Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Author's Portrait: Roquia Sakhawat Hussain

The European picture of Muslim women tends to be strongly connected with oppression and exploitation. Consequently, Muslim women writers seem to be a contradiction in terms, but the truth may rather be that they just don’t get much attention here because we are too complacent to struggle with trying to understand a cultural setting so different from ours. In fact, they always existed, if only in secret and telling their stories rather than writing them down. In the early twentieth century a Bengali woman writer, feminist and social worker acquired lasting esteem in her country: Roquia Sakhawat Hussain or simply Begum Rokeya.

Roquia Sakhawat Hussain (aka Rokeya Sakhawat Hossein – Latin transcriptions of the name differ) was born as Roquia Khatun in the small village Pairabondh in Rangpur, Bengal, British India (now: Bangladesh), in the year 1880, on 9 December according to her nephew. As a great landowner her father belonged to the Indian upper class and he was also a highly educated man with a sound knowledge of several languages including English, but at the same time he was a very conservative Muslim who held up the traditional ways of life and observed the purdah. Roquia’s mother was the first of his four wives and had yet another five children, two girls and three boys.

Unlike her two surviving brothers who were sent to school (first in the neighbourhood and later in Calcutta, now Kolkata) to receive a modern education qualifying them for an honourable career in the British civil service, Roquia and her sisters were more or less confined to home in order not to be seen by any man except their closest male relatives, nor by women who didn’t belong to the family network. With the help of their brothers and behind the back of their father the girls managed despite all to get a better education than most others at the time. Above all they learned in addition to their native Urdu the local language Bengla and English which was considered as improper for girls because it brought them into touch with non-Muslim ideas.

On the initiative of her eldest brother sixteen-year-old Roquia was married to Syed Sakhawat Hussain who was twice her age, but a very liberal-minded man thanks to having been educated in Patna, Calcutta (now: Kolkata) and London. As the Deputy Magistrate of Bhagalpur he was convinced that it needed well-educated women for progress. Therefore he gave his wife private lessons to further her education (especially in English and in Bengla) and encouraged her to make friends with non-Muslim women, to read broadly and to write in Bengla. In this respect she had more luck than her gifted elder sister who had been married off at the age of fourteen and who had to overcome many obstacles to become a Bengal poet of some renown later on.

 In 1901, with the blessing and support of her husband, Roquia Sakhawat Hussain began her career as a writer. Under the name Mrs. RS Hossain she published many articles on women’s issues and short stories in different newspapers and magazines. Her essay Pipasha (Thirst) came out in 1902, a first volume of collected essays titled Motichur followed in 1904. Best known in the west is her utopian short-story Sultana’s Dream (Sultanar Swopno) which was first published in the Indian Ladies' Magazine in Madras in 1905. It’s a very early work of feminist science-fiction in which female and male roles are reversed and it has become a classic.

Although her husband died on 3 May 1909, Roquia Sakhawat Hussain continued the feminist work that she had begun with his encouragement and support. In his memory she established a school primarily for Muslim women in Bhagalpur which she had to move to Calcutta (now: Kolkata) two years later because of a property dispute with her late husband’s family. The Sakhawat Memorial Girls' High School in Kolkata still exists and has a good reputation. In 1916 she also co-founded the Bengla Islamic Women's Association advocating different reforms, especially with regard to gender equality. Those activities made her popularly known as Begum Rokeya, “Begum” being the honorific title for a Muslim woman.

She explained her untiring efforts for the benefit of women:
“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 tired, how far can he go? The interests of men and women are the same. The goal of life is the same for both”. 
Along with her work at school and for the Bengali Islamic Women’s Association she continued writing in a wide spectrum of genres. Her short stories, poems, essays, novels and satires display great creativity and logic as well as a pronounced sense of humour. In 1918 she published a volume of poetry titled Saogat. The second volume of Motichur came out in 1922 and includes different kinds of essays, short stories and fairy tales like Nurse Nelly, Jvan-phal (The Fruit of Knowledge), Mukti-phal (The Fruit of Emancipation), Nari-Sristi (Creation of Women). Notable among her later works are also the feminist utopian novel Paddorag (Essence of the Lotus) from 1924, Oborodhbashini (The Woman in Captivity) from 1931 which she dedicated to her mother, and her unfinished essay Narir Adhikar (The Rights of Women).

At the age of only fifty-two years Roquia Sakhawat Hussain died from heart problems in Calcutta (now: Kolkata), British India (now: Bangladesh), on 9 December 1932. The anniversary of her death is celebrated as Rokeya Dibosh (Rokeya Day) in Bangladesh.

To download Roquia Sakhawat Hussain’s utopian short-story Sultana’s Dream as a free e-book please click here.

For want of a printed English-language biography of Roquia Sakhawat Hussain I refer to the following websites (all retrieved in March 2014) for more information about the Bengla writer and feminist:

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