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 (see Women, Islam and the Hijab). 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 (see Gender and Nation).
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 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 (see Third World and Third World Women).
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.
- Hossain, Rokeya Sakhawat. Avarodhbasini (“The Secluded Ones”). Calcutta: Mohammadi Book Agency. Dedicated to Ammajan Rahatunnessa Sabera Chowdhurani. Also appeared as a series of columns in the Monthly Mohammadi, 1928-30.
- —. Motichur, Part 1. Calcutta: Gurudas Chattopadhyaya & Sons. A collection of articles published from 1903-4 in various journals.
- —. Motichur, Part 2. Calcutta: Mrs. Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain. Dedicated to Apajan Karimunessa Khanam.
- —. Oborodhbashini (“The woman in captivity”)
- —. Paddorag (“Essence of the Lotus”)
- —. Rokeya Racanavali (“Collected Works of Rokeya”). Ed. Abdul Quadir. Dhaka: Bangla Academy.
- —. Sultana’s Dream. Calcutta: S. K. Lahiri & Co. Originally published in The Indian Ladies’ Magazine, Madras, 1905. Originally written in English and translated by the author into Bengali. Perhaps the first piece of utopian literature to be written in that country.
- —. Sultana’s Dream and Selections from The Secluded Ones. Ed. and trans. by Roushan Jahan. Afterword by Hanna Papanek. New York: The Feminist Press.
- “Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain.” in Women Writing In India. Vol. I: 600 B.C. to the Early 20th Century. Eds. Susie Tharu and K. Lalita. New York: The Feminist Press.
1. Feminism is indigenous in roots as opposed to foreign influence. Although male support of indigenous feminist sentiments seems to be more common among the formally-educated (locally and abroad). Rokeya herself says that if she had not had her brother and husband’s support, she would not have been able to write and contribute to the advancement of Muslim women in her country.
2. In the personal life of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, writing and activism were intertwined. The connection between these has, however, increasingly become difficult in the world of academia.
3. 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 formal education for 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.
As it is often the case, feminist literature is used many times by male leaders not to advance women’s causes but to unite both sexes against colonial and imperialistic powers. Unfortunately for women, when their country gains independence and the society reinstates its traditions, their interests once again get relegated to the background. Subsequently, gender oppression, already present in customs, is reinforced. No doubt, this sort of process was taking place during the partitioning of India in 1947, when Pakistan gained its independence, and in 1971, when Bengladesh declared its autonomy.
Author: Dolores Yilibuw, Fall 1996
Last edited: May 2017