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Women We Celebrate: Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain 1880 – 1932

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain was a Muslim feminist and social reformer who dedicated her life to education and the empowerment of women. Born in 1880 in Bangladesh during British colonial rule, Rokeya was brought up in a Muslim family that followed the purdah, a strict set of social rules which required women be secluded from society. However, the support from her brothers and husband would give her the strength to persevere through harsh criticism, and inspire her to become the author of several books and eventually open a school for girls.

Rokeya’s father was a rich landowner who had the means to educate his two sons Abul Asad Ibrahim Saber and Khalil Saber. Unfortunately Rokeya’s father had little interest in educating any of his daughters.  Her brothers, inspired by their Western education, secretly taught Rokeya and her sister Bengali and English. However, before the age of 15, Rokeya’s sister would be forced into a child marriage. This would have a strong impact on Rokeya. In one of her personal essays she states “Had society not been so suppressive, Karimunessa would have been a bright gem of this country, as the glow of an electric bulb is dimmed by a thick cover, so the lady described by me could not show her gifts due to the covers of purdah”.

In 1898, Rokeya married Syed Sakhawat Hossain a civil servant who firmly believed that the education of women would cure society of its evils. Hossain would prove to be a supportive husband and encouraged Rokeya’s writings and activities and he set aside money so she would be able to start a school for Muslim women.  In 1905 she wrote and published Sultana’s Dream, which became one of the highest regarded literary works in Bangladesh. After her husband died in 1909, Rokeya wrote, “If my dear husband had not been so supportive I might never have written or published anything.”  That same year she opened the first school in Bengal for Muslim girls with only five students.  Although she was forced to close the school in 1910 and reopen it in Calcutta in 1911, the number of students grew to 84 by 1915; the Sakhawat Memorial Girl’s School still exists today.

In 1916, she founded the Muslim Women’s Association, an organization that argued for women’s education and employment.  In 1926, Rokeya presided over the Bengal Women’s Education Conference held in Calcutta, the first noted attempt to bring women together in support of women’s education rights. She was active in debates and conferences concerning the advancement of women until her death on December 9, 1932, shortly after presiding over a session during the Indian Women’s Conference.

Every year December 9th is observed as “Rokeya Day” in Bangladesh.  Today, she is remembered for her ability to escape the restriction of the purdah and for using her skills as a writer to voice insightful and witty opinions. She holds high recognition as being one of the first Muslim feminists that attempted to bring major social changes to her country.  Through her actions she earned the honorific title of begum which is only given to women who earn the right to a higher status.

In 2001, Fauzia Karim, the great niece of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain donated several items to the Florence Bayard Hilles Feminist Library including a copy of Sultana’s Dream and some of her other short writings, an original commemorative stamp in honor of Hossain, and a book entitled Inside Seclusion: The Avarodhbasini of Rekeya Sakhawat Hossain edited and translated by Roushan Jahan.  Following this donation, in 2011 Fauzia Karim commissioned a small bust of Hossain, jointly funded by Fauzia Karim, family and friends, which was completed by artist Mekbib Gebertsadik.

Click here to read Sultana's Dream - by Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain

Hossain, R.S. "Educational Ideals for the Modern Indian Girl." The Mussalman, 1931: 1-5.
Hossain, Rokeya. Inside Seclusion: The Avarodhbasini of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain. Edited by Roushan Jahan. Dacca: Women for women, 1981.
Sakhawat, Rokeya. Sultana’s Dream. Bangladesh: Narigrantha Prabartana, 1993.
Yilibuw, Dolores. Rokeya Sakhawat Hossian. Fall 1996.
http://www.english.emory.edu/Bahri/Hossain.html (accessed June 25, 2011).

This article was taken the Sewall-Belmont House and Museum website http://www.sewallbelmont.org/womenwecelebrate/begum-rokeya-sakhawat-hossain/