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Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain Essay, Research Paper

Rokeya Sakhawat 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 (Hossain 38).

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 courses.

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.

As previously 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 seclusion.

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 so.

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.


Hossain, Rokeya Sakhawat. Sultana s Dream. New York: Markus The Feminist Press at The City University of New York, 1988

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