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Faizunnessa Chaudhurani carries the distinction of being the first Muslim woman to campaign successfully for women’s education. She grew up in Paschimgaon in Comilla, now in Bangladesh. Her family were aristocratic zamindars, landlords in the khandani or aristocratic mould, isolated from both the Hindus of all castes and the common Muslims, who spoke Bengali as opposed to the aristocratic Urdu and Persian. After 1857 the old Muslim nobility had grown more insular, and the community spent much of its spiritual energy commemorating a time of past glory rather than looking to the future. In this atmosphere of intense conservatism, it is astonishing that Faizunnessa was able to teach herself Bengali and Sanskrit as well as Urdu and Persian.

She had a happy childhood, of which we can grasp the outlines from her diary and from a short note she added to her fable Rupjalal. Her childhood studies were interrupted when Mahmud Ghazi Chaudhuri, a distant uncle of hers, saw her and became infatuated with her. After her father’s death Chaudhuri prevailed upon her mother to marry her to him. Initially the relationship was stable, but it seems that Faizunnessa returned after some time to her parent’s home. There she dedicated herself to the service of society, the managing of her vast estates and the furthering of her plans for Muslim women’s education.

In 1873, when even the most liberal male Muslim thinkers did not think it necessary for Muslim women to know more than the alphabet, Faizunnessa succeeded in setting up an English medium school for girls, the Faizunnessa Girl’s Pilot High School. In this she had the assistance of Kali Charan De, a Brahmo reformer of Comilla. The school observed complete purdah, and later a hostel was added to it. Reactions to the school were decidedly mixed, although many of its students subsequently made their mark in the world. This was some years before the establishment of the Eden School for Girls in Dhaka, and four decades before Rokeya Sakhawat Hussein (q.v.) was to set up the Sakhawat Memorial Girls’ High School in Kolkata. In the last years of the nineteenth century, Faizunnessa established a free madrasa (Muslim traditional school) at her home, the seed of what is today the Faizunnessa Degree College, and in 1901 she set up an English middle school named after her daughter, Badrunnessa.

In 1889 she received the title of Nawab from Queen Victoria, an honour for which the Magistrate of Comilla had recommended her. This was startling news to the Muslim community and to the world in general. Faizunnessa herself observed strict purdah all her life. She is the author of the long verse novel Rupjalal, one of the earliest long works by a Muslim Bengali woman. It is the story of the love affair of Jalal and Rupbano, and its tone is a peculiar mixture of the medieval Islamic fable and modern quasi-historic writing in the mode of Bankim Chandra.
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