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Begum Rokeya (1880-1932)

Mapping female emancipation
autonomous womanhood vs. dasi

By rahnuma ahmed

‘Streejatir Obonoti’ (The downfall of the women-class), Begum Rokeya’s (1880-1932) seminal essay on the condition of women in colonial Bengal was published in the Bangla year 1311, i.e., in the Gregorian calendar year 1904. As such, it is an early piece of her written work, since the literary career of the first Bengali Muslim feminist, whose writings caused moral outrage and led to her villification, spanned thirty years. Her first essay was published in 1901, ‘Pipasha’ (Thirst), while she had presumably been working on her last, ‘Narir Odhikar’ (Women’s rights), the night before she died.
She passed away in the early hours of dawn on December 9, 1932; having worked till 11pm the night before, her incomplete essay lay beneath a paper weight on her writing table, only to be published much later (1957).
For reasons unknown to me, I can only speculate but I choose not to, questions of class and gender have been largely absent in the intellectual efforts of Bangladeshi researchers, scholars and intellectual-activists? –? this includes those who belong to the women’s movement, and also, those belonging to the left school of thought; these schools, of course, are not as mutually exclusive as they sound ? who have sought to understand and appreciate Begum? Rokeya. They have thereby failed to historically locate the particularity of the patriarchal regime against which Rokeya fought, the class-specific nature of Muslim femininity which she challenged.? This, of course, should not be taken to mean that I’m suggesting that Begum Rokeya was only concerned with bettering the opportunities of women of her own class. Far from it.
A brilliant testament to this lies in her short story ‘Sultana’s Dream’ (1905), probably the first utopian fantasy in Indian literature. It was originally written in English, and later translated by Rokeya herself, albeit with slight modifications (see Salimullah Khan, Sroddhanjoli. ‘Begum Rokeya’r utopia,’ Kaler Kheya, Samakal, December 9, 2011). In my discussion below, I have followed the English version (Rokeya Rachanavali, edited by Abdul Kadir Dhaka: Bangla Academy, second edition, 1984 (1973)).

Sultana, the narrator of the short story, who had ‘dozed off’ while ‘thinking lazily of the condition of Indian womanhood’ suddenly finds a woman before her, who she takes to be her friend, Sister Sara; the latter invites her to come out, to take a look at her ‘garden’. This turns out to be a tour of Ladyland, a country where gender roles have been reversed, where class inequalities are absent, where religious differences do not matter.
Men, ‘wounded and tired’ from conducting wars, had been outwitted by women (‘by [the latter’s] brain’), and had been shut ‘indoors.’ Confined to the mardana (secluded male quarters), to ‘their proper places, where they ought to be,’ men were kept busy in ‘mind[ing] babies, [in] cook[ing] and… do[ing] all sorts of domestic work.’
Women had been able to establish a distinct female realm and order in Ladyland because while men had busied themselves in fighting wars, women had engaged themselves in ‘scientific researches.’ These had led to ‘scientific discoveries’, which, though dubbed ‘a sentimental nightmare’ by the military officers then, helped women establish their own rule after they had outwitted the men. To secure the borders of their country. To live a life in harmony with nature. As the Queen of Ladyland, who greeted Sultana ‘cordially without any ceremony’ (and by the way, interestingly enough, the Queen was accompanied by her ‘four years old’ daughter) tells Sultana, ‘We dive deep into the ocean of knowledge and try to find out the precious gems, which nature has kept in store for us. We enjoy nature’s gifts as much as we can.’
Virtue reigns in Ladyland, it is ‘free from sin and harm.’ Sultana gazes in wonder and amazement at the streets which throng with bustling crowds but ‘not a single man [is] visible.’ The whole place looks like a ‘garden’, the ‘green grass’ beneath Sultana’s feet feels like a ‘soft carpet.’ No smoke emanates from the kitchens, there is ‘no sign of coal or fire’ because cooking, as Sister Sara explains, is done through stored ‘sun-heat.’ There are no ‘epidemic disease[s]’, nor any ‘mosquito bites’ either. No deaths occur except those occasioned by ‘rare accident[s].’ Women scientists have been able to work out how to store water, how to generate electricity which helps till the fields, which provides the power for other ‘hard manual work’, and the energy required for ‘air-cars,’ which is the only means of transport. The confinement of men has meant that no crimes or sins are committed, and therefore, says Sister Sara, we have no need for policemen to find out ‘culprits,’ nor do we require magistrates ‘to try criminals cases.’
‘The tables’ in Ladyland ‘[have been] turned’, Sultana laughingly observes, as Sister Sara tells her why men have been confined to the mardana. Because it is men, who are, ‘or at least are capable of doing no end of mischief,’ who reigned supreme, who had been the ‘lord and master’ and had ‘taken to [themselves] all powers and privileges.’ They had shut women up in the zenana (secluded female quarters), despite women being ‘harmless’ and ‘innocent’.
In Ladyland, which has schools and universities for women, education is ‘spread far and wide among women.’ Early marriage has been stopped, women are not allowed to marry until they reach the age of twenty-one.
And what about men? At first, men had wanted to be free, says Sister Sara. Police commissioners and district magistrates had sent word to the Queen that although military officers ‘deserved to be imprisoned for their failure’, but since they themselves had never neglected their duties, they should not be ‘punished’ but ‘restored to their respective offices.’
The Queen had replied, they would be sent for ‘if their services were ever needed.’ But until such an occasion arose, ‘they should remain where they were.’ Men had since become? ‘accustomed to the purdah system and [had] ceased to grumble at their seclusion.’ They were now ‘dreaming sentimental dreams [of emancipation?] themselves.’
A close and longstanding familiarity with the literature on Begum Rokeya and her times, regardless of who is the author, whether male or female academics, or intellectuals belonging to the women’s movement and/or left movement, or those who are largely identified as progressives, leads me to think that a large part of the problem has to do with being guided — maybe glued to (?), is a better word ? by overarching frameworks of tradition and modernity, to powerful dichotomies of religion vs. science (or, religion vs. secularism) which prevent us from problematising what we seek to understand, since we rely upon, and predictably enough, reproduce straight-forward and unilinear accounts of history. Unfortunately so, for the larger body of women? of a historical moment which happens to be most crucial, if not the most crucial moment in the birth of a woman-centred consciousness among modern Bengali Muslim women.
These frameworks and dichotomies are not un-related to the political and intellectual effects of colonial rule among the formerly colonised, ones that not only persist, but are maintained in, and perpetuated through, women’s history-writing, a situation which the Indian feminist historian Lata Mani expresses thus in the first para of her highly thoughtful article on sati, ‘even the most anti-imperialist amongst us has felt forced to acknowledge the ‘positive’ consequences of colonial rule for certain aspects of women’s lives, if not in terms of actual practice, at least at the level of ideas about ‘women’s rights.” (‘Contentious Traditions. The Debate on Sati in Colonial India,’ in Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid eds., Recasting Women. Essays in Colonial History, Delhi: Kali for Women, 1989).

But, as Mani’s own doctoral study reveals, the popular notion that the British were forced to declare sati illegal because of its barbarity — one which is also widely-held among the educated classes in Bangladesh — does not hold ground. Her historical examination reveals instead that the ‘horror of the burning of women’ was ‘a distinctly minor theme.’ That what we have accepted at face value for too long, the view that colonisation ‘brings with it a more positive reappraisal of the rights of women’ does not mean a ‘concern for women’, instead, it means that women then onwards became the ‘currency’ in which the colonisers asserted their authority, i.e., the legitimacy of colonial rule, one that was variedly confronted and negotiated by different sections of the indigenous elite (progressives, conservatives).
But, I digress. Actually, what concerns me is something else, when Rokeya opens her ‘Streejatir Obonoti’ with the lines, ‘Women-readers! Have you ever given thought to the matter of your downfall? What are we in this civilised twentieth-century world? Slaves [dasi, a female slave]! One hears that the slave trade has been abolished from the world, but has our slavery disappeared? No. Why are we slaves? there are reasons’ ? who does she really refer to by slaves? To the estimated twelve million African people who were shipped to the Americas as slaves from the 16th to the 19th centuries?? Or, to domestic workers, chakranis (female servants), who worked and slaved in Muslim shareef (highborn, noble) homes. Differentiation is integral to the subjective construction of any identity, as feminists have argued, and, as I pore over Rokeya’s ‘Avarodhbasini’ (In Seclusion; written as a series of columns, 1928-30), it seems more likely that she was, in all possible likelihood, referring to chakranis. That, her invocations of freedom were drawn from characters who were ever-present in shareef gharanas in the numerous, women whose labour was integral to the privileges and comfort enjoyed by secluded Muslim women, and who, as is wont to be the case in such instances, were despised by the latter.
[concluding part to be published tomorrow]
This is a brushed-up, typos corrected version.
Published in New Age, Monday, December 12, 2011

Published inBangladeshcultureEducationpoliticsRahnuma Ahmed

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