Rokeya and Woolf: Souls that Have Lived | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, December 08, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, December 08, 2018

Celebrating Begum Rokeya Day on December 9

Rokeya and Woolf: Souls that Have Lived

There are some amazing similarities between the Bengali writer Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (1880-1932) and her English counterpart Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) that will make you wonder whether every great soul that has ever lived experiences the same dimension of reality in different shapes. Both wrote in the early twentieth century and are authors of fiction and non-fiction works. Both were born into two rich, illustrious families and had learned fathers. Rokeya's father Zahiruddin Muhammad Abu Ali Hyder Saber was a well-versed individual in a number of languages and was given the title of a zamindar by the colonial government. Woolf's father Leslie Stephen was a prominent Victorian editor and biographer and was knighted in 1901 by the British monarch.

Both Rokeya and Woolf were autodidacts who overcame the lack of formal training with self-education, experience and cultivation of minds, as they were initially denied any access to formal/institutional knowledge. Conversely, their brothers were sent to famous seats of learning and given a privileged education, which in turn, helped the women themselves attain some educational facilities. Rokeya's brothers Abul Asad Ibrahim Saber and Khalilur Rahman Abu Jaigam Saber were carefully and expensively educated at their early ages and later on, sent to Calcutta's prestigious St. Xavier's College for further education. This facilitated their entry into the civil service. Woolf's brothers Thoby and Adrian went to public schools – Clifton College and Westminster School respectively – and eventually to Trinity College, Cambridge.

Although denied access to formal education, both Rokeya and Woolf were partly exposed to the world of education through their brothers. Ibrahim Saber used to bring Rokeya books from Calcutta. In Rokeya Jibani (Life of Rokeya), Shamsunnahar Mahmud cites one incident when Ibrahim held a big, illustrated English book before Rokeya and said: “Little sister, if you can learn this language, all the doors to the treasures of the world would be open to you.” Ibrahim Saber knew Syed Sakhawat Hossain (1858-1909), as both of them studied in England and were in the civil service. Rokeya married Sakhawat Hossain and was hugely benefited by his knowledge and encouragement.

As for Woolf, Soon after Leslie Stephen's death in 1904, the four siblings, Virginia, Vanessa, Thoby and Adrian moved to 46 Gordon Square at the heart of London's Bloomsbury District. It was here where Thoby brought his Cambridge friends and gradually the Stephen children started hosting weekly get-togethers of the Bloomsbury Group on Thursday evenings. Participants in Bloomsbury gatherings openly discussed art, literature, politics, aesthetics, ethics, sex and many other issues publically considered to be taboo and controversial subjects.

Thoby's acquaintances led to Vanessa's and Virginia's marriages to members of the Bloomsbury Group, Clive Bell and Leonard Woolf respectively. Like Rokeya, Virginia Woolf thus had an intellectually compatible and supportive husband who encouraged her literary and scholarly attainments. Importantly, Virginia and Leonard Woolf jointly launched the Hogarth Press in 1917 to publish their own works and “to give a voice to many contemporary authors writing on race, imperialism, and civil rights.”

Both Rokeya and Woolf had anti-establishment and anti-colonial strands of thinking. Rokeya wrote the short stories “Gyanphal,” “Muktiphal” and other works to expose colonial exploitation and plundering of her country and maintained that her feminist and educational struggle was driven to empower both men and women on equal terms so that they could confidently contribute to the independence of her country. To put it differently, Rokeya wrote in the backdrop of colonial culture and regarded female education and other feminist causes as a basic precondition to liberate her country from the colonial yoke. Interestingly, women's issues were also important in Gandhi's anti-colonial discourse. In his Message to All India Women's Conference (1936), he said, “When woman, whom we all call abala, becomes sabala, all those who are helpless will become powerful.”

As Rokeya did in the context of colonialism in her country, in the pan-European context of fascism, militarism and war, Woolf – especially in Three Guineas – argued that the male political activists needed to launch their humanitarian acts with their focus on women's equal intellectual and employment opportunities which would contribute to bringing an end to these political menaces. Interestingly, like Rokeya, Woolf had somewhat an anti-imperialist streak of mind. For example, because of the charged political ambience of the anticolonial movement and possible repercussion from the British colonial administration, a major early South Asian writer in English Ahmed Ali could not publish his Twilight in Delhi (1940) in British India. This is because the novel has references to British brutalities in the aftermath of the Great Rebellion of 1857. At such a politically unstable time in India, E M Forster and Virginia Woolf intervened and had the book published in England.

Obviously, between Rokeya and Woolf there also exist differences which are many and I will not discuss all in detail. It may suffice to mention here a few of them. Rokeya belonged to a subaltern society that was under the yoke of British colonial subjugation, whereas Woolf was a national of the country that colonized Rokeya's. Rokeya was simultaneously a feminist writer, theorist, educationalist and political activist. Conversely, Woolf was mainly a feminist writer and theorist and was never engaged in feminist political activism. Although she gave speeches before feminist groups, she remained an antisocial scholar and distanced herself from the women's suffrage movement of the early twentieth century. She even expressed her opposition to the movement in A Room of One's Own. She explained how “no age can ever have been as stridently sex-conscious as our own,” demystifying the “extraordinary desire for self-assertion” that men seek in their own sex. In Three Guineas, she expresses her opposition to feminism more bluntly, stating, “The old names as we have seen are futile and false. 'Feminism' we have had to destroy. 'The emancipation of women' is equally inexpressive and corrupt.”

In contrast to Woolf, Rokeya was deeply involved in feminist, anticolonial and (female) educational advocacy and activism. Despite her deepest craving for and interest in “literary talents,” we notice a gap in her literary production from 1909 to 1914. One reason why she could neither write books nor contribute articles to periodicals during this period was her preoccupation with the establishment of her school first at Bhagalpur in 1909 and then in Calcutta in 1911. She was busy whole heartedly in running Sakhawat Memorial Girls' School and had to walk from door to door to collect students in a cultural context that was hostile to female education. She established the Calcutta branch of the Anjuman-e-Khawatin-e-Islam (all-India Muslim women's association) and devoted her time and energy to make its various programmes a success. 

Despite these differences, it goes without saying that Rokeya and Woolf have remained towering figures whose place in the history of women's rights in the early twentieth century cannot be denied.

Md. Mahmudul Hasan is the author of several academic works on Rokeya including a PhD thesis titled “Introducing Rokeya's Plural Feminism” (University of Portsmouth, 2007). He is with the Department of English Language and Literature, International Islamic University Malaysia.

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