The first ever prolific Islamic feminist, Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain (বেগম রোকেয়া সাখাওয়াৎ হুসাইন) was a Bengali writer and activist who championed girls’ education nearly a century before the incomparable Malala Yousafzai was born.
Rokeya—Begum is an honorific, not a name—was an orthodox Muslim wedded to an older man at sixteen. As a child she was taught Arabic and Persian instead of English or Bengali so as to keep her insulated within the Muslim world; however, her brother Ibrahim Saber taught Rokeya and her sisters the more worldly languages after completing his Western education.
Rokeya was lucky that her husband, chosen by her father, was a progressive man in favor of her reading and writing. The esteemed Syed Sakhawat Hossain encouraged Rokeya to write in Bengali, the regional language; to publish her works; and later, to open a school for girls’ education.
After Syed’s death in 1909, Rokeya founded the Sakhawat Memorial Girls’ High School for Muslim women in Bhagalpur. The institution was later relocated to Calcutta.
Perhaps Begum Rokeya’s most famous work, and her only piece available online (or, as it were, for $0.99 on Kindle), the satirical short story Sultana’s Dream (1905) tells of a fantasy world called “Ladyland” in which men are enclosed in zenana as Indian women were at the time. According to Rokeya’s work, when men keep purdah and stay out of the women’s way, the society is entirely free of conflict, pain, and sin.
Though this solution to gender inequality is a little too extreme, it is clear to me that Rokeya means her story to awaken men to the ridiculousness of their shutting up women in little rooms and running the world into the ground. In many ways, Sultana’s Dream by Begum Rokeya is indeed not unlike The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood: a fantasy world showing what happens when gender roles are taken to an extreme. In Rokeya’s satirical sensibilities, all forms of society, from agriculture to politics to religion, are stronger with women in charge, thereby directly contrasting with traditional Muslim and Indian expectations of women’s worth.
This little story by Begum Rokeya is certainly worth the read (and 99¢ on Amazon). And Begum Rokeya is a name worth knowing, particularly to Americans in this time of hatred and the ‘Muslim Ban.’