Saturday, September 15, 2012

Begum Rokeya a Notable Muslim Feminist

   Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain (1880 – December 9, 1932) was a prolific writer, a notable Muslim feminist and pioneer of women’s liberation movement in undivided India. She is most famous for her efforts on behalf of women independence and women education. Her  ultimate goal was that women, and particularly Muslim women in her country, would reach their fullest potentials as human beings, would be able to pursue their own interests rather than relying on the men in their lives for their well-being.

Begum Rokeya was born in an orthodox Muslim family in 1880 in the village of Pairabondh, Rangpur, in what was then the British Indian Empire and is now Bangladesh. Her father, Jahiruddin Muhammad Abu Ali Haidar Saber, was a renowned landlord. Like other noble Muslim family the women in his family had to maintain Pardah or Seclude system and they were not allowed to study books other than the Holy Quran.

Begum Rokeya and her sisters only received traditional education at home. The only medium of their education was Arabic and Persian. They were kept from learning Bengali and English precisely because they were spoken by non-Muslims as well. This was one way of keeping these women from being "contaminated" by the radical ideas from outside their religio-economic group. But luckily enough Begum Rokeya got the opportunity to learn Bengali and English from her elder brother Ibrahim Saber, who was exposed to Western education and was in favor of educating women. He secretly taught Rokeya English and Bengali at home.

When Rokeya was only sixteen years old, she was married to Syed Sakhawat Hossain, the deputy magistrate of Bhagalpur in Bihar. Syed Sakhawat Hossain, who was convinced that the education of women was the best way to cure the ills of his society, encouraged his all-too-willing wife to write, and set aside 10,000 rupees to start a school for Muslim women. In 1909, 11 years after they had been married, Syed died and Rokeya immediately started the school in Bhagalpur in his memory.

From very early age Begum Rokeya assessed the negativity of man ruled social context and discrimination against the women. She exposed the glaring inequalities present between sexes not only among the Muslims but also among other communities. She claimed for equality of women and she was of the idea that men always wanted to make women inferior for their benefit. She compared ornaments with the chain of slaves. She Rokeya wanted women to come out of their confinement and take part in all spheres of life. In her words, “We constitute one half of the society and if we are left behind, how can the society progress? If a person`s one leg is tied, how far can he go?

Begum Rokeya founded the association for Muslim Women named "Anjumane Khawatine Islam". The aims and objectives of this organization were to provide free education to poor Muslim girls, to arrange their marriage and to bring about a sense of self-awareness in them. The association which 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.

Begum Rokeya made remarkable contributions in the world of literature. Begum Rokeya, launched her literary career in 1902 with a Bangla story entitled Pipasa (Thirst). Her style of writing was in a way to raise popular consciousness, she used humour, irony and satire to focus attention on the injustices faced by Bengali Muslim women. She criticized oppressive social customs forced upon women in the name of religion, asserting that the glory of God could be best displayed by women fulfilling their potential as human beings.

She wrote several novels and essays, her best known publications are Sultana’s Dream (1905), Padmarag (1924), Motichur (1903) and Abarodhbasini (1931). Rokeya`s articles in Motichur were based on sound logic. She wrote with great brevity. Padmarag is her only novel in which she establishes that marriage is not the ultimate goal in the life of a woman.

In Aborodhbasini she cited concrete examples of the inhuman confinement of women in Indian society. Her Sultana's Dream, is a delightful ironical and satirical work set in Ladyland, where the men are in curtain "purdah“ and the women go out and work. In Sultana`s Dream she attacked the privileged position of men in our country. In the work, Sultana, the chief character says – “In India man is lord and master. He has taken to himself all power and privileges and shut up the women in the Zenana” and if the system called `Murdana` where all men would be confined was established instead of `Zenana` then there would be no more crime or sin in Indian society.

Through all her works she proved herself to be a humanist. She said, “we are not only Hindus or Muslims or Parsis or Christians or that we are Bengalees, Tamilians, Marwaris or Punjabis, but that we are Indians too. We are Indians first, then Muslims or Sikhs or whatever else.”

Begum Roquia 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 in her memory.