Rokeya Khatun was born on 1880 in a Zamindar family of Pairabowd in the district of Rangpur (now in Bangladesh). Her father Zahiruddin Abu Ali Hyder Saber was an orthodox man. The women in his family observed strict pardah system. Even little girls had to run and hide them-selves when anybody came to their place. Girls in the family were not allowed to study books other than the Holy Quran. Rokeya's elder brother, Ibrahim Saber noticing in her the urge to study books taught her elementary English at midnight without the knowledge of their father. Karihunnessa, Rokeya's elder sister, was so talented that she learned Bengali by herself and also helped Rokeya to learn the language.
When Rokeya was only sixteen years old, she was married to Syed Sakhawat Hossain, the deputy magis-trate of Bhagalpur in Bihar and she became Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain. This was the middle-aged Sakhawat's second marriage after the death of his first wife. Rokeya was fortunate to enjoy the bliss of a happy married life, as her husband was a good-natured and educated man of liberal personality. He taught her English and she acquired a good command over the language. In turn, she taught him Bengali. But unfortunately their mar-ried life did not last long and at the age of twenty-nine Rokeya became a widow. After thirteen years of happy married life there was total emptiness in her life. Two children born to her died when they were infants. Her husband was aware of her aspiration for doing something for the edu-cation of Muslim women. So he left her ten thousand rupees for fulfilling her wishes. She started a school at Bhagalpur in the name of her husband with the money left by him. Unfortunately, she had to leave the place of her husband in disgust when her stepdaughter and son-in-law began to torture her for the property left by Sakhawat Hossain. She came to Calcutta and in a few months started the same school in a small house in Oliullah Lane with just eleven students. This was a turning point in Rokeya's life. The school progressed very slowly. In the beginning it was a High Primary School and then became a Junior School . For the first time three students of this school sat for the Entrance Examination. During her lifetime, the school was recognized as a first- grade educational institution. Later, after her death, the school was taken over by the Government of West Bengal and was named Sakhawat Memorial Government Girls' school. The school is now situated at Lord Sinha Road and is one of the most reputed schools of Calcutta.
Rokeya founded the association for Muslim Women' Anjumane Khawatine Islam'. The aims and objectives of this organization were to provide free education to poor Muslim girls, to arrange their marriage and to bring about a sense of self-awareness in them. She presided over the Bengalee Women's Educational- Conference in Calcutta. She worked as the President of 'Naritirtha', an organization established in by Dr. Lutfar Rahman, an eminent writer.
Begum Rokeya made remarkable contributions in the world of literature. Her important works are - Motichur, Padmarag , Aborodhbasini and Sultana's Dream. Rokeya's articles in Motichur were based on sound logic. She wrote with great brevity. Padmarag is her only novel in which she establishes that marriage is not the ultimate goal in the life of a woman. In Aborodhbasini she cited concrete examples of the inhuman confinement of women in Indian society. In Sultana's Dream she attacked the privileged position of men in our country. In the work, Sultana, the chief character says - "In India man is lord and master. He has taken to himself all power and privileges and shut up the women in the Zenana" and if the system called 'Murdana' where all men would be confined was established instead of 'Zenana' then there would be no more crime or sin in Indian society. Through all her works she proved herself to be a humanist. She said, "we are not only Hindus or Muslims or Parsis or Christians or that we are Bengalees, Tamilians, Marwaris or Punjabis, but that we are Indians too. We are Indians first, then Muslims or Sikhs or whatever else."
For years together, she worked sixteen hours a day. At last her health broke down and the great life came to an untimely end in the early hours of 9 December 1932. On the previous night she was busy with her schoolwork till eleven pm. An unfinished article entitled 'Rights of Women' written by her in Bengali was found on her writing -table in the morning. Our whole nation is indebted to Begum Rokeya for her selfless struggle for the improvement of Indian society. We can only repay the debt by dedicating ourselves to continue her mission.
(Last Updated on : 16-01-2009)
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