Ruqaiyyah Khatun (b. 1880 – d. 1932), better known as Begum Rokeya, was born into a wealthy and learned Muslim family in the village of Pairaband in present-day Mithapukur Sub-District (Upazila) of Rangpur in northern Bangladesh. Her father, Zahir al-Din Muhammad Abu Ali Haidar Sabir, was a prominent landholder (zamindar) who traced his ancestry back to one Babar Ali Abul Babar, who hailed from the Persian province of Tabriz and travelled to the Subcontinent to pursue business and trade. After settling in Rangpur, he and his descendants became influential members of the Mughal administration. Brought up and educated in a learned family, Rokeya and her siblings (two sisters and three brothers) were educated mainly in Arabic, Urdu, Bengali and aspects of traditional Islamic subjects at home. Being learned but equally conservative in his outlook, her father ensured that all his children were proficient in traditional subjects but the boys were encouraged to learn English.
Young Rokeya received her early education under the guidance of her older sister, Karimunnessa, and brothers, Khalilur Rahman Sabir and Muhammad Ibrahim Sabir. Thanks to their collective support and encouragement, coupled with the inspiration and guidance of her husband, Khan Bahadur Sakhawat Husayn, not to mention her own burning desire to learn different languages, Rokeya became fluent in Bengali, English and Persian, in addition to Urdu and Arabic. This was no mean achievement considering that she was born and brought up in a traditional, conservative Muslim family where girls were not necessarily encouraged to pursue further or higher education. Like other Muslim girls of Rangpur, Rokeya never attended school, college or university but, thanks to her dedication, she became well-versed in languages, literature and Islamic studies.
Rokeya grew up at a time when the British government took some steps to address the educational disparity and inequality that existed between the Muslim and Hindu communities. Likewise, the Muslims were forced to change their attitude to modern education as soon as the consequences of not doing so became clear to them. To survive and prosper as a community, they needed to reform their educational institutions, in the same way the Hindus had done much earlier. How was this to be achieved? The challenge was whether the Muslims would be able to reconcile their religious and cultural practices with the demands of a modern, secular education in order to make progress like their Hindu counterparts. As the existing schools and colleges were established by the British, the conservative ulama were suspicious of such institutions and feared that Muslim students could be influenced by un-Islamic ideas and thoughts, if not completely misguided. However, the education offered in the traditional Islamic seminaries did not prepare their students for government service either. Therefore economic necessity forced the Muslim community to embrace modern education.
Although the traditional, conservative Muslim families were reluctant to send their daughters to English-medium schools and colleges, however they encouraged their sons to do just that. Unsurprisingly, Rokeya’s brothers, Muhammad Ibrahim and Khalilur Rahman studied at St. Xavier’s College in Calcutta but, Karimunnessa Khanum, her older sister, was married when she was only 14. Thankfully, her husband, Abdul Hakim Khan Ghaznavi, was a prominent zamindar of Bengal who encouraged his wife to learn Bengali and English. Her sons, Nawab Sir Abdul Karim Ghaznavi (1872-1939) and Sir Abdul Halim Ghaznavi (1876-1953) later became prominent Muslim politicians in British India. Perhaps inspired by his mother, Sir Abdul Karim once remarked that, ‘The question of female education is, if anything, more important than that of male education, for it is the mother and sister that mould the character and have the greatest influence on boys when they are of tender age.’
Karimunnessa had a profound impact on Rokeya because she not only learned Bengali, English and Persian on her own, but also became a noted writer and poet. That is why Rokeya later dedicated a collection of her essays to Karimunnessa as a token of gratitude. If Rokeya’s older sister taught her Bengali, then Muhammad Ibrahim, her older brother, taught her English and this inspired her to continue her studies after her marriage. In 1898, when Rokeya was around 18, she was married to Khan Bahadur Syed Sakhawat Husayn (1858-1909), who hailed from Bhagalpur District in the Indian State of Bihar. He was an educated and wealthy individual who served as a Deputy Magistrate in Bhagalpur. Although he was nearly 20 years older than Rokeya, they had a blissful marital life during which he encouraged his wife to improve her knowledge of English and pursue literary activities.
Thanks to her husband’s support and encouragement, she began to write. During this period, she wrote extensively in the Bengali and English magazines and journals. In 1905, she wrote her first English work titled Sultana’s Dream; it was published in The Indian Ladies Magazine, which was published from Madras. In this short but imaginative tale, Rokeya depicted a world where women assumed control of everything and men only played a limited, passive role in life and society. In this fictional tale, ‘…Rokeya gave full rein to her imagination by depicting “Ladyland”, a realm where gender roles were reversed and women assumed the public role while men stayed indoors. It is now hailed as a “radical” piece of feminist writing though Rokeya herself was not a radical all of the time. But if one is to look for the radical in Rokeya one would have to look at her early feminist essays as well as her fiction where she freely resorted to subversion of existing ideologies.’
Four years after the publication of Sultana’s Dream, Rokeya’s husband died unexpectedly on 3 May, 1909 in Calcutta. Prior to his death, Syed Sakhawat Husayn set aside 10,000 rupees for the promotion of female education in the Muslim community. As per her husband’s wish, on 1 October, 1909 Rokeya started a part-time, elementary school for Muslim girls at Bhagalpur with only five students. Named after her husband, Sakhawat Memorial Girls’ School was doing well until family problems forced Rokeya to leave Bhagalpur and settle permanently in Calcutta a year later where she restarted the school.
As expected, Rokeya’s decision to establish a girls’ school received mixed reaction from the Muslim community. Some welcomed the proposal but others felt this may lead to the infiltration of foreign ideas, thoughts and influence, resulting in cultural confusion and moral degradation in the Muslim community. To her credit, Rokeya was aware of these concerns and she tried to reassure members of her community that the students would be required to observe the Islamic dress code.
The school became so popular that it was expanded and upgraded to Middle English Girls’ School in 1917 before it became a High English Girls’ School in 1931, thanks to Rokeya’s dedication and commitment, not to mention her excellent teaching, management and organisational skills. The school’s curriculum was very diverse and rich, combining theoretical learning with practical activities. In addition to Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Bengali and English, students were taught traditional music, first aid, nursing, sewing and physical exercise among other things. Rokeya developed her own curriculum and trained tutors who could teach different subjects as there was no dedicated teacher training colleges in Calcutta at the time. This eventually led to the establishment of the Muslim Women Training School in Calcutta to enable Muslim girls to qualify as teachers. Needless to say, none of these initiatives would have happened without Rokeya’s efforts. As for Sakhawat Memorial Girls’ School, it is today considered to be one of Calcutta’s most popular girls’ educational institutions. Rokeya summarised her educational ideas and thoughts as follows: ‘In our daily prayers we Muslims beseech Allah saying “Our Lord, grant us good in this world and good in the hereafter.” Our [aim] should be to harmonise in due proportion the two purposes, spiritual and secular, in the education we impart. Much can be done in accomplishing this aim by impressing on the girls the excellence of our national ideals and of the life of great national heroes…In short, our girls would not only obtain University degrees, but must be ideal daughter, wives and mother or – I may say obedient daughters, loving sisters, dutiful wives and instructive mothers.’
This article, written only a year before her death, proves that Rokeya was not a secularist, feminist or a narrow-minded Islamic traditionalist. Rather she was a devout Muslim who was keen to develop a new, refreshing but equally authentic interpretation and understanding of her faith which reflected the condition of the time. In her own words, ‘There is a saying, “Man proposes, God disposes,” but my bitter experience shows that God gives, Man Robs. That is, Allah has made no distinction in the general life of male and female – both are equally bound to seek food, drink, sleep, etc, necessary for animal life. Islam teaches that male and female are equally bound to say their daily prayers five times, and so on. Our great Prophet has said “Talabul Ilmi Farizatu ‘ala kull Muslimeen-o-Muslimat”, (i.e. it is the bounden duty of all Muslim males and females to acquire knowledge). But our brothers will not give us our share in education…while Islam allows every freedom to women (so much so that a woman cannot be given in marriage without her consent or free will, which indirectly prohibits child-marriage) we see people giving away their daughters in marriage at tender ages or giving them in marriage without their consent…The worst crime which our brothers commit against us is to deprive us of education…May we challenge such grandfathers, fathers or uncles to show the authority on which they prevent their girls from acquiring education? Can they quote from the holy Quran or Hadis any injunction prohibiting women from obtaining knowledge?’
On another occasion, she asserted: ‘What we want is neither alms nor gift of favour. It is our inborn right. Our claim is not a more than Islam gave women 1,300 years ago.’
That is why Rokeya argued that there was an urgent need for Muslim girls’ schools to enable ‘our daughters [to] receive a high education that will enable them to keep pace with people from other communities…Muslim women from other greatly civilized communities and even of other parts of the Indian sub-continent are becoming doctors, barristers, councillors and members of the Round Table. Why should our women be deprived of this splendid development and prosperity? Ideal Muslim girls’ schools will produce ideal Muslim women whose children will be like Hazrat Omar Faruq and Hazrat Fatema Zohra. To realize this goal, the spread of the teachings of the Qur’an in a large measure is necessary; that is, extensive spread of its translations into Bangla and Urdu is essential. In my childhood, I used to hear my mother say: “Qur’an Shareef will protect us as a shield.” That statement is very much true. However, this is not to say that we will need to fasten a big and beautifully wrapped-up Qur’an tightly on our back. Rather, what I understand is that the universal teachings of the Qur’an will guard us from the danger of superstitions of various kinds. Religious practices according to the Qur’an will protect us from moral downfalls and social degradations.’
Rokeya was not only educated in her faith, culture and history but she was also a sharp, independent-minded and intelligent interlocutor who argued her case on the basis of facts, reality and truth. In her writings, both in Bengali and English, she highlighted the challenges and difficulties which confronted Muslim women at the time and did so in a perceptive and insightful way without trivialising the issues. Her views on the social, economic, cultural, educational and religious topics were bold, progressive and equally rooted in the Islamic worldview. She espoused her ideas and thoughts in many books, essays, stories and poems.
Rokeya was against all forms of strict seclusion which were practiced in the Muslim society of Bengal at the time. She made a clear distinction between ‘purdah’ (the loose, outer garment which Muslim women wore out of modesty) and ‘aborodh’, that is, a strict form of seclusion which removed women completely from the public sphere. Since Rokeya observed the Islamic dress code throughout her life, she considered ‘purdah’ to be a symbol of modesty and dignity while ‘aborodh’ (literally, enshrouding) was a distorted version of the former and therefore it was reprehensible, she argued.
Roekya’s other literary contributions included an unfinished essay titled Narir Adhikar (on the rights of women), a Bengali translation of Sultana’s Dream under the title of Sultanar Svapna. Rokeya also founded the Muslim Women’s Association (Anjuman-i-Khawatin-i-Islam) to promote female education and raise awareness of the rights and obligations of women in Muslim society. Accordingly, in 1926, she presided over the Bengal Women’s Education Conference held in Calcutta. Her activities inspired a generation of women writers, scholars, teachers and reformers to emerge including Begum Shamsunnahar Mahmud (1908-1964), Razia Khatun Choudhurani (1907-1934), Nurunnessa Khatun (b.1894), Mamlukul Fatima Khanum (1894-1957) and Akhtar Mahal Syeda Khatun (1901-1921). Other women who contributed to the discussion and debates on the rights and duties of Muslim women in Bengal during the early part of the twentieth century included Fatima Khanum, Ayesha Ahmed, Feroza Begum and Mrs M. Rahman among others.
Begum Rokeya died of heart disease in Calcutta at the age of only 52; she did not remarry after the death of her first husband and therefore had no surviving children.
In recognition of Rokeya’s contribution and achievements, one of the Halls at Rajshahi University was named after her. Also a statue of Begum Rokeya was erected in ‘Begum Rokeya Memorial Centre’, which is located in her native Piraband in Rangpur, and 9 December is annually celebrated in Bangladesh as ‘Rokeya Day’. Recently, the University of Rangpur was renamed ‘Begum Rokeya University’ as a tribute to her memory.
By Muhammad Mojlum Khan, author, researcher and historian.