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Rokeya's ideology: A blueprint for achieving gender equality

Chiroranjan  Sarker

Chiroranjan Sarker

Sat, 9 Dec 23

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, also known as 'Begum Rokeya', was a trailblazer in Bengal's women's empowerment movement. Her birth name was Rokeya Khatun, and she played a pivotal role in advocating for the rights and liberation of Muslim women in Bengal during the first half of the 20th century. Despite lacking formal education, Rokeya managed to educate herself and tirelessly worked towards women's education and liberation, even in the face of a hostile social environment. Her dedication and efforts in this regard are unparalleled worldwide. In reference to Rokeya, Mohitlal Majumdar aptly stated, "Just like a determined Lata yearns for light, regardless of the obstacles in her path, one can observe an unwavering inclination towards truth and beauty in this remarkable woman's life."

Begum Rokeya, hailing from Payaraband in the Rangpur district, was born into a noble zamindar family and had a relatively short life span of 52 years. Unfortunately, her personal life was not filled with happiness. Growing up in a strict and conservative environment, Rokeya spent her childhood in the background. At the age of sixteen, she was married to Syed Sakhawat Hussain, a Deputy Magistrate residing in Bhagalpur. Despite her limited exposure, Rokeya sought knowledge from her elder brother and became self-educated, defying the superstitious and narrow-minded society she lived in. After her marriage, Rokeya's focus on studies and writing intensified, thanks to the support of her husband. There was a significant age difference of 26 years between them. Tragically, after 9 years of marriage, her husband Sakhawat Hossain passed away, and Rokeya also experienced the loss of two of her children at a very young age. Consequently, she had to endure 23 years of living alone.

Begum Rokeya, born into nobility, faced a lack of personal happiness throughout her life. Undoubtedly, her solitary existence in a hostile environment was filled with pain. However, she never deviated from the path of duty. With her intellect, wisdom, and dedicated efforts, she played an immeasurable role as a social reformer. Her personality was a unique blend of strength and gentleness, serving as an exemplar of self-sacrifice and altruism.

Begum Rokeya played a significant role in the empowerment of the Muslim community in Bengal. During the early 20th century, she emerged as a prominent figure among the Muslim population in Bengal, where the influence of liberal humanitarian values was prevalent. Rokeya was greatly influenced by the rationalism of Rammohan Roy and the humanism of Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar. Through her powerful writings, she actively voiced her opposition to the oppression of women in Bengali Muslim society, advocating for progressive ideas and social change.

She firmly believed in the power of women and their ability to bring about change. Rokeya dedicated herself wholeheartedly to the cause of women's empowerment and worked tirelessly to eliminate societal biases and promote education for women. Despite facing numerous obstacles, she remained undeterred in her mission. After the demise of her husband, Rokeya established the first Sakhawat Memorial Girls' School in Khalifa Bagh, Bhagalpur, with just five students. However, her dream of providing education to girls was shattered by the schemes of her stepdaughter and son-in-law, forcing her to relocate to Calcutta with her younger sister, Hosayera.

In 1910, Rokeya arrived in Calcutta and resumed teaching at the Sakhawat Memorial Girls' School. With only two benches and eight students, she faced the daunting task of attracting more students. Being an unknown Muslim woman in a bustling city like Calcutta presented its own set of challenges.
Despite the difficulties, Rokeya persevered and went door to door, tirelessly gathering students for her school. Her determination and passion for women's education were unwavering. Although some well-wishers suggested changing the school's name to attract support from the English government, Rokeya firmly rejected the offer. She believed in the importance of preserving her own identity and the values she stood for.

Rokeya's dedication and resilience, coupled with her limited resources, exemplify her unwavering commitment to the betterment of women in society. Her story serves as an inspiration to all, reminding us of the power of one individual's determination to bring about meaningful change.

Among the weakest women in the society, the Muslim women are the weakest. She established the school to spread the light of education among them. At the same time Anjumane formed an organization called Khawatin Islam. Social problems of Muslim women are highlighted through this organization. The main aim of this organization was to make women independent and self-reliant.

At the beginning of the 20th century, a positive change in the overall status of women began, and Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain played the role of a pioneer in this change. She realized that Bengali women's sufferings cannot be alleviated without education. In order to alleviate their suffering, she established schools to promote education among them. She strongly advocated for equal education opportunities for both boys and girls in society. For that purpose she established schools for the spread of education. She strongly emphasized the need for equal education of children to the society. Through her writings, she identified the causes of the overall backwardness of the women's society and gave them guidance to overcome that predicament. Through her writings, she shed light on the underlying causes of women's overall backwardness and provided guidance on how to overcome these challenges. In works such as Matichur, Padmarag, and Sultana's Dream, she skillfully portrayed the unequal treatment of men and women, the oppression faced by women from both men and society, the restrictions imposed on women through the veil system, and the lack of access to education.

Recognizing the harsh reality, she advocated for the extension of men's cooperation in order to facilitate the comprehensive advancement of marginalized women. Given the long-standing prevalence of the patriarchal social structure in Bengal, she voiced her belief that the holistic progress of women cannot be achieved unless men actively participate in the process. Rokeya had long observed the yearning of Bengali women to transform their mindset and urged them to awaken and liberate themselves from traditional ideologies. She firmly asserted that women should exert every effort to broaden their horizons and embrace progressive ideas. It is inherent in human nature to exhibit vulnerability towards religion, and consequently, men have exploited religion as a means to subjugate women throughout history.

Under the guise of religion, the male-dominated society continues to exert dominance over women, depriving them of their rightful entitlements. She expressed her firm stance against tolerating such injustice towards women. She vehemently protested against confining women within the confines of their homes under the pretext of religious practices that prevail in society. Conversely, she emphasized the importance of women attaining economic self-sufficiency through education. She recognized that financial independence serves as a crucial indicator of women's liberation. Thus, she laid the groundwork for empowering women economically.

Begum Rokeya, through her tireless efforts, urged women, who constitute half of the human population, to strive for independence by embracing knowledge and harnessing their own wisdom, rather than remaining oblivious to their potential. She dedicated her entire life to spreading this message among women, aiming to eradicate the submissive mindset that prevails in society.

In a society and culture dominated by traditional Muslim values, her demand for women's rights and gender equality, as expressed in her various works, was truly revolutionary and defiant. She emphasized the importance of equal rights for both men and women, asserting that they are the two essential pillars of society, each playing an equally significant role in all human endeavors. Rokeya's visionary thinking serves as a cornerstone for the analysis of gender equality in today's world. Without relying on any theoretical innovations, she intuitively grasped the sociological significance of gender equality, which has now become a pervasive concept worldwide.

In the early part of the last century, long before the concept of gender had made its way into academia, Rokeya had already identified these places. Her brilliance extended beyond her literary work; she embodied the ideals of women's liberation throughout her entire existence. Rokeya was a fiercely independent and compassionate woman, constantly fighting to awaken the veiled women to their true potential. Her mission was to shed light on the path of the oppressed people of the world.

On her birthday, 9th December 1932, Rokeya passed away. Let us commemorate this special day by renewing our commitment to carry forward Rokeya's legacy and continue the struggle for social progress.

Author: Columnist

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