The Essential Rokeya
In Bangladesh, Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (1880 – 1932) is highly regarded as a literary, cultural icon and reformist writer who struggled for women's rights, socio-economic betterment and opportunities denied to them. There is a debate concerning her ideological stance. For the most part, commentators agree that her feminist framework was grounded in Islamic principles; but some characterize her as a secular intellectual. Mohammad A. Quayum's The Essential Rokeya will aid readers, especially those from beyond the borders of Bengal, to understand her philosophical background and literary traditions and interests.
Although Rokeya's revolutionary writing created huge uproar in Bengal during her lifetime, she was forgotten for a long time after her death. She re-emerged as a formidable literary giant when her capable literary and intellectual successor and the poet-critic Abdul Quadir (1906 – 1984) who collected and edited her works, which the Bangla Academy in Dhaka published as Rokeya Rachanabali in 1973. Roushan Jahan made the earliest significant attempt to translate Rokeya into English by producing Inside Seclusion: The Avarodhbasini of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (Dhaka: Women for Women, 1981). The second significant translation of Rokeya's work was Barnita Bagchi's Sultana's Dream and Padmarag: Two Feminist Utopias (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2005).
Quayum's The Essential Rokeya is perhaps the most comprehensive intellectual endeavour so far to present Rokeya's works to readers more conversant with English. It includes Rokeya's most significant work in two parts – Motichur-I (1904) and Motichur-II (1922) – together with a number of other important pieces; most of which were not previously translated. The selection spans various literary genres and is representative of Rokeya's major themes and concerns. Quayum's translation of 47 nonfiction reportages of extreme Indian-style purdah in Aborodhbashini (Secluded Women ) provides readers with an alternative version of Jahan's Inside Seclusion. His inclusion of Rokeya's English works gives the work a flavour of diversity and representativeness.
As Rokeya's work merits readers' admiration and respectful compliments, so does Quayum's The Essential Rokeya. Quayum's translation of Rokeya's writing is preceded by a chronology of her life, a detailed biographical essay and an introduction to her work. He also provides elaborate footnotes useful for readers who are not familiar with the cultural context of Rokeya's creative career.
Rokeya is highly critical of blatant patriarchal biases and men's morally indefensible hegemonic roles towards women, and her writing exhibits a strong sense of polemical bitterness in a caustic but agreeable manner.
Dedicating her novel Padmarag (1924) to Ibrahim Saber and expressing her debt and gratitude to him, she states: "I have never experienced the love of a father, mother, an elder or a teacher; I have known only you …. You have always encouraged me and never rebuked me" (The Essential Rokeya, p. xx). Such expressions need to be contextualized and should not be interpreted literally and out of context. Deprivation of education amounts to negligence and mistreatment for such an intellectually-gifted person as Rokeya. It is in this context that Rokeya vented anger over educational deprivation and poured gratitude on her brother.
Quayum's statement "Rokeya's school and her literary writing were basically intended for the upper and middle classes" (The Essential Rokeya, p. xxviii) should not be taken to mean that she had elitist tendencies or lived in an ivory tower. She was far away from any such associations. Her writing talks about the problems of people of all classes, colours and religions, as reflected in her style of characterization in creative pieces such as Padmarag (1924). However, the reason why she perhaps gave more emphasis to "the upper and middle classes" was that, these privileged groups had access to institutional education and could read and write. Also, they were the ones who could use their social, economic and intellectual leverage to make positive changes for women's rights.
Although the primary target audience of Rokeya's reformist writing was the Muslim community, it would be incorrect to presume that only Muslim society was beset with social ills and misogynistic ideologies and practices. Other religious communities as a whole also did not fare very well in terms of female education and other aspects of women's socio-economic status. Rokeya points to the misogynistic tendency of Hindu society in "Woman Worship" (1905) and recounts the secluded life of Hindu women as well in Aborodhbashini. Equally, child marriage and the craze of old men to marry much younger women were not peculiar to Muslim society, but were common to other religious groups too. Although the characters in the three short, humorous stories in "Marriage-crazy Old Men" are Muslims, it would be wrong to suggest that only "old Muslim men" had sexomaniac tendency or "sexual obsession" (The Essential Rokeya, p. 5).
In an overall assessment, Quayum's work is perhaps the most significant published work so far on Rokeya studies. The author and the publisher may consider the above observations while bringing out further editions of this magnum opus. Adding some more footnotes especially on Sheikh Abdullah (p. 128), Zakia Suleiman (p. 131), bhabi (p. 138), dulabhai (p. 144) and baksheesh (p. 153) would definitely enrich the work.