Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain

Biography

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. Her date of birth is not known. However, a nephew of hers posits Dec. 9, 1880.

Her mother was Rahatunnessa Sabera Chowdhurani, the first of four wives. Not much is known of her except that she strictly followed purdah as Rokeya mentioned in dedicating to her The Secluded Ones, some humorous essays that expose some ridiculous consequences of the practice of Purdah. Her father was Zahiruddin Mohammad Abu Ali Saber, a well-educated, influential landowner whose massive estate was a stronghold for the traditional way of life. Rokeya had two brothers (Abul Asad Ibrahim Saber and Khalilur Rahman Abu Jaigam Saber) and two sisters (Karimunessa and Humaira). 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 education 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). 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. Going against the grain, 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.

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. None of her children lived. 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, 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.

In 1910, a feud over family property with her step-daughter’s husband 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 on March 16, 1911. The number of students went from 8 in 1911 to 84 in 1915. In 1917, the school was inspected by Lady Chelmsford, wife of the Governor General and Vicerory of India. After that, prominent people supported 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 9, 1932, shortly after presiding over a session during the Indian Women’s Conference in Aligarh. Her death was grieved by many male and female Hindu and Muslim activists, including educators as well as liberal leaders of her country. In December of 1932, Rokeya was working on an essay entitled Narir Adhikar (The Rights of Women) which remained unfinished.

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.

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