Rokeya Hosain was born to a wealthy and socially conservative
zamindar (large landlord) in a northern district of what is
now Bangladesh. While her father was fairly forward looking in
educating his two sons, he was not particularly interested in
educating his three daughters. Like most upper class Bengali Muslim
girls of her time, Rokeya Hosain learned Urdu. According to one of
her biographers, she so valued her identity as a Bengali that she
defied custom and persisted in learning Bengali under the supervision
of one of her brothers. To this brother, Rokeya Hosain remained
grateful all her life. She wrote in dedicating her novel Padmaraga
to him, "You have moulded me from childhood. . . your love is sweeter
than honey which after all has a bitter after-taste; [your
love] is pure and divine like Kausar" [the stream of
nectar flowing in heaven mentioned in the holy Quaran]. At a
very early age, Rokeya Hosain made up her mind to fight against the
unthinking observance of customs, especially those that struck her to
be absurd or unjust.
Her mission was aided in the most unexpected way by her marriage at sixteen to a reform-minded civil servant Syed Sakhawat Hosain. Her husband wanted from her not the traditional duty and obedience, but love and sympathy. He was proud of her quick intelligence and encouraged her to befriend educated Hindu and Christian women and to learn English. Many of her friends also encouraged Rokeya Hosain in pursuing her philanthropic and reformist activities. Sakhawat Hosain died in 1909, and left to his wife a considerable portion of his savings to be spent on women's education. Rokeya Hosain carried out her husband's wish by establishing a girl's school in Bhagalpur and then moved it to Calcutta, where it continues to flourish.
Despite her outspokenness on issues such as purdah, her actions as a reformer were invariably tactful and strategic. 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 (see picture on the xerox). She pointed out that some form of veiling or protecting oneself from public exposure was common to all civilized societies of her time. She proposed a form of purdah that covered the body well without confining it. She supported a "necessary and moderate" purdah which would not be an obstacle to women achieving their potential. Initially, her requests for help in furthering women's education were ignored by the rich and influential Muslims of Calcutta. So, in 1916 she founded the Anjuman-e-Khawatin-e-Islamm (Muslim Women's Association), and slowly began to win support for helping disadvantaged women.
Hosain saw her writing as a means of challenging people to reconsider some of the basic principles of their society and thereby effect social reform. Her's was the project of consciousness raising, and so she wrote mostly in Bangla. She strategized to adopt a style that would best carry out her purposes. She had a keen eye for the vulnerable points of her opponents, and used humor, irony, satire, and pathos to make her case. While her writings focused on the lives of Bengali Muslim women, she was deeply concerned with larger issues affecting the Bengali Muslim community as a whole.
Her concern with reforming and revitalizing the Bengali Muslim community was shared by other Muslim authors of the time who saw powerful rivals in both the Christian English and the Indian Hindus. These writers felt that if Muslims in Bengal were to survive as a distinct group and change their status as a weak minority, they had to accept certain aspects of modernity such as scientific thinking and education without damaging the fabric of Islam. The debates these writers fostered were silent on the question of women's position until Rokeya Hosain raised it. She challenged traditionalist beliefs about the innate superiority of men on religious grounds. Similarly, she argued for the education of women as "the development of God-given faculties by regular exercise of these faculties." She argued that education led to self-realization and the fullest development of women's potential as human beings, and thereby displayed God's glory. This argument did not prevent her from also encouraging women to educate themselves not only in the arts but also in the sciences, so that they could work and become economically independent.
Critical Responses to Rokeya Hosain's writings
The critic Abul Hussain, writing in 1921 in the Bangla monthly
Sadhana, noted the similarities between "Sultana's Dream" and
Swift's Gulliver's Travels, a book to which Hosain referred
in many of her writings. He thought that the perhaps extreme measure
of secluding men in Ladyland was "a reaction to the prevailing
oppression and vulnerability of our women. . . . perhaps Mrs. R.S.
Hosain wrote this to create a sense of self-confidence among the very
vulnerable Bengali women. . .. . That women may possess faculties and
talents equivalent to or greater than men--that they are capable of
developing themselves to a stage where they may attain complete
mastery over nature without any help from men and create a new world
of perfect beauty, great wealth and goodness--this is what "Sultana's
Dream" depicts. . . . I hope the male readers of "Sultana's Dream"
would try to motivate the women of their families toward
Responses to The Secluded Ones were not so sympathetic. Conservative Muslims were angry, and others were embarrassed. Many resented her making public what had so far been the private side of the community. She was accused on whipping Muslim society and lending credence to the severely critical and patronizing pamphlets on Islam issued by the Christian Tract Society. One critic said that "to her everything Indian is bad and everything Euro-American is good." Some critics tried to discredit the work as fictitious. One critic suggested that her "readers would have been happy if the respected author had not presented us with these fictions and fables in the name of discrediting seclusion."
Roushan Jahan, "Rokeya: An Introduction to her Life," Sultana's Dream, New York: Feminist Press, 1988.