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  • Born: 1880, Pairabondh in Rangpur
  • Died: 9 December 1932 (aged 52)
  • Profession: Bengali writer and social worker
  • Recognition: December 9 is celebrated as Rokeya Day
  • National contribution: Established the first school aimed primarily at Muslim girls - Sakhawat Memorial Girls' High School.
  • Hasani? Didn't know that! Died of heart problems, had two daughters who both died as infant.
  • Work include: Pipasa (1902), Sultana's Dream (1905), Oborodhbashini ("The woman in captivity"), Motichur, Paddorag ("Essence of the Lotus"), Narir Adhikar ("The Rights of Women")

Family hungry for learning

Begum Rokeya was born in 1880 in Pairaband, a small village in the district of Rangpur, at the time of her birth a part of the colonial British province of Bengal Presidency. Her date of birth in uncertain, which is not surprising in a region which even today lacks a well-regulated system of registering births and deaths. Though some maintain that she was born on 9 December 1880, citing her nephew as the source, this dates is open to doubt.

Of her parents, Rokeya says little beyond, "I never knew what parental love was".

Her mother, Rahatunnessa Sabera Chowdhurani, remains a shadowy figure. She was the first of four women her husband married. One of her co-wives was said to have been European. Rahatunnessa gave birth to two sons and three daughters. Her rigid conformity to purdah observance was the only memory of her that Rokeya recorded, in the dedication to The Secluded Ones, the only book she dedicated to her mother.


Born into an upper-class landowning Muslim family, Rokeya's father, Zahiruddin Mohammad Abu Ali Saber, was a prosperous and extremely conservative zamindar (large landholder) whose rambling estate was a stronghold of the traditional way of life. He was said to have learned seven languages: Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Pushto, English, Hindi, and Bangla. His children seem to have inherited his linguistic aptitude. Like other upper-class Muslim men of his time, he encouraged his sons to learn Arabic, Persian, and Urdu. The use of Bangla was frowned upon by many upper-class Muslims because it was also the native tongue of many non-Muslims.

Conscious of the growing prestige and advantages a modern education could bestow on young men (especially attractive was the prospect of joining the government service), however, he allowed his two sons, Abul Asad Ibrahim Saber and Khalilur Rahman Abu Jaigam Saber, to be taught Bangla and English at first at a local school and then at the elitist St. Xavier's College in Kolkata. Thus they could meet influential persons who might facilitate their entry into the civil service.


But where the formal education of his daughters was concerned he displayed indifference. Rokeya was not allowed to attend school, or even to learn Bengali or English, to prevent ‘contamination’ from non-Muslim ideas. While her father was a highly educated zamindar and fairly forward looking in educating his two sons, he was not particularly interested in educating his three daughters.

This was not,as we today may hasten to assume, proof of any lack of parental love. The practice of the time was to teach Bengali Muslim girls of the upper classes only to recite the Qur'an (often without any explanation of the text) and in exceptional cases to read a few primers, concerned mostly with ideal feminine conduct and written in Urdu, the language of the Muslim elite in northern India. These girls were not usually encouraged to read and write in Bangla.


Elder brother teaches her Bengali

Defying custom, and valuing their Bengali identity, Rokeya and her gifted elder sister, Karimunnessa, persisted in learning Bangla. Karimunnessa used to squat in the inner courtyard of their house and draw the Bangla alphabet on the ground with a stick, under the supervision of her younger brother, who was allowed to go to school and learn both Bangla and English. Once, when she was deeply engrossed in reading a Bangla Puthi (a popular tale written in verse), her father discovered her. She nearly fainted in fear. Her father, sensing her fear, did not forbid her outright to read Bangla books. The malicious criticism of relatives, however, soon put a stop to it. Karimunnessa was sent by her father to live in close confinement at Baliadi, the estate of her maternal grandparents, and was married off before she was fifteen. But Karimunnessa, who also became a writer, had an insatiable thirst for knowledge and later encouraged Rokeya to continue reading and writing Bangla. As Rokeya so handsomely acknowledged in the dedication to Part 2 of the Motichur, "That I had not forgotten Bangla during my long stay (14 years) in Bhagalpur, where there was none to speak Bangla, was only due to you. It was your care and concern and encouragement that motivated me [to write in Bangla]". http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=ryeS68v6ZTMC&pg=PA56&dq=begum+rokeya&hl=en&sa=X&ei=oX9LT7DsCKbC0QX5ztGXDg&ved=0CEcQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=begum%20rokeya&f=false

Throughout her life, Rokeya was haunted by the waste of human potential that she saw in Karimunnessa's fate. It strengthened her determination to fight against the blind observance of customs she considered absurd. In The Secluded Ones, Rokeya graphically describes the strict observance of purdah in her family and the way, from early childhood, she and her sisters had to hide not only from men but also from women who were outside their kinship network.


The support and encouragement Rokeya received from her eldest brother, Ibrahim Saber, prevented the destruction of her own potential, at least during her formative years. Ibrahim Saber had been exposed to Western thought and culture; he was strongly in favor of women's education. He taught Rokeya both Bangla and English. Rokeya's first biographer and close associate, Shamsunnahar Mahmud - who wrote the first biography of Rokeya in Bengali, Rokeya Jibani, in 1937 - revealed that, in order to avoid criticism and interference from parents and relatives, brother and sister had to wait for their tutorial session until everyone in the house, especially their father, had gone to sleep.

You have moulded me from childhood.. your love is sweeter than honey which after all has a bitter after-taste; it is pure and divine like Kausar [the stream of nectar following in heaven mentioned in the Qur'an].

The love and deep gratitude that Rokeya felt for this brother fill the dedicatory paragraph of her novel, Padmaraga: " ,

Rokeya's exceptional luck in having relatives who were sympathetic and supportive also held true in her marriage. Her liberal-minded husband, Syed Sakhawat Hossain, a civil servant born in Bhagalpur (in the Bihar region of Bengal Presidency), was educated in Patna, Kolkata, and London. When Sakhawat was stationed at Rangpur, Rokeya's eldest brother, Ibrahim, met him and was favourably impressed. Though Sakhawat was a widower and in his late thirties, Ibrahim persuaded his family to marry Rokeya to Sakhawat. They were married in 1896 when Rokeya was only sixteen - her husband was twice older than her.

Her Urdu-speaking, liberal-minded husband, who had been educated in Europe and was the Deputy Magistrate of Bhagalpur, was convinced that women's education was the necessary foundation of social change, and he also gave her private instruction. He encouraged her to write in Bengali because it was the language of the common people.

He was proud of her quick intelligence and encouraged her to befriend educated Hindu and Christian women and to learn English.


With his blessing, when she was twenty-one, Hossain began to publish articles on women's issues and short stories such as "Sultana's Dream" (1905), published in the Indian Ladies' Magazine.

In many of her essays, such as "The Female Half", "The House", "The Veil", and "The Ideal Housewife", Hossain called for the education of women and for their liberation from hidebound convention. She also published articles on the confinement of women in purdah and the use of the veil - even within the home - arguing that education, even in a limited form, would make better wives and mothers of Indian women.

Unfortunately, Begum Rokeya had a short married life as her husband died on 3 May 1909. She had two daughters, but they died in infancy.

Founded one of the earliest Muslim girls's school

Despite her personal losses, Begum Rokeya did not sit idle but started working for women's education and freedom. When her husband was alive he had encouraged his wife to set aside money to start a school primarily for Muslim women. Five months after his death,and with the aid of 10,000 rupees the he had bestowed for the purpose, Begum Rokeya established a high school for Muslim girls in her beloved husband's memory, naming it Sakhawat Memorial Girls' High School. It started in Bhagalpur, Bihar, a traditionally Urdu-speaking area, with only five students.

But a feud over property with her late husband's family and their moral objection to her education activities forced her to close the school down and transfer her activities to Kolkata (then anglicized to 'Calcutta').

There she opened the Sakhawat Memorial Girls' School in March 1911 with only eight pupils. By 1915 the number had risen to eighty-four, and the school was offering a curriculum that comprised reading and writing in Urdu, gardening, making handicrafts, cooking, and physical fitness, as well as instruction in the preservation of Islamic cultural and religious values. Once the school had been inspected and officially approved by the wife of the viceroy of India, the numbers went up, and by 1930 it was well established as a leading high school patronized by upper-class families. Although Bengali and English had been added to the curriculum, the school mandated Muslim standards of modesty in dress and respected the wishes of those who chose to observe purdah. But in her essays and speeches, Hossain continued to argue that education for Muslim girls was a positive approach to retaining traditional culture.

There is a widespread notion that Rokeya's school was the first to be established by a Muslim woman to educate Muslim girls. The fist school for Muslim girls was established in 1897 in Kolkata under the patronage of Begum Ferdous Mahal, the Begum of the Nawab of Murshidabad. In 1909, another school for Muslim girls was founded under the patronage of Khojesta Akhtar Banu of the Suhrawardy family. Nothing much is known about the role of these schools in spreading education among Muslim girls in Kolkata.

Credit for being the first Muslim woman to establish a girls' school (not specifically limited to Muslim girls, however) in Bengal belongs to Nawab Faizunnessa, the famous zamindar, social worker, and writer of Comilla. This school was established in 1873, seven years before Rokeya's birth.


It remains one of the city's most popular schools for girls and is now run by the state government of West Bengal.

Going door-to-door to promote learning

Begum Rokeya ran the school for twenty-four years, braving harsh criticism and various social obstacles, and made it the best seat of learning for Muslim girls. At first only non-Bengali girls used to go to Sakhawat Memorial School. But Begum Rokeya worked hard to convince Bengali Muslim families to send their daughters to school. She went from house to house, persuading the parents that education was good for girls and promising that purda would be observed at her school.

Her tireless efforts paid off, with middle class Muslim girls breaking the taboo against stepping out of the house to study. She also arranged horse-carriages so that girls could go to school and return home observing purdah.

Sakhawat Memorial Girls' School gave lessons in recitation from the Quran, along with explanations, Bangla, English, Urdu, Persian, home nursing, first aid, cooking, sewing, physical exercise, music etc. Begum Rokeya used to visit other girls' schools to see for herself the teaching methods employed there and how the schools were run. As there were not many competent female teachers at that time in Calcutta, Begum Rokeya herself used to train the teachers she appointed from Madras, Gaya, Agra and other places.

It was at her repeated requests that the government set up the Muslim Women Training School in Calcutta in 1919. She worked to ensure government funding and social patronage for the institute, enduring considerable criticism.

All her life she herself used the burqa (the full covering of the body) when she appeared in public. In her school and among friends and relatives, she covered her head with the end of her sari. She pointed out that some form of veiling or protecting oneself from public exposure was common to all civilised societies of her time.


Encouraged Bangla in an Urdu environment

Begum Rokeya left behind many letters in Bangla and English. She had a respect for the Bangla language.

Although Urdu was spoken by the aristocratic Muslims of the time including her own home she understood that Bangla, spoken by the majority of the Muslims of Bengal, should be her medium of expression. She mastered Bangla and strongly advocated its use at the Bangiya Nari Shikkha Sammelan (Convention on Women Literacy in Bengal) in 1927.

Founder of Anjuman-e-Khawateen-e-Islam - campaigning for women's rights

In Kolkata, Hossain also became involved in women's rights issues. She co-founded the Bengali Muslim Women's Association in 1916 and chaired the Bengal Women's Education Conference in Kolkata in 1926 and the Indian Women's Conference at Aligarh in 1932. Throughout her life, Hossain conducted an unobtrusive campaign against the repressive traditions of purdah but was heavily criticized for doing so. Opposition to her position was heightened when she came out in support of Katherine Mayo's controversial book Mother India, published in 1927, in which the American journalist attacked the practice of child marriage and exposed the terrible sufferings in childbirth of young girls denied proper medical care. At the time of her death, Hossain was preparing an essay entitled "The Rights of Women".

Begum Rokeya 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. Begum Roquia wrote courageously against restrictions on women in order to promote their emancipation, which, she believed, would come about by breaking the gender division of labor. 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.

One of the first Islamic feminists

The society was in the forefront of the fight for women's education, employment and their legal and political rights. The society defrayed the cost of education for a large number of girls and arranged marriages for many poor girls. It gave shelter to orphans and the destitute and extended financial help to widows. It also established some businesses for women to earn economic independence. The society contributed greatly towards the development of Muslim women in Calcutta.

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 organization Anjuman e Khawateen e Islam organised many events for social reforms based on the original teachings of Islam that, according to her, were lost.


Braving harsh comments and allegations from conservatives, Roquiah inspired women to join the society.

She criticized 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 Allah.

Again ahead of her peers, Begum Rokeya realized that economic independence was also essential if women were to achieve full emancipation and no longer be dependent upon fathers, brothers and husbands for their livelihoods. To that end, she encouraged the revival of craft industries, which women could successfully carry out at home. An early feminist, in many ways, Begum Rokeya pioneered the work of development NGOs.






http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=ryeS68v6ZTMC&pg=PA56&dq=begum+rokeya&hl=en&sa=X&ei=oX9LT7DsCKbC0QX5ztGXDg&ved=0CEcQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=begum%20rokeya&f=false {in depth biography}... Rokeya's exceptional luck .. They were married in 1896 when Rokeya was only sixteen. ...

The feminine Prophet

- child marriage n child killing in pre-Islamic Arabia - women scholars in Islam (also teaching men) - how Prophet (pbuh) helped with housework - women are 'builders of society', education a 'must'

More photos of Begum Rokeya



http://www.shahidulnews.com/2010/12/10/begum-rokeya-is-probably-turning-in-her-grave/ We have shown respect towards you, Begum Rokeya. The first women’s hall of residence in Dhaka university (in its early years, known as the `Oxford of the east’) was named Rokeya Hall (1964) . One of the busiest roads in Dhaka city, close to the parliament building, is named Rokeya Shoroni. The government awards Rokeya Padak each year to women who have struggled hard to contribute to the betterment of women’s lot, the government girls college in Rangpur is named Begum Rokeya College (1963), and the newly-built public university in Rangpur (2008)—the first public university in the northern region—was re-named Begum Rokeya university to honor the “legendary woman scholar who pioneered and promoted female education in Indo-Pak-Bangla subcontinent.” Social and cultural organisations too, revere you, for all that you fought and struggled for, in a life that was abruptly extinguished at 53, and of course, for the women’s movement, you are the lamp that lights our heart. Bangladesh Mohila Porishod named its safe haven for women, Rokeya Shodon, in your honor. The Department of Women and Gender Studies, Dhaka University holds Begum Rokeya Memorial Lectures on December 9th every year, and we are indebted to Rokeya Memorial Foundation, at whose initiative, Rokeya Dibosh is observed every December 9th, since 1986, the day that you were born, and the day that you left us. It would be amiss if I were not to mention our indebtedness to Abdul Kadir for having immemorialised your writings through editing the collected volume of your work Rokeya Rachanavali, (Bangla Academy, 1973). And, to Roushan Jahan too, for having edited and translated your scathing indictment of porda, Inside Seclusion: The Avarodhbasini of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (Women for Women, 1981), thereby making some of your writings available to an English-reading audience. And since 1994, Rokeya Dibosh is observed by the government, floral wreaths are placed at your birthplace in Pairaband village in Rangpur; scores of organisations take part in discussions and cultural programmes, all over the nation, all in your honor. It is customary too, for the president and the prime minister, and the leader of the opposition, to send messages to the nation on the occasion of Rokeya Dibosh to remind us of you, of all that you fought for. In her message last year, Sheikh Hasina reminded us that if you had not shown us the path, women in present-day Bangladesh would not be working in offices, courts, mills and factories, in fields and farms, and in trade and commerce. While Khaleda Zia, as prime minister, reminded us several years earlier that we are enjoying the “fruits” of your struggle, that it is because of you that women in Bangladesh have now become judges and barristers, have joined the army, they fly planes and work in nearly all professions by dint of their “own competence and efficiency.” She had added, if not forced to enter national-level politics to uphold the ideals of her husband, the late president Ziaur Rahman, she would have dedicated herself to building up a social movement for the emancipation of women.

9th December - "Rokeya Dibosh"

The date of her death, 9 December, is now commemorated as 'Rokeya Day' in Bangladesh.

Begum Rokeya University, Rangpur


Govt. Begum Rokeya College, Rangpur



First women's dormitory of Dhaka University named "Rokeya Hall"

Sufia Kamal was also instrumental in getting the first women's dormitory of Dhaka University to be named Rokeya Hall, after Begum Rokeya.


What others say about her...

This woman, born under a lucky star, will remain ever shining transcending in the domain of development of women.

Khaleda Zia, leader of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)







Learning resources

Glossary of terms

May Allah grant Begum Rokeya jannat, forgive her sins, and let her positive contribution inspire the rest of us to do good. Ameen.














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