Begum Rokeya was a leading Muslim feminist writer and social worker in undivided Bengal during the early 20th century. She fought for gender equality and established the first school for Muslim girls, which still exists today.
Rokeya was born in 1880 in Bangladesh during British colonial rule. Her family were orthodox Muslims, and so women were required to conform to the purdah system, which meant that girls were to be secluded and were not considered fit for any education apart from reading the Holy Qur’an. Rokeya and her sisters learnt Arabic and Persian, but were banned from learning Bengali or English because they were also spoken by non-Muslims. Rokeya’s brother had received a Western education, and secretly taught her English and Bengali at home.
At 16, Rokeya was married to Syed Sakhawat Hossain, the deputy magistrate of Bhagalpur in Bihar. Hossain felt that by educating women, it would be possible to solve many of the problems in society. He encouraged Rokeya to read a range of literary works and to write. Rokeya began writing in 1902 and three years later, she began writing Sultana’s Dream, which was published in 1908. It became one of the highest regarded literary works in Bangladesh and is an early example of feminist science fiction utilising a utopian male/female role-reversal in a place called ‘Ladyland’. In 1909, Hossain died, leaving Rokeya with enough money to start a school for Muslim women in Bhagalpur in his memory. The school opened with five students, and although she was forced to close the school in 1910 and relocate to Kolkata. By 1915, the Sakhawat Memorial Girl’s School was educating 84 girls, due to Rokeya’s determination to convince people of the importance of education. She went from house to house, and eventually had to move to a bigger location due to the school’s success.
In 1916, Rokeya founded the Anjumane Khawatine Islam (Muslim Women’s Association) to make women aware of their rights and to fight for their education and employment. The organisation worked to support women in a number of ways including: paying for the education of Muslim girls who could not afford it; providing shelter for orphans; providing financial help to widows and establishing businesses to empower women and provide them with the opportunity to be financially independent. It also organised debates and conferences on the status of women and education. Rokeya was inspired by the traditional Islamic teachings in the Qur’an, and believed that modern Islam had been corrupted to serve the purpose of those who wanted to suppress women. In 1926, Rokeya presided over the Bengal Women’s Education Conference in Kolkata, the first recorded attempt to bring women together in support of women’s education rights.
In addition to her social work, Rokeya was a prolific writer, and published short stories, poems, essays, novels and satirical writings in support of women’s rights. She continued to write and actively participate in debates and conferences on the advancement of women unit her death on December the 9th, shortly after presiding over a session during the Indian Women’s Conference.
Rokeya’s school, the Sakhawat Memorial Girl’s School is now one of Kolkata’s most popular schools for girls, and is now run by the state government of West Bengal. Her birthday (and the date of her death) the 9th of December is now celebrated in Bangladesh as Rokeya Day. She was able to escape the restrictions of the purdah by using her skills as a writer and determination as an educator to act as a catalyst for social change in her country. Rokeya’s actions as one of the first Muslim feminists earned her the honorific title of begum.