In terms of the volume of literary production, Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (1880 – 1932) may not be placed among the most prolific writers of world literature. The great upsurge in the amount of secondary work on her life and writing may have already exceeded the bulk of her oeuvre. However, what makes her great is the tenacity of her belief in gender justice, her intellectual rigour and selfless urge to work for the amelioration of the condition of women, and her argumentative flair and futuristic perspective on women's rights.
She was much ahead of her time and society in understanding the causes of its degradation and in setting up a correct approach to address them. She rightly realised that without empowering women, a society can never flourish. Hence, the thematic thread that runs through all her intellectual efforts is a concern for equitable gender relations – feminism.
One key aspect of Rokeya's feminist consciousness is that she does not put the entire blame of gender injustices on men only. While her primary target audience was men who were mainly responsible for women's subordination, she believes that women are also to blame for many of their challenges and difficulties. For instance, in Strijatir Obonati she addresses fellow women thus:
“Dear female readers! Have you ever thought about your predicament? What is our status in the civilised world of this twentieth century? Slave! We hear that slavery has been abolished from the earth, but has our slavery ended? No. Why are we slaves? Definitely, there are reasons.”
In the same essay, Rokeya states:
“Is there anyone who can explain the reasons for our degradation [and lack of self-confidence]? Maybe lack of opportunity is the main reason. Getting no prospect, women took leave from all sorts of social activities. Consequently, having them inactive and passively submissive, men started to help them. Day by day the more assistance they received from men, the lazier they became. . . So we have become slaves of laziness and, indirectly, of men.”
During Rokeya's time, women were not given equal opportunities to explore and demonstrate their God-given potential and talents. They were treated like showpieces in domestic enclosures and relegated to the four walls of the house only to take care of family members and household chores. Denied equal opportunities for personal growth and having lost abilities to access resources, women seemed to have persisted in illiteracy and deprivation.
However, roughly a century on, women in Bangladesh now have access to many resources and services denied to their predecessors. Their educational aspirations and achievements are almost on par with those of men. In a number of departments at universities in Bangladesh, with increasing exposure and opportunities, female students are demonstrating better performances than those of their male counterparts. Women's increasing presence in public life – even if not without difficulties and glass ceiling – has gained a spectacular development in the last few decades.
Despite all the newly gained access to equal schooling and related resources, are women in today's Bangladesh reaping the harvest of their education and relatively undeterred participation in public life? Are they making the best of the various opportunities and attaining their true potentials? If satisfactory answers to such questions are not readily available, then we have to concede that Rokeya's successors are far away from her ideals and priorities.
Most women in rural Bangladesh are struggling hard for survival and are helping the male members of the family to make ends meet. Though marginalised, weakened and subordinated in significant ways, they remain dutiful and devoted in the familial sphere and responsible for the wellbeing of other family members. They cannot afford to be lethargic or complacent, and luxury is not a way of life to them. They are the heroines of many unwritten pastoral tales.
But what about women in affluent families, most of whom are educated and based in urban areas? What are their usual pursuits and pastimes day in and day out? Depending on domestic helps for taking care of children and household work, many educated housewives waste their time watching drama serials and movies, sometimes until late night hours. Many others are addicted to the opium of smartphones and similar devices, and thus squandering time, money and resources which otherwise could be used for more productive purposes and useful daily activities. It is true that there are many honourable women who are using their education and experience to benefit them and those around them. However, in respect to many others, perhaps, Rokeya's wake-up call is still very appropriate and relevant:
“Wake up mother! Wake up sister! Wake up daughter! Leave your bed and go ahead. Listen! Muezzin is giving Azan. Do you not hear the voices of Azan? No more slumber, leave your bed. Night has ended and it is dawn—Muezzin is giving Azan…. We have piled up all curses on ourselves and are determined not to keep pace with the rapidity of time. We have sworn that we will not wake up even if we hear the voice of Azan.” (“Subeh Sadeq”)
Rokeya's wake-up call to women by no means suggests that they are more responsible for gender oppressive practices, or that they need to shoulder greater responsibility to attain a gender egalitarian society. In her writing, she makes it clear that men, who have denied women equal opportunities, should take a greater role in establishing gender justice. However, she wants women to play their part and to avoid the various wrong attitudes, habits and lifestyle practices that many of them may have adopted.
The writer co-edited A Feminist Foremother: Critical Essays on Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan, 2016) with Mohammad A. Quayum. He works at the Department of English Language and Literature, International Islamic University Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur.