A Bengali author, educationist and social reformer, Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain wrote many visionary works reflecting upon the conditions of women during the early 20th century in Bengali and envisioned a world where they would be free from the shackles of patriarchy and societal constraints. She wrote ‘Sultana’s Dream’, one of the first feminist utopian work ever written, and penned down her view on the life of women as well as her vision for women emancipation! On her 140th birth anniversary and 88th death anniversary celebrated on 9th December, we remember this pioneer of women empowerment who dared to envision a new world for women and their ultimate freedom and independence!
Explore Famous Women Scientists!
Early Life of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain
Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain was born in 1880 to a zamindari family settled in Pairabondh which is currently located in Bangladesh. Having been brought up in an orthodox family, she faced various obstacles in completing proper education as only men in the family were allowed to take English lessons, but the women had to stick to only Arabic so that they could read the Quran.
When she saw her sister, Karimunnesa getting married at a tender age of 15 and leaving her passion for poetry, Rokeya’s faith in education and rights for women strengthened. She found some freedom with the help of her brother and husband. She was married to Khan Bahadur Sakhawat Hussain who as a deputy magistrate, being a liberal, supported Rokeya in her pursuit to learn Bengali and English. In fact, he also encouraged her to write, so Rokeya decided to pursue all her literary work in Bengali.
Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain embarked on her journey as a writer in 1902 when she wrote a Bengali essay titled Pipasa which translates to Thirst. Further, she wrote Matichur in 1905 and Sultana’s Dream (1908) before her husband passed away in 1909. Exploring a wide range of genres and different styles such as short stories, poems, novels and essays, her unique writing style was embedded with a dream for a utopian world rooted in pursuing creativity, logic and a wry sense of humour. She wrote for many papers and magazines such as Saogat, Mahe Nao, Bangiya Musalman Sahitya Patrika, Mahila, Indian Ladies Magazine and various others. In 1903, she started writing for Nabanoor under the name of Mrs R S Hossain, she inspired many women to protest against the injustice and break social barriers through her writings.
Sultan’s Dream and Begum Rokeya’s Vision
Where are the men?’ I asked her.
‘In their proper places, where they ought to be… We shut our men indoors.’ – Sultana’s Dream
Endearingly referred to as Begum Rokeya in Bangladesh, her sci-fi utopian story named ‘Sultana’s Dream’ presented her ultimate critique of society and the minimal role of women. The story explored the relationship between science, patriarchy and power. In ‘Sultana’s Dream’, Rokeya Hossain travels to ‘Ladyland’ which is an alternate land where there is peace and prosperity because of inventions like solar ovens, cloud condensers and flying cars.
In this revolutionary work, she pointed out that any development in science or technology has occurred due to the needs or demands of men in the military. Men have been dominating this field and women have had no role whatsoever, and that is exactly what should be changed as per Hossain. Another prominent vision portrayed in ‘Sultana’s dream’ is a feminist utopian vision. Hossain reverses the roles, she dreams of a parallel world where women are the dominating gender and men are repressed, however, Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain stands for equality. Although she presents a very extreme scenario, she does point out the absurdities of society. Daring to rebel against the gender norms, her utopian work focused on the themes of women emancipation and empowerment to bring an equal society for both genders.
An Educator & Social Reformer
While she imagined a world where women were finally free of their patriarchal expectations, Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain tirelessly fought for the freedom and empowerment of Bengali women who were a victim of Purdah system and injustice. Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain believed that education was the first step to women empowerment, so she was determined to facilitate a better education system for women. After her husband passed away, she focused on providing education to women and with the help of the money her husband left, she started the ‘Sakhawat Memorial Girls High School’ in Bhagalpur in 1909. Subsequently, the school was shifted to Kolkata. What started as a small effort with 5 children is now one of the best schools in the city and the government is responsible for its functioning.
Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain also started the Anjuman-e-Khawateen-e-Islam (Islamic Women’s Association) which is an effort to provide financial and educational support to Muslim women who were victims of social unjust and inequality. At a time when the nation was not prepared on women equality, she became the leader of promoting equal education rights for women and talked about social prejudices in ‘Matichur’, what the purdah system did to the women of her group in Oborodh Basini, education and her radical equality philosophy in Padmarag and much more.
We lost this great soul on 9th December 1932 and even till her last breath, she was fighting for women’s rights as she was working on an article called ‘Narir Odhikar’. In her 52 years of life, she made sure to rise above all the social injustices towards women that prevail in society and inspire other women to do the same.
Thus, Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain was truly a pioneer in the field of women empowerment and devoted her entire life towards uplifting women and has been an inspiration to many. Keep watching this space at Leverage Edu for more such informative and inspiring blogs on trailblazing educators from around the world!