Rokeya Shakhawat Hossain
Updated: Feb 21
Syeda Zareen Rafa
My father recently told me about a conversation he had with someone at his office. He was apparently told that he should be saving money for my wedding instead of spending so much on my bachelor’s degree. Hearing about a comment such as this one still irks me, and I find it surprising that I have not become immune to it yet, considering how common it is for people in South Asia to pass comments that undermine the importance of women’s education.
However, learning about this exchange prodded me to think about how much worse the situation must have been a century ago, and that got me wondering about the women of that era who had to fight for the right of basic literacy. My mind immediately went to Rokeya Shakhawat Hossain, more widely known as Begum Rokeya. It amazes me that at a time when the general consensus was that sending little girls to school was a bad idea, Rokeya was writing satire where gender roles were reversed, and men were subordinated in society (“Begum Rokeya: Bengali Feminist”).
In 1880, in what is now Bangladesh, Rokeya was born into a well-off, land-owning family that had more than the means to send all their children to school. Yet, they held very conservative views, and chose to provide formal education only to their sons. However, fortunately, seeing the interest Rokeya and her elder sister showed in learning Bengali and English, their brother Ibrahim decided to coach them in both languages. He did so late at night when everyone else was asleep, in order to not rouse any suspicion.
When I was first reading about Rokeya’s life in school, I assumed her education would come to a halt or at least a temporary standstill when she got married, because that is usually the case with stories like these. However, I was very pleasantly surprised to find out that her marriage only gave momentum to her journey of her own education as well as her subsequent endeavors to improve the state of Muslim women’s education in Bengal. She got married at the age of eighteen to Khan Bahadur Shakhawat Hossain, a Deputy Magistrate in British India, who supported Rokeya’s desire to keep learning the two languages and even cheered her on to start writing.
Rokeya went on to have a successful career as an author, writing several influential Bengali essays, short stories, and books. Having been denied a formal education in her childhood, she recognized the injustice in depriving women of the opportunities to which only men had access, and as a result, her writings urged women to come forward to claim their rights. Her vision for society can be summarized by what is perhaps her most widely known quote: “We [women] constitute one half of the society, and if we are left behind, how can the society progress?” (“Begum Rokeya: A Trailblazer”).
Her fight for the rights of women to equal opportunity did not stay confined to pen and paper. In 1909, Rokeya founded the Shakhawat Memorial Girls’ School, named after her deceased husband. It was the first school in the region intended for Muslim girls, and only had five pupils enrolled when it started. Even for those five, Rokeya had to go door to door in person begging conservative parents to let their daughters attend (“Begum Rokeya: A Trailblazer”).
Today, the anniversary of her birth and death, coincidentally the same day, is commemorated as Begum Rokeya Day in Bangladesh. Unfortunately, she passed away at the age of fifty-two, before she could witness most of the recognition the country gave her for her contribution in shaping its feminist history.
Women’s education in Bangladesh has come a long way since Rokeya’s time. As of 2018, the country has an adult female literacy rate of 71.2% (“Literacy Rate''). Of course, it also has a long way to go, given how it is still fairly common to prioritise marriage over education for women. What this means for Bangladeshi women is that we still have a lot of fights left to fight, but there is solace in remembering that Begum Rokeya did it at a time when things were much more dreadful, and she achieved her goals regardless.
“Begum Rokeya: Bengali Feminist Writer and Social Reformer.” People Pill, https://peoplepill.com/people/roquia-sakhawat-hussain/.
Jahan, Mitali. “Begum Rokeya: A Trailblazer in Women's Rights.” The Daily Star, 9 Dec. 2018, https://www.thedailystar.net/opinion/tribute/news/begum-rokeya-trailblazer-womens-rights-1670908.
“Literacy Rate, Adult Female (% of Females Ages 15 and above) - Bangladesh.” The World Bank, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.ADT.LITR.FE.ZS?locations=BD.