Born in 1880 in the Pairaband village of Rangpur—not Rampur as the volume under review states (p. 269)—a district of eastern Bengal, Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain grew up within the confines of a large upper class Muslim family headed by an orthodox father. Rokeya and her sisters were denied, unlike their brothers, formal education, or any education for that matter. Not only that, even the informal speaking and learning of the Bangla language was heavily discouraged; the English language, needless to say, was completely out of their reach. The family, devoted as it was to the cultivation of high Islamic culture, mainly used the Urdu language at home, and Arabic remained restricted to the pages of the Quran. In fact, no justice was done to the Quran either, for it was memorized and recited by Rokeya and her sisters without any meaningful understanding. In short, no language was encouraged to be seriously learnt and studied by the girls of the family. The Bangla (and English) language, in particular, was the most despised as it was considered inferior, and above all, un-Islamic.
The strong family opinion regarding the Bangla (and English) language, however, did not go unresisted for long. Karimunessa Khanam (1855–1926), Rokeya’s elder sister, taught herself Bangla, under the supervision of her brother Ibrahim Saber, and took to writing poetry. It was Karimunessa who taught Bangla to Rokeya and paved the way for the latter’s future success as a writer. In deep gratitude Rokeya would, much later, dedicate the Part II of the book Motichur (1922) to her elder sister. The dedication, translated from Bangla in the book under review, reads as follows: ‘Dear Sister mine, [I]t was your love that encouraged me to read Barnaparichay in my childhood …. I have not forgotten Bengali because your blessing has always supported me. I dedicate this book to you to signify my love and respect’ (p. 93; see also, Abdul Quadir (ed.) Rokeya Rachanabali, Dhaka, 1973).
Rokeya was certainly fortunate to have a sister like Karimunessa, but was no less so to have in Ibrahim an equally supportive brother. Overcoming family hurdles, Ibrahim, trained at St. Xavier’s College, Calcutta, introduced Rokeya to the English language. The fruit of that would be, among others, the famous Sultana’s Dream, a short piece of fiction written by Rokeya in English, and published for the first time in the Indian Ladies’ Magazine (edited by Kamala Satthia and Sarojini Naidu) in 1905. Rokeya’s engagement with the English language did begin with the efforts of her progressive brother but continued due to the steady support of her husband Khan Bahadur Syed Sakhawat Hossain—they were married in 1896—who was trained in England and held modern, liberal views. Settled in Bhagalpur, Bihar after her marriage, Rokeya seriously took to writing and publishing, both in Bangla and English magazines, during that time, and over a span of thirty years she wrote, primarily on women and their condition, in the ‘genres ranging from poetry, polemical essays, fiction, allegorical narratives to social satire, burlesque, letters and journalistic vignettes’ (Mohammad A. Quayum, The Essential Rokeya: Selected Works of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (1880–1932), Leiden, 2013, p. 1).
Rokeya’s intellectual journey took off with a Bangla essay entitled ‘Pipasa (Muharram)’ published in the monthly periodical Nabaprabha in April-May, 1902. After two years, in 1904, her writings, which had appeared in periodicals/magazines like Nabaprabha, Mahila, and Nabanur since 1902, were brought together and published in the form of a book—Motichur (Part I)— from Calcutta; it had a second edition in 1907. Following the death of her husband in 1909, Rokeya established the Sakhawat Memorial Girls’ School (SMGS) in Bhagalpur. The English medium school was restarted in Calcutta (in 1911) after she moved permanently to the city in 1910. Between 1910 and 1932 Rokeya tirelessly worked for the SMGS (it was upgraded to a high school in 1927) and the Anjuman-eKhawatin-e-Islam/Muslim Women’s Association which she set up in 1916. Alongside such social (women’s) welfare and organizational activities, her (women-centric) writing never stopped. Publication of works such as Motichur (Part II) (1922), Padmarag (1924) and Aborodhbashini (1931) testify to that. Indeed, until her death in 1932 Rokeya, in all her endeavours, displayed an unwavering faith in the promise of the liberated feminine. It was that belief which lent her the courage to interrogate the politics of the nineteenth and early twentieth century subcontinental (Muslim) patriarchy and fight for women’s right to life and freedom (see, for example, Bharati Ray, Early Feminists of Colonial India: Sarala Devi Chaudhurani and Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, Delhi, 2002).
Among Rokeya’s works the two volumes of Motichur are significant ones. They have been, quite appropriately, brought together in this single volume under review. The book contains a total of seventeen prose pieces, dedications, explanations, advertisements, a translators’ note, and a foreword by Farah Ghuznavi. All the pieces (with Rokeya’s notes and comments), except for ‘Sultana’s Dream’, have been translated from Bangla. They draw upon ‘a range of stylistic innovations’ which include, as Farah Ghuznavi writes, ‘the reframing of myth, the creative use of fantasy and fable, and her inimitable voice as a passionate social campaigner’ (p. xvi). The seven essays that Part I contains are clearly, critically, and boldly argued; they are highly informative too. They address issues close to Rokeya’s heart which are, for example, equality between men and women, the role of ‘good’ (p. 55) housewives, the prevalence of purdah (and zenana system) among Muslim women, status of women in the domestic sphere, and so forth; in a satirical tone she also takes on the ‘inoffensive’ (p. 38) character and conduct of Bengalis in general and the men in particular.
However, of all, it is in the long essay entitled ‘The Degradation of Women’ that Rokeya’s position is best articulated. Challenging the misogynistic social system which The Book Review / August 2015 11 treats women as nothing less than slaves, she urges for deep reflection on the causes behind their wretched condition. She argues, without absolving men, that it is women who have brought the servitude upon themselves by surrendering their mind, body and will to men, and their patriarchal ideology. Therefore, it is not men but women who have to take the initiative to become free. The first step towards freedom, says Rokeya, would be claiming equality with men in all the spheres (domestic, educational, political, economic, and so on) of life. She writes: ‘[We] should open the door to our development with our own hands. Unless we worry about ourselves, no one else is going to worry for us … So I say … all of you together, go forward in the name of freedom … Let us do all that has to be done to gain equality with men’ (pp. 23–25).
The claim to equal status, continues Rokeya in the ten pieces of Part II of the volume, has to be supported by acquiring knowledge. By knowledge she means ‘true education’ (p. 22)—an education which develops the ‘faculty of seeing’ (Ibid.), an education which encourages vision, self-will, and finally, liberation from mental servitude. Rokeya reiterates her position on the value of knowledge (education) for women, and also the society at large in the story named ‘The Fruit of Knowledge’. In the story the people (including men) of a certain Isle of Gold turn happy and prosperous after women create the ‘Garden of Knowledge’ there (p. 202). In fact, Rokeya, in this story as well as others, draws liberally from religious texts to buttress her arguments. Far from believing that religion—for instance, Islam—stifles the feminine voice, she hails it as a source of women’s moral and spiritual strength (‘The Light of Islam’). To that extent, Rokeya, instead of rejecting, for example, the practice of purdah, leaves it to the will and choice of women, for Islam, she is sure, is the most non-discriminatory and progressive of faiths. But how does she explain the sad state of Muslim women then? Rokeya castigates the men for misinterpreting Islam to keep the best of it, and life itself, away from women (‘The Solar System’). In an appealing but firm tone Rokeya says: ‘[O]h my Muslim brothers! The Prophet is as dear to us [women] as to you’ (p. 121).
It is this firmness of conviction that led her to vehemently denounce patriarchy in both word and deed. The finest instance of the former is ‘Sultana’s Dream’, the highlight of Part II, and also the volume. Published many times over (Roushan Jahan, Sultana’s Dream …, New York, 1988; Barnita Bagchi Sultana’s Dream …, New Delhi, 2005), it is, unlike Margaret Atwood’s feminist dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale (London, 1996), a simple but profound feminist (and scientific) utopia. Rokeya and her radical ideas about women’s (potential and) right to (scientific) knowledge, dignity, and above all, independent life come alive in a place — Ladyland (where there are no zenanas but mardanas)—dreamt up by the woman protagonist named Sultana. None can help but admire and applaud Rokeya for conceiving and writing a story that engages all the faculties of the reader from beginning up until the end. Motichur is indeed a great treat, thanks to the translators and the publisher. However, the volume has multiple editing and stylistic errors, and too brief a translators’ note. If a second edition is ever planned, the following points may be considered: one, rigorous copy-editing, two, a biographical essay—this review has only provided a simple biographical sketch—on Rokeya, three, a list of her works with publishing details (for instance, the medium of writing, year (as per both Saka/Hijri and Gregorian calendars, and place of publication), and four, a longer, that is, an informative and explanatory, translators’ note. Finally, all said, this volume ought not to be given a miss.
Nabanipa Bhattacharjee teaches Sociology at Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi, Delhi.