” – Nehru-Coat asked presuming that Ban-Nar wouldn’t know the answer.

“65?”

“You are close, it is 68. And how are you faring in your sex life?”

“Are you serious? I am not married.”

“Does that warrant a sexless life?”

Ban-Nar smiled but didn’t say anything.

“I presume you have an active sex life. So, how are you doing these days?” – Nehru-Coat was not ready to relent in his line of interrogation.

“It’s getting difficult. Can we take this offline?” – Ban-Nar didn’t want to trivialize the matter with details of his own life.

“I have no personal interest in your sex life. Nevertheless, you know most of our boys are unmarried. They have the sex life of an infant and they are growing older every day. The ones who have wives are more treacherously placed than the unmarried ones. The wives find no time for them amidst all the school inaugurations they have to do. Even if they do, they are no longer what they used to be.” – Nehru-Coat was clearly the brightest in the room, so thought the occupants but one.

“This is sexism! Women watch porn too. How dare you say wives are no longer the way they used to be? What about you people? Your belly reaches everywhere two minutes before you do. Have you ever seen yourself in the mirror? You have only 6 to 8 original teeth left. Look at your head, looks like the US drones have raided it. Your eyes are ready to shoot off like projectiles any moment.” – The lady was a tad too harsh on Nehru-Coat. He didn’t look as bad as she had wanted him to. In fact he had more hair on his head than most of the men inside the room. The lady went on for another couple of minutes. Clad in a strange mix of orange and white with print of pink flowers, that looked more like a bed cover than a sari, she was the Secretary of the women’s wing of the party. The aim of the wing was to give wings to the dreams of women. The President was of course a man. History had shown that men always represented women better than women themselves.

The victim of the epithets seemed indifferent. As if, he was expecting the backlash, rather he wanted that backlash from her. He was dotingly fond of the way she spoke. As a matter of fact, he had an appreciative smile on his face all the while.

The lady soon got a polite shut-up call from another woman who was also against the ban – “Can we first listen to his line of argument?” She was less conservatively dressed in a kameez but there was nothing remarkable about her appearance. Such ones were known as Ordinary-Women.

Nehru-Coat continued – “Look, many of us are leading a celibate life just for the sake of the ideology and the growth of the party. We have sacrificed the most basic instinct of ours. We are all aware that sex is a natural instinct. The way we have filled the political vacuum of this Nation, porn fills the sex vacuum in our life at this age. Do you want us to court women openly and be an embarrassment for the party? The opposition members are constantly embarrassing their own parties by sleeping with women outside marriage. On the other hand, we have been always hailed as chaste, morally perfect beings. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to control such instincts?”

Ordinary-Woman intercepted him and shouted in support – “Yes, he is right. Though I have a husband, he is of no use, doesn’t even last for 5 minutes. Where do I go? And by the way, I am bisexual.” – Her voice was more of a cry of a man falling into a dry well. By the time she reached her second line, she was already salivating at the Secretary.

Ban-Nar was listening to all this intently.

Nehru-Coat continued – “There will be chaos. You will have desperate leaders in the house ogling women members. Instead of discussing the nation, they will be discussing sex. You know that men will be men and you must not get surprised if somebody gropes some woman leader one of these days. You can’t ban porn. It will wreak havoc for all of us. We can’t live in a sex vacuum. We have to unwind somewhere. We have to rule the country. You think sex starved people can run this country?”

The Secretary was furious again – “What makes you so sexist, Sir? What makes you think only men will be doing such acts? Women too have equal rights to ogle and grope. We will do the same to the male members of the house.”

The occupants of the meeting room looked at the Secretary with deep reverence for the spirit of equality thriving in her. They were still in awe, rather were already fancying their chances of being groped by women on the floor of the house.

A couple of junior leaders from some state who were earlier named and famed by the media for watching porn during business hours had, dramatically, changed their stance. They lifted their hands rather excitedly and started raising pro-ban slogans. They had already imagined the Secretary groping them and how one thing could lead to another. They looked up, looked at their hands, and were smiling to each other when somebody from the senior rung shut them up, not very politely.

Nehru-Coat still had that reverent smile on his lips. The Secretary looked at him after finishing her monologue and noticed the fading smile as he rose to speak again.

“I’m sorry but I am not a sex…”

He was interrupted by Ban-Nar when he announced that it was a serious issue and they would meet after the parliament proceedings were adjourned for the day.

The members of the parliamentary committee had met to discuss the possibility of a ban on porn access on the internet. Once the announcement of the present adjournment was made, they started treading towards the upper house. The walk was reminiscent of the first walk that a child takes for school with the greatest of effort, clinging to his/her parents’ hands. It took about 1 hour for 12 people to vacate the meeting room. Well, effectively only 10 people.

Two were still in the room. Somehow they knew what they were hanging on for. Nehru-Coat and the Secretary had stayed. The door was fastened from inside. The Secretary flung herself into Nehru-Coat’s arms and said – “so, what were you saying? You are not a sex addict? I bet you are. I caught your eyes lusting at me.”

In reality, he was just trying to say that he was not a sexist when he was interrupted by Ban-Nar. He held her by his chest and replied with a James Bond effect in his voice which could never be alluded to the leaders of the country. They were mostly marked as illiterate, boring, and most of the times funny – “I bet you are right. You are such a bitch. I know what you meant by all those rebuttals on the porn debate.”

“You have to be a bitch here, there are too many dogs around. You know what drives dogs, don’t you?” She had already disrobed him of his nobility by stripping him of his Nehru jacket. He was like any other leader now. The air of erudition had been flung away with the jacket.

“So, my dear custodian of democracy, what do I do with you now?” – Secretary had suddenly turned into a seductress.

“Wait, we need to go to the Parliament after this. Be careful with the clothes.”
“Ha Ha Ha, you are such a PussyHeart!” – The seductress threw an insult no man would complain about at such a moment.
“PussyHeart? Where did you learn that?”

“I see, you must be knowing ‘DickHead’, for the ones who are dumb as a dick. You know how dumb a dick is. Don’t you? And PussyHeart is for the ones who get shit scared by everything. Have you never watched any humiliation video?”

“No, what’s that?”

“The girl humiliates the man while having sex with him. Men who would go at war on such insults otherwise, love the same during sex. That’s why dicks are dumb, you see. That’s humiliation porn. You indeed, are a dick-head dear. Wait, I will show you.” – At this point they were ready to make fast-love. The Secretary examined her purse for her cell phone and fiddled with the screen for a few seconds and played a video. Apparently, the girl in the video was heaping abuses on a man while bouncing on him.

It was already an hour that the parliament had started its proceedings and the undressed ones in the parliamentary committee meeting room had fornicated.

Back as their usual self, with the orange-white sari as fresh as she wore it in the morning, and the erudition inducing Nehru jacket on his shoulders, they moved towards the entrance of the upper house. However, looking at the placards outside and the sounds of sloganeering, they sensed that the house would be adjourned again. Nevertheless, they reached the house. Nehru-Coat scanned the floor for Ban-Nar who was the leader of the upper house. He was not there.

As Nehru-Coat took his seat, Ban-Nar made entry and sat just beside him. He looked unusually happy. With a very friendly hand around Nehru-Coat’s shoulders, he whispered – “Hey, I think you are right.”

“About what?”

“About the ban. There should be no ban.” he paused and continued – “for us. Let’s put the ban for the country anyway. They need to be cultured.”

“That’s exactly what I wanted to convince you about earlier. We are cultured. Let us cultivate culture for our countrymen too. So, who will decide which porn sites to block and which ones to spare?” – Nehru-Coat thought it was a dirty job and by convention, dirty jobs were never done by the Nehru-Coats or the Ban-Nars, or even the Secretaries.

“We have some experts. Let the two juniors from state do it. They have years of experience in taxonomy of pornography. For gender equality, let’s have the Ordinary-Woman in the panel too.” – Ban-Nar had everything decided in his head.

“Yeah. That will be good. I realized today I am still naive.” – sighed Nehru-Coat.

“By the way, are your aware of the word Pussy-face?” – asked Ban-Nar excitedly.

“..and you are naive too. Who called you that? There might be some truth to it.” – Nehru-Coat smirked.

The ordinary-woman appeared at the entrance and walked up to her seat taking calm and confident strides. She glanced at Ban-Nar, smiled and took her seat.

The house was adjourned soon after, following a huge din over the issue of farmers’ suicides. Internet porn was banned by the evening. Culture Cultivation was touted as the panacea for the dying farmers by the state run Far-Mer TV (Far pronounced as far in English and Mer pronounced like Mar in Hindi – verb form of death) at Prime Time bulletin. The other TV channels were confused as ever.

 

DisclaimerThis story is a work of fiction. However, there are a few allusions that do exist in reality like porn, parliament, farmers, upper house, english, hindi, and sex. Other similarities are coincidental. House Adjournment is a myth. Kindly refrain from taking excessive load.