A study of the early life of Rokeya, focuses on the underprivileged state of India. Her mother , Rahatunnessa Sabera Chowdhurani, was the first among the four wives of her polygamist father , Zahiruddin Mohammad Abu Ali Saber.
As per as the order of the day, Rokeya and her two sisters, like other females, were restricted to the four walls of the house and prevented from visiting school for formal education. They had to remain gratified with the traditional education they were imparted at home. A superstition that loomed large over the abstinence of women from Bengali and English was the fear of "contamination" with the people of other religions. The blind superstition was linked up with the fact that English and Bengali, was primarily the mother tongues of Bengalis and the British respectively. And an exposure to these languages would mean an acquaintance with the unconventional and radical beliefs of these non-Muslim groups, vehemently opposed by the rigid conservatives.
The scenario, while was different for Rokeya's brothers. After the completion of their primary education at home, they pursued higher education, at the renowned St.Xavier's College in Calcutta (present Kolkata).
Muslim girls in those times were required to read Arabic and Urdu, so that they could peruse the sacred "Koran" and important scriptures, instructing on the laws of "feminine conduct". Thanks to the benevolence of one elder brother of Rokeya, who understood the urgency of the education for women. He covertly educated Rokeya and her sister on English and Bengali, in the secret hours of the night, to avoid the glare and rebuke of the orthodox society.
In 1896, Rokeya got married to Syed Khan Bahadur Sakhawat Hossain, the Deputy Magistrate of Bhagalpur at the age of sixteen. Her elder brother, Abul Asad Ibrahim Saber, who was fascinated by the widened mental horizon, liberal spirit and the educational qualifications of Syed, organized the marital negotiation. Syed indeed proved to be ahead of his times. He approved female education, and enthused Rokeya, to use the mightier weapon of pen to express her feelings. Just three years after her marriage, Rokeya showed her flair for writing. It was under the genuine support that she got from her gem of a husband, that she could preserve money for setting up a school for Muslim women.
Her three alarming essays, "Ardhangi" or "The Female Half", "Griha" or "The House", and "Borka" or "Purdah or "The Veil" , were revolutionary writings .She criticized the meaningless barriers imposed on women, to stop their communication with the larger world outside. She excavated that women's economic dependence and lack of education were conspired by the oppressive patriarchy to continue the domination over females. In "Sugrihini" , meaning "The Ideal Housewife", mirrored the perpetual truth that education is important, because it upgrades a woman's skill . An educated woman, can handle her responsibilities properly and thereby, facilitates a nation's improvement. Rokeya was boldly vocal about the freedom of women, and dissolution of gender equality, prevalent in society. Women, in her opinion, must be allowed to select the vocation she desired.
Her compositions in Bengali awakened the stupefied female mass. The marvelous blend of humor elements, subtle irony and witty satire, spotlighted and condemned the social abuses, torturing the Bengali Muslim women. Rokeya took recourse to the pure knowledge of the essence of religion. She emphasized that Almighty God is the source of life in all existence. Hence, every woman could manifest the divine aura of God, when she would be allowed to use the latent powers, inherent in her to the fullest extent.
Rokeya demonstrated her excellent command over the foreign language, English , in her literature, "Sultana's Dream", written in 1905. It is a dream narrative, imbued with deeper connotations. The book is a feminist's delight. It describes an illusory, matriarchal situation, wherein the women ruled the word, and the men stayed indoors. Her, pillar of strength, her caring and loving husband, Syed, was pretty satisfied with the quality of her writing. The manuscript of the story was forwarded under his supervision to the famous English journal of Madras, the Indian Ladies Magazine. The script was greeted with tremendous appreciation and applause. In 1908, the story was officially published in the form of a book.
Unfortunately, after 11 years of their marriage, in 1909, the magnanimous Syed died. Rokeya, paid her tribute to her noble husband, by opening up a school in Bhagalpur, to commemorate Syed , shortly after his death. However, a dispute with her step-daughter's husband in 1910, forced her to close down the school in Bhagalpur . Rokeya migrated from the district town of Bhagalpur, to the city of Calcutta (present Kolkata) .
She established the Sakhawat Memorial Girls' School on March 16, 1911. The roll strength of the students outstandingly increased from 8 in 1911 to 84 in 1915. In 1917, the school reached the heights of fame and honour, when the eminent Lady Chelmsford, wife of the Governor General and Vicerory of India, visited the school for the visualizing the educational enterprise.
Subsequently, the school began to draw patronage from distinguished personalities. Within 1930, the school expanded its infrastructure and emerged as a high school, up to the 10th standard. A fabulous feature of this institution was that both English and Bengali courses were taught on a daily basis. Although, Begum Rokeya protested against the practice of the purdah system, she had to adhere to the "Purdah" system of her times, when it came to observing it in her own school. It was mandatory to achieve a parity between the norms existing in the Muslim Girls' School of Punjab and United Provinces .
It was compulsory for girls to wear the Purdah, while traveling from school to home or vice-versa. However, in the interior of the school, the girls were free to go around, only by enveloping their heads. This new style of dressing was definitely a signifier of a step, closer to modernity. A resemblance was maintained in the curricular framework of these academic centers. The issue of female literacy and cultivation of practical subjects such as handicrafts, home science, and gardening, were of much significance in the context of educational projects. The syllabus of Begum Rokeya's school also incorporated physical fitness as a vital discipline.
Rokeya was actually aiming at creating a female community, capable enough to grow as healthy individuals, both in the mind and body. They should possess promising caliber, in addition to the traditional roles of perfect wives and good mothers, to their husbands and children. Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain assumed the role of a feminist -welfare activist. In 1916, she formed a Bengali Muslim Women's Association, known as Anjuman-e-Khawatin-e-Islam . In 1926, Rokeya appeared as the chairperson of the Bengal Women's Education Conference held in Calcutta. Rokeya had always taken keen interest about participating in debates, discussions and conferences, on women's development.
Her, satirical treatment of the demeaning shackle of "Purdah" in the eruptive documentary of a chain of forty-seven data-details , Avarodbbasini or "The Secluded Ones" in 1929, struck the consciousness of sensitive people. Seclusion, Begum Rokeya poignantly depicted, "is not a gaping wound, hurting people. It is rather a silent killer like carbon monoxide gas." She authenticated her allegation, with the strong argument that the religious doctrine of Quran or Shari'ah (the Muslim religious law) did not advocate the "Purdah" practice.
She had always kept alive the flame of reformation, kindled within her. Even before her death, she was attending the Indian Women's Conference in Aligarh. Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain was certainly the torchbearer of a neglected and backward Muslim and overall female population of India, who reached the gateways of enlightenment, under her guidance.
Avarodbbasini ("The Secluded Ones") (1929), forty-seven serialized reports documenting the custom of purdah. Her satirical writings on female seclusion were meant to inform an audience ignorant of the real tragedy of purdah (her own aunt was killed by a train because she would not cry out for help). Seclusion, Begum Rokeya wrote, "is not a gaping wound, hurting people. It is rather a silent killer like carbon monoxide gas."66 She denied this custom had any basis in the Quran or Shari'ah (the Muslim religious law).
Rokeya's campaign was unpopular. Accused of being both pro-Christian and a Europhile, Rokeya attracted more hostility when she endorsed Katherine Mayo's Mother India. But her school remained open, attended by Muslim girls from good families. Apparently her central argument, that neglect of female education would ultimately threaten Islamic culture, struck a responsive chord.