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Rokeya was an educationist and social reformer. She was born and grew up in Poiraband, now in Bangladesh, in an oppressively orthodox household. Girls in this household were not allowed to learn anything more than the most rudimentary skills. Bengali was shunned as the language of ‘the others’, that is the Hindus, or of lower class Muslim Bengalis. Upper class sharif families preserved the illusion of their foreignness by reading and writing only Urdu, Persian and Arabic. When it was discovered that Rokeya’s elder sister Karimunnessa had not only taught herself to read Bengali, but enjoyed reading Bengali books, she was dispatched under guard to her grandparents and quickly married off. The younger Rokeya, however, found allies in her educated brothers. Her brother Ibrahim, who had studied in Calcutta, shielded her and helped her learn English and Bengali late at night in utmost secrecy when everyone was asleep.

At 18 Rokeya was married to Khan Bahadur Syed Sakhawat Hossain, a widower and district magistrate in Bihar. He was a friend of Ibrahim’s, who had arranged the match in the hope that Sakhawat would give Rokeya space to grow. Sakhawat believed firmly in the need for women’s education, taught his young wife English and encouraged her to write. Three years later she was writing and publishing articles on issues of concern to women. Once when Sakhawat was away, she wrote her story Sultana’s Dream in English. On returning and reading the story, Sakhawat commented with perceptive good humour that he had been justly punished for his neglect of her and the story was ‘a cruel revenge on men’. When Sakhawat died in 1909 Rokeya used an endowment set aside by him for women’s education to start a school for girls in Bhagalpur. This was eventually shut down due to property disputes with her son-in-law, and she was forced to return to Calcutta. She wrote a bitter diatribe against the patriarchal method of distributing property. She began again from scratch, establishing the Sakhawat Memorial School for Girls on 16 March 1911, with eight students and little capital. By dint of gruelling hard work she was able to set the school on its feet, going from door to door to persuade Muslim families to send their daughters to it. She promised strict purdah for the girls there and reinforced it by wearing the burqa herself. Like many Muslim women, she distinguished between purdah, a Muslim woman’s voluntary modesty, and abarodh, the patriarchal perversion of purdah.

In 1916 she became a founder member of the Anjuman-i-khawatin-e-Islam (Muslim Women’s Association) and in 1926 she presided over the Bengal Women’s Education Conference in Calcutta. In 1932 she presided at a session of the AIWC at Aligarh. It is ironic that, though she was such a good Bengali stylist herself, she had to fight long and hard to get the Muslim community to accept the idea of teaching Bengali to girls. The medium of instruction at her school was Urdu, and 14 years later there was still no Bengali section. There is no evidence that she read Wollstonecraft, but the last work she attempted was a manuscript titled ‘Narir Adhikar’ (The Rights of Women). In one essay, Abarodhbashini (literally, Living Under Siege) she writes of the insidiousness of purdah. Rokeya herself lived in strict purdah from the age of five, and she speaks of it as a silent killer, like carbon monoxide gas. She would always say that she was dedicated first and foremost to the removal of the ‘purdah of ignorance’.
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