Where the Mind is Without Fear
It was probably through Sultana's dreams, that she expressed her inner desires, to have a land without fear and oppression for women. Quite amazingly, Begum Rokeya creates a picture of Ladyland, where the women have taken over the reigns of the country for a change while men stay inside the mardana, looking after the kitchen and the children. Hilarious as it is to an extent, Begum Rokeya had made it clear that through out history, men have been responsible for the bloodshed and every other major atrocity committed to date. This also referred to nature, which men have tried to take over and exploit. However, in Ladyland, it was the women who had captured sun-heat (referring to solar power) and water from the atmosphere surviving in complete harmony with Mother Nature.
On December 8, Kormojibi Nari organised a day long Rokeya Utshob at the Engineer's Institute, remembering Begum Rokeya and her work a day before her birth anniversary. Starting at nine in the morning, a rally was held followed by documentary and film projections at the hall. Apart from discussion sessions on women's issues, a lively cultural show kept the audience entertained. The cultural show included songs, dances and skits that satirised the incongruities of state policies and actions, issues that were criticised by Begum Rokeya almost a century ago.
Begum Rokeya, a visionary and a woman way ahead of her time came up with notions that women in our country cannot even think of today due to our patriarchial culture that discourages a woman to think for herself. Though it is true that many more women are getting educated, completing the necessary 12 years of schooling and some of them going further in line, most women still do not completely believe that they are equal to men.
In an age when women were kept inside for the sake of 'honour' and so-called 'safety', like all other women, Begum Rokeya and her sister Karimunessa were taught Arabic and Urdu at home. To keep them away from the contamination of non-Muslim ideas, they were not taught Bangla or English. However, thanks to their brother, they would sneak away to his room at night and learn Bangla and English in secret. Eventually, both the sisters taught themselves to read in these languages, thus discovering a new world within books, knowledge and ideas.
At the age of 16, she was married off to the Deputy Magistrate of Bhagalpur, Khan Bahadur Sakhawat Hossain. It was also because of his support that Begum Rokeya went on with her reading, quenching her thirst for knowledge and also writing her thoughts out. With some money set aside for her by her husband, Begum Rokeya eventually fulfilled her dream of opening the Shakawat Memorial School for Girls.
At one point, she spoke about purdah, a concept which has a twisted meaning even today. Purdah refers to decency of the mind and purity of the soul and at the same time embracing the worldly goods and knowledge. In no way does it mean to shut oneself from the world and stay cooped up in a corner to keep oneself safe and untouched from the imagined perils lurking outside.
In Sultana's Dream, Sultana is clearly amazed by the fact that women move around outside their homes and wonders out loud to 'Sister Sara' about their safety. "Yes, it is not safe so long as there are men about the streets, nor is it so when a wild animal enters a marketplace", replies 'Sister Sara' to Sultana. It was Rokeya speaking through the character's mouth justifying her words with a hypothetical situation. "Suppose, some lunatics escape from the asylum and begin to do all sorts of mischief to men, horses and other creatures; in that case what will your countrymen do?"
"They will try to capture them and put them back into their asylum."
"Thank you! And you do not think it wise to keep sane people inside an asylum and let loose the insane?"
"Of course not!" said I laughing lightly.
"As a matter of fact, in your country this very thing is done! Men, who do or at least are capable of doing no end of mischief, are let loose and the innocent women, shut up in the zenana! How can you trust those untrained men out of doors?"
It was Begum Rokeya who had started it all, a revolution that is still going on at its own pace. This should not be a fight against men or a power snatching session from men. Rather, it should be to realise how we as women would like to make use of the potential that God has bestowed upon us.
As the famous writer Mary Wollstonecraft pointed out, "I do not wish them to have power over men, but over themselves".
(R) thedailystar.net 2005