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     Volume 2 Issue 1 | January 6, 2007 |


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Cover Story

From Rangpur
An Unfulfilled Dream

Tareq Hasan

Begum Rokeya believed that education was a necessity for the emancipation of women. At first she opened Sakhawat Memorial Girl's School at her husband's home-district Bhagalpur in 1909. But her step-daughter's husband and Sakhawat's other relatives took possession of her all immobile properties and forced her to leave Bhagalpur. In 1911 Rokeya reopened the Girl's school in Calcutta, starting with 8 girls only. The opponents of women's education wanted to stop Rokeya and close her school by all means. She and her school had to suffer a lot, but her foes failed in the long run. Rokeya was convinced that women's self-reliance was equally important. According to Rokeya, education for women was "to acquire knowledge in the different branches of science and arts.... It would include physical education so that they are not frail. Special emphasis would be laid on that training which would enable them to be financially independent from men." A hundred years have passed since Rokeya started the first school for Bengali Muslim girls. Her perseverance and endeavour to establish women's right for education did not go in vain. By now one fourth of Bangali Muslim women are able to read and write.

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. 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.

In 1896, Rokeya's brother Ibrahim was instrumental in 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. Syed, who was convinced that the education of women was the best way to cure the ills of his society, encouraged his all-too-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 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. By 1930, the school had evolved into a high school (10 grades) where Bengali and English were regular courses. 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. In December of 1932, Rokeya was working on an essay entitled Narir Adhikar (The Rights of Women) which remained unfinished.

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. Rokeya wrote Sultana's Dream in 1905 to test her proficiency in English. Her husband, who read the manuscript through without sitting down, was impressed. "A terrible revenge," he commented. He persuaded her to send it to the Madras-based, English language periodical the Indian Ladies Magazine, where it was published and well-received. In 1908 it appeared as a book.

Today in Bangladesh, December 9 is celebrated as Rokeya Day.

Rokeya Shakawat Hossain, most commonly known as Begum Rokeya, was an important forward-thinker for her time. As an activist and a writer, she has been an inspiring figure who has contributed much to the struggle to liberate women from the bondage of patriarchy.

To make the memory of Begum Rokeya everlasting, Bangladesh Government, under the patronage of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, with the cooperation of Bangla Academy laid down the foundation stone of the Memorial Complex in her birth place on the 28th of June 1997. And on the 1st of July 2001, after the completion of the construction work, the then Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurated the complex. This complex was established with many a dream. In order to bring about an infrastructural change in the lives of the local people surrounding the complex, some important projects were taken into hand.

"When everyone left the complex, why did you decide to stay back?". On being asked this question, Abdul Matin, the security guard of the complex answers, "I did not leave the complex because I feel very proud and fortunate to be a part of it. And I don't need any salary to keep me here. I do not think everything is over and am optimistic that the day will surely come when the complex will be filled with people once again, the day when our dream will be fulfilled."

There was a sewing training centre in the complex that could accommodate training of up to fifty women at a time. If the women of the area were effectively trained in sewing, it would at least have ensured a better lifestyle for them. Apart from the handicrafts training centre, there was also a music school within the Begum Rokeya Memorial Complex. This music school was introduced with the aim of encouraging and enriching talent and a sense of culture in women. Also present was a mass education centre which was to provide education to middle-aged or old women who had been deprived of proper learning due to marriage at an early age. Two other parts of the complex are a research centre and a library.

Even though the library has many different kinds of books, there are virtually no readers to do them justice at present. The books in the library have become mere showpieces that have no real function as the facilities for people to come and read these books no longer exist. A seminar room, an archive room for preserving historical documents, an auditorium and a VIP rest house were later additions to the memorial complex which have also gone out of use. All these parts of the complex have sadly died down due to lack of maintenance, Government involvement, and funds. It is sad to see the noble attempt of a great personality like Rokeya's sink into oblivion like this.

Although a number of schools and colleges have been established adjacent to the complex, the Begum Rokeya Memorial Complex itself has died down, along with the hopes and dreams that it was built on. All that now remains of that dream is the name, and a couple of dedicated believers like the security guard called Abdul Matin.



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