Begum Roquia Sakhawat Hussain, popularly known as Begum Rokeya (9 December 1880 – 9 December 1932), was a leading feminist writer and social worker in undivided Bengal during the early 20th century. She is most famous for her efforts on behalf of gender equality and other social issues.She established the first school aimed primarily at Muslim girls, which still exists today. She was a notable Muslim feminist; Begum Rokeya also wrote short stories and novels. Her important works are Sultana’s Dream and Padmarag.
Roquia Khatun was born in 1880 in the village of Pairabondh, Mithapukur, Rangpur, present Bangladesh, in what was then the British Indian Empire. Her father, Jahiruddin Muhammad Abu Ali Haidar Saber, was a highly educated zamindar (landlord) and he married four times including Rahatunnessa who was the mother of Begum Roquia. Roquia had two sisters, Karimunnesa Khatun and Humayra Khatun; and three brothers, one of whom died in childhood. Roquia’s eldest brother Ibrahim Saber, and her immediate elder sister Karimunnesa, both had great influence on her life. Karimunnesa wanted to study Bengali, the language of the majority in Bengal. The family disliked this because many upper class Muslims of the time preferred to use Arabic and Persian as the media of education, instead of their native language, Bengali. Ibrahim taught English and Bengali to Roquia and Karimunnesa; both sisters became authors.
Karimunnesa married at the age of fourteen, later earning a reputation as a poet. Both of her sons, Nawab Abdul Karim Gaznawi and Nawab Abdul Halim Gaznawi, became famous in the political arena and occupied ministerial portfolios under British authorities.
Roquia married at the age of sixteen in 1896. Her Urdu-speaking husband, Khan Bahadur Sakhawat Hussain, was the deputy magistrate of Bhagalpur, which is now a district under the Indian state of Bihar. He married earlier also. Sakhawat was then 38 years old before his marriage with Roquia. Sakhawat did his B.A.G from England and was a member of Royal Agricultural Society of England. Roquia was his second wife. After the death of first wife Sakhawat married her. As he was gentle, liberal-minded and had much interest in female education he encouraged Roquia to continue her brother’s work by encouraging her to keep learning Bengali and English. He also suggested that she write, and on his advice she adopted Bengali as the principal language for her literary works because it was the language of the masses. She launched her literary career in 1902 with a Bengali essay entitled Pipasa (Thirst). She also launched books Motichur (1905), Sultana’s Dream (1908) during her husband’s lifetime. That was some years before the establishment of her famous Sakhawat Memorial Girls’ School. In an obituary Sakhawat Hussain published in The Mussalman on 14 May 1909, “My wife Mrs. Begum Roquia was a name familiar with those who have something to do with modern Bengali literature.” This at least proves that in the beginning of the last century Roquia was no less familiar as a writer then the founder head of a Muslims’ girls school.
In 1909, Sakhawat Hussain died. He had encouraged his wife to set aside money to start a school primarily for Muslim women. Five months after his death, Roquia established a high school in her beloved husband’s memory, naming it Sakhawat Memorial Girls’ High School.It started in Bhagalpur, a traditionally Urdu-speaking area, with only five students. A dispute with her husband’s family over property forced Roquia to move the school in 1911 to Calcutta (now known as Kolkata), a Bengali-speaking area. It remains one of the city’s most popular schools for girls and is now run by the state government of West Bengal.
Begum Roquia also founded the Anjuman e Khawateen e Islam (Islamic Women’s Association), which was active in holding debates and conferences regarding the status of women and education. She advocated reform, particularly for women, and believed that parochialism and excessive conservatism were principally responsible for the relatively slow development of Muslims in British India. As such, she is one of the first Islamic feminists. She was inspired by the traditional Islamic learning as enunciated in the Qur’an, and believed that modern Islam had been distorted or corrupted; her organisation Anjuman e Khawateen e Islam organised many events for social reforms based on the original teachings of Islam that, according to her, were lost.
Begum Roquia remained busy with the school, the association, and her writings for the rest of her life. She died of heart problems on 9 December 1932, which was her 52nd birthday. In Bangladesh, 9 December is celebrated as Rokeya Day.
Begum Roquia was an inspiring figure who contributed much to the struggle to liberate women from the bondage of social malaises. Her life can be seen in the context of other social reformers within what was then India. To raise popular consciousness, especially among women, she wrote a number of articles, stories and novels, mostly in Bengali.
Begum Roquia used humour, irony, and satire to focus attention on the injustices faced by Bengali-speaking Muslim women. She criticised oppressive social customs forced upon women that were based upon a corrupted version of Islam, asserting that women fulfilling their potential as human beings could best display the glory of Lord.
Begum Roquia wrote courageously against restrictions on women to promote their emancipation, which, she believed, would come about by breaking the gender division of labour. She rejected discrimination for women in the public arena and believed that discrimination would cease only when women were able to undertake whatever profession they chose. In 1926, Begum Roquia strongly condemned men for withholding education from women in the name of religion as she addressed the Bengal women’s education conference:
The opponents of the female education say that women will be unruly … fie! They call themselves Muslims and yet go against the basic tenet of Islam which gives equal right to education. If men are not led astray once educated, why should women?