Hossain was born into a Bengali Muslim upper-class family in the
small village of Pairaband in the district of Rangpur, north of
present day Bangladesh, then a part of the colonial British province
of Bengal Presidency (Hossain 37). The exact date of her birth is
still unknown since no specific records have been kept. Her mother
was Rahatunnessa Sabera Chowdhurani, the first of four wives that her
Rokeya s father had. Not much is known of her except for the memory
of a rigid conformity to purdah. Her father Zahiruddin Mohammad Abu
Ali Saber, a well-educated, influential large landowner otherwise
known as a zemindar — whose massive estate was a stronghold for the
traditional way of life (Hossain 37). He has also been understood to
have learned and known seven different languages. Rokeya also had two
brothers and two sisters.
Being boys, her
brothers were first educated at home (as was the tradition) then sent
to St. Xavier’s, one of Calcutta’s most prestigious colleges.
Rokeya and her sisters only received traditional educations at home.
As it was the tradition in high-class Muslim families, girls learned
to read Arabic (so as to be able to read the Koran) and Urdu (in
order to read the popular books on “feminine” conduct). Girls
were kept from learning Bengali and English precisely because they
were spoken by non-Muslims as well. Going against the grain, though,
Rokeya’s oldest brother, who was exposed to Western education, was
in favor of educating women. He secretly taught Rokeya English and
Bengali at home. Throughout her life, it was the waste of human
potential that haunted Rokeya, and it strengthened her to fight
against the blind observance of customs she considered absurd
In 1896, Ibrahim
was instrumental in the family marrying off Rokeya at age 16 to a
widower in his late 30’s, Syed Sakhawat Hossain, who was then a
district magistrate in the Bihar region of Bengal Presidency. Ibrahim
was impressed with Syed’s open-mindedness. Syed was educated both
locally and in London. Rokeya and her husband settled in Bhagalpur,
Bihar. They had two daughters, though none of the children lived they
both died in infancy.
Syed, 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. It
was to Sakhawat s great credit that he encouraged his wife to
articulate unconventional thoughts in writing and to publish them
(Hossain 40). He set aside money 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.
In 1910, a feud
over family property with her stepdaughter’s husband and caused her
to close down the school in Bhagalpur, abandon her house, and move to
Calcutta where she re-opened the Sakhawat Memorial Girls’ School.
The number of students went from 8 in 1911 to 84 in 1915 (Hossain
41). In 1917, the school was inspected by Lady Chelmsford, wife of
the Governor General and Vicerory of India. After that, prominent
people began to support the school. By 1930, the school had evolved
into a high school (10 grades) where Bengali and English were regular
In Calcutta, she
became very involved in civil affairs. In 1916, she founded the
Anjuman-e-Khawatin-e-Islam, Bangla (Bengali Muslim Women’s
Association). In 1926, Rokeya presided over the Bengal Women’s
Education Conference held in Calcutta. She was active in debates and
conferences concerning the advancement of women until her death in
December of 1932, shortly after presiding over a session during the
Indian Women’s Conference in Aligarh. Many male and female Hindu
and Muslim activists, including educators as well as liberal leaders
of her country, grieved her death.
Her legacy is
that of a Muslim woman who was born and raised in purdah. Yet, she
was able to rise beyond the limitations that her society placed upon
her. With the help of her “liberal” brother and husband, she was
not only able to write (in Bengali and English) but took significant
steps to educate the women in her country.
stated, it was to Sakhawat s great credit that he encouraged his
wife, Rokeya, to articulate unconventional thoughts in writing and to
publish them. She was the first and foremost feminist of the Bengali
Muslim Society. Rokeya published her story called Sultana s Dream in
1905 in the Indian Ladies Magazine. Sultana s Dream is a story of
pleasant fantasy that women may possess faculties and talents
equivalent to or greater than men that they are capable of developing
themselves to a stage where they may attain complete mastery over
nature without any help from men and create a new world of perfect
beauty, great wealth and goodness (Hossain 2). Sultana s Dream was
one of many stories in her lifelong and relentless holy war waged
against some of the basic principles of her society. Rokeya marshaled
her thoughts and arguments in order to question the existing order of
things, to raise doubts about seemingly accepted facts, and to
motivate people to take the necessary actions to change customs she
considered evil and unjust (Hossain 3) purdah.
In reference to
purdah the act of veiling Rokeya did not reject veiling altogether as
she herself wore a veil. She advocated modesty and said that veiling
should not be in a manner that would hinder education for women. Her
primary concern was the formal education of women. For Rokeya, women
(veiled or unveiled) need to be self-sufficient. And in order to get
support from men in her country, she argued that women become better
“home-managers” when educated. However, 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. Likewise with the thought, practice, and idea of
All over India
the act of seclusion is observed, not only against men but also
against women outside one s own family. No woman, except the closest
relations and housemaids, are allowed to see an unmarried girl
(Hossain 24). Rokeya wrote a number or reports titled The Secluded
Ones where she gave stories and facts where she explains instances
where seclusion and the act of purdah took place. In general
summarization, her short reports continuously pick apart the acts of
women and men, and then continue to give side kicks — her beliefs
and feelings — about each individual situation. The reports are
mini satires in themselves that depict life and how she feels about
it, which is what she was trying to achieve and accomplished at doing
Feminism is said
to be the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of
the sexes, and organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and
interests. As stated before, throughout her life the waste of human
potential haunted Rokeya from what she witnessed the act of seclusion
and purdah. Thus, it strengthened her to fight against the blind
observance of customs she considered absurd (Hossain 38) i.e. the
creation of her schools for women that grew tremendously over time.
In my opinion Begum Rokeya was truly a feminist.
Sakhawat. Sultana s Dream. New York: Markus The Feminist Press at The
City University of New York, 1988
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