“Women are one half of the nation, if we fall behind, how will society progress?”
June 29, 2019
Written by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain and translated from the original Bengali by Kalyani Dutta, Freedom Fables begins with two anonymous fables, both compact in form but temporally vast. The book includes major political satires, which the intrepid Hossain wrote over a period of seventeen years. The book is interwoven through her writings that are ideals that endure even today: education and emancipation for women, dignity for those living in the subcontinent, and freedom from colonial rule and influence.
The following is an extract from the Introduction and the chapter "The Beggar Queen" of the book.
In Narimoner Aloy, published in 1989,1 Arati Gangopadhay raises a question in the context of the extensive economic and political changes seen in Bengal over the last two hundred years: ‘Did all this leave no mark upon the minds of our women?’ As literature is both the source and subject of sociological analysis, male authors are invariably studied, according to Gangopadhay, for this kind of enquiry in preference over women writers, who have been perceived as emotional and rationally deficient.
In the spirit of the question raised by Gangopadhay, Freedom Fables brings together two satires and a collection of articles written by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain between 1905 and 1932, which assess this alert, combative writer’s response to political events and trends seen during three of the most turbulent decades in the history of pre-Independence India. The phrase ‘political writings’ in this volume’s subtitle does not signify exposition of any political theory or ideals on Rokeya’s part. Nor are there rebuttals of politicians’ statements on behalf of a political party. Rather than working within the male-dominated sphere of politics and governance, Rokeya was absorbed in the work of establishing a school for girls of orthodox Muslim families over the opposition of the community—part of her larger aim to liberate women from circumstances oppressing their lives and minds.
In those early years of the twentieth century, there was nationwide upheaval and new directions in the modern phase of the Indian Independence movement. These stirrings in the city of Calcutta and the nation engaged Rokeya’s lively mind. Believing that ‘We [women] are one half of the nation. If we fall behind, how will society progress?’,2 she responded to events and utterances affecting the struggle against colonial rule in frequent, incisive articles. The ebb and flow in the fortunes of the Congress party, the Satyagraha Movement, the Swadeshi Andolan, communal rivalries, revolutionaries, famines—all of these drew, from her, interested observations, sometimes laced with scathing humour. She was not unaware of developments in the world outside India, and especially alert if two of her primary interests were involved i.e. resistance to European expansionism and women’s emancipation. In ‘Rasana Puja’ (Pleasing the palate3) she referred to the victory of tiny Japan, an Asian nation, over powerful Russia during the Russo-Japanese war. She wished to share with her readers her excitement over the modern reforms introduced in Afghanistan by Sultan Amanullah Khan and his queen, especially those concerning education for girls, and she deplored that they had been rejected by the Afghan people. For this purpose, she translated an Urdu article by a Mumbai teacher, ‘Interview with Begum Tarzi’, into Bengali.4 Similar inclinations brought forth a laudatory reference to the social reforms effected in Turkey and Egypt in her address to the Bengal Women’s Education Conference in 1926.5
It is important to note one unique, invariable feature of all of Rokeya’s interventions in political discourse: an unwavering gaze upon how women and their agency are implicated within each issue. In this respect, a statement made by Ellen Brinks in her chapter on Pandita Ramabai6 deserves attention: ‘Both Indian Christians and Hindu feminists had to compete with a nationalism that was rendering the social reforms directed at women secondary to the political goal of Independence.’7 That relegation of women to the periphery is precisely what Rokeya resisted. For her, the two freedoms—the nation’s and that of its women—were equally essential and required unremitting struggle.
Miss Mayo, the American writer, has drawn a very striking picture of the sufferings of Hindu women in her book Mother India. The Hindus may curse Miss Mayo to their heart’s content for stating the brutal truth, but the violence of their abuses will not transform a black crow into a white duck. Illegitimate and abandoned infants will not come back to life, various ailments afflicting a twelve-year-old pregnant mother will not be healed, and nor will the number of female patients in hospitals reduce. Indian leaders say Mother India has focused only on negative aspects of Indian culture, and no mention has been made of the country’s excellences. However, the point is that what is good is already perfect and does not need to change. It is essential to reform that which is wrong.
When a doctor conducts a health check-up, he concentrates on the patient’s illnesses and prescribes medicines. When a doctor checks your eyesight, he prescribes spectacles instead of giving you a certificate of merit for your digestive system. Approximately sixteen crores of Indian men exist to sing praises of India’s perfections. Do you need a Miss Mayo to beat on that triumphant drum? A Miss Mayo is needed to state that which no one has ever uttered till now, that which no one has dared to mention. This is the same truth that I have been stressing for the last twenty years. But no one heard my faint voice. Miss Mayo’s roar has drawn everyone’s attention.
The father figures of India are engaged in a bitter fist fight with the author of Mother India. Muslims, seize the moment to see your image in this mirror. Look at how in your community you have turned a queen into a beggar. No country, race or religion has ever given any rights to women in this entire world. Even the possession of souls has been denied to women. Islam alone has given women rights which belong to them. But in India, the suffering of the Muslim woman has reached the nadir.
Where no society has ever given property rights to daughters, Islam alone has allowed daughters a share equal to their brothers’ in their father’s property. Wives in other communities cannot retain their property. Whatever money a wife brings from her father’s home passes into her husband’s control. The wife is allowed no use of it. A Muslim wife, however, has the right to enjoy her own wealth freely. Furthermore, at the time of her marriage, she is endowed with whatever money or wealth her husband can afford, on account of ‘den-mohar’. On the death of her husband, there is provision for the wife to claim her ‘den-mohar’ and, even before the division of the property among the children and other heirs, claim one-eighth of the property that is due to her by right. What remains after the wife’s share is distributed amongst the rest.
Hinduism prescribes for its widow death by burning along with her husband. The condition of present-day widows is more death than life. Cartloads of Hindu shastras lay down that ‘it is not enough for a widow to abstain from marrying a second time. A widow should give up all kinds of pleasurable foods and survive merely on fruits and herbs.’ Islam, however, has permitted widows to remarry, and widows are not oppressed in any manner. There are no restrictions with regard to a widow’s clothing, ornaments and food.
Hindus are obliged by their shastras to treat a wife on par with a domestic animal or a slave. Marrying a daughter off at the age of eight brings them the merit of having performed ‘gouri-dan’. Under Islamic faith, however, women have been granted full independence. It has been declared that ‘heaven is to be found at the feet of a mother’. No woman can be married without her consent. This has indirectly prevented child marriages.
According to Hindu shastras, ‘if a woman is educated she will become a widow.’
Our Rasul-Allah has said, ‘Talabul ilmi farizatun, ala kutli Muslimeen wa Muslimatun.’ That is, it is the duty of all Muslim men and women to be educated equally.
But what is it that we see in reality? The Hindus have enacted laws to enable their daughters to inherit property. They have the right to execute wills. They can will away all their wealth to a wife or a daughter, whereas Muslims deprive their daughters of their share in the property by making them sign ‘no claims to property’. In many heinous ways, women are deprived of a share in their father’s or husband’s property.
The Hindus are trying their utmost to establish widow remarriage. Our so-called Ashrafs instead derive great honour by keeping their seven-year-old widowed daughters as lifelong widows.
The Hindus are promulgating laws to prevent child marriages. The minimum age at which girls will be legally allowed to marry will be set at sixteen (though pundits are loudly proclaiming them as ‘non–Hindus’ for this). What do I find in our community? A minor, a nine-year-old child is being married to a groom living in a faraway land with the help of the telegraph. Often, a girl who is a major may cry her heart out, soaking with tears her clothes because her marriage has been fixed with some sixty-year-old man or a drunkard of dubious reputation. The wedding ceremony is concluded while these tears of heartbreak continue to fall. The bride refuses to say yes, but her inflexible guardians execute the marriage by eventually forcing assent out of her mouth.
Now Hindus are granting freedom to women with great generosity. Sons and daughters are being educated equally. Hindu girls are now passing out of Sanskrit tols,8 village schools and high schools to conquer the university. Yet our community refuses to let us glimpse the light of education.
Around sixty to seventy years ago, English education was forbidden even for men. People were declared kafirs for studying English. Now, the leaders of our community are reaping the fruits of that. Health, finance, the armed forces, power, education: all these departments are barred for Mussalmans, the reason cited being their incompetence. For the sake of getting fifty percent of the jobs in the Calcutta Corporation, Mussalmans have shouted themselves hoarse to enter the list of India’s most depressed class.
Here, I too have to say that their incompetence is very real. Whether Mussalmans agree or not, there is not an iota of doubt that they are incompetent. It is only natural that compared to the children of educated, efficient mothers, children of illiterate, inefficient mothers like the Mussalmans will be inferior. Instead of becoming angry at being called ‘incompetent’, it is far better to try and become competent.
1. Gangopadhay, Arati. Narimoner Aloy: Dui Shoteker Golpo Sonkolon. Calcutta: Stri Gobeshona Kendro, 1989, p. vii.
2. Qadir, Abdul. 'Strijatir Abanati' in Rokeya Rachanabali, Dhaka: Bangla Academy, 1973, p. 22.
3. Ibid., 'Rasana Puja', p. 229.
4. Ibid., 'Interview with Begum Tarzi', p. 267.
5. Ibid., 'Bongiyo Nari Shiksha Samity', p. 253.
6. Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922) was a reformer and a great Sanskrit scholar in a period when, for the sin of teaching women Sanskrit, her father was driven out of his village. One of her first defiant actions was, being a Brahmin, to marry a man below her caste. She made a living in her youth by giving readings from Sanskrit texts. She experienced the horror of Indian famines directly, becoming an orphan after losing all the members of her family to it. Unable to reconcile herself to the injustices inherent in Hinduism, she converted to Christianity. She travelled to England and America and was a popular speaker. Returning to India, Ramabai opened a home for widows and orphan girls, where they were educated and trained. She wrote several books in English, including accounts of famines in which she emphasisied how women were the worst sufferers.
7. Brinks, Ellen. 'Feminizing Famine, Imperial Critique: Pandita Ramabai's Famine Essays' South Asian Reviews, Vol. XXV, No. 1, 2004.
8. Tol: A special school for Sanskrit education in Bengal.
This is an excerpt from Freedom Fables: Satires and Political Writing written by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, translated by Kalyani Dutta and published by Zubaan. Republished here with permission from the publisher.
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