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Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain

By Dr Barnita Bagchi

01 October, 2003

The life and work of multifaceted South Asian Bengali feminist (writer, novelist, essayist, polemicist, teacher, manager of a school, social worker) Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (1880-1932) provides inspiration and a rich source of insight to all those committed to furthering equity in education, and to those who perceive that processes of development in a patriarchal, multifaith society must be taken up and furthered by activist women intellectuals who invest energy in furthering formal education, particularly school education for girls.
Rokeya is a diamond in the history of women's emancipation in South Asia: every little corner of her life and work yields beauty and splendour. Bangladesh celebrates her by observing Rokaya Day on December 9 each year, while India too boasts of many and growing numbers of admirers and scholars. A recent book by the distinguished scholar Professor Bharati Ray, Early Bengali Feminists, for example, analysed the richness of Rokeya's work.

As a crusader for girls' education, Rokaya saw the integral link between adult women's life-long learning and growth, that is women's own self-development and emancipation, and the education of millions of girls who even today lack access or security in schooling, a problem which is particularly acute in South Asia.

Rokeya set up a school for girls in 1909 in Bhagalpur, Bihar with the material and intellectual support of her husband. After being widowed, she came to Calcutta and re-opened her school, called Sakhawat Memorial Girls' School, in 1911. The school evolved into a full-fledged high school by the time of her death. It was a pioneering institution for Muslim girls, and still flourishes with government aid, a testament to the solidity of Rokeya's effort.
The same Rokeya all through her life wrote impassioned, highly intelligent polemics about the oppression, discrimination, pain, and obstacles to development faced by women, both within her own community, and by women belonging to all communities. Published first as a series of columns in 1928-30, her Abarodhbasini ('The Secluded Ones'), bold and unflinching in its denunciation of the cruelty of the then-prevalent system of purdah, took Bengal by storm, as did similar essays in Motichur (1903-04). Sultana's Dream (1905), written in delightfully easy, humorous style, in English, depicted a female utopia where the principal of the ladies' college is largely instrumental in taking over the reins of government from a militaristic, patriarchal regime.

It is Rokeya's much-neglected novella Padmarag (1924) which shows her bringing together her espousal of women's personal journeys of growth and emancipation and their working to advance educational equity. This also shows her powerfully, explicitly, and boldly expressing her belief in an unsectarian, universalist society where women from all races, creeds, and colours, having suffered from patriarchal oppression, determine to better their lot by concrete social action and organising, and devote themselves to the often thankless task of getting out of school girls into school.

In this work of Rokeya's, a young widow, of Hindu origin, sets up a community which will both give shelter and training to women who have faced patriarchal and familial oppression, and which also runs a school, a vocational training workshop, and a home for the sick and destitute. The women who find refuge and run the community are Muslims, Brahmos, Christian, and Hindu-as well as white and black. We find wonderfully realistic details of pioneering working women typing, managing accounts, supervising subordinates, teaching: in short, taking on the full gamut of activities that competent women educators undertake.

Delving into the richness of Rokeya's educational work and her fictional depiction of it, I find as a feminist academic working in the field of gender, education, and development that we have troves of learning to glean from her. Today, the problem of girls' education in South Asia is urgently and worryingly acute. As the Education For All UNESCO initiative noted in 2000, half the girls in South Asia (as in sub-Saharan Africa) never attend school, over half the female population above 15 is illiterate, and South Asia has the highest gender gap in education of 29 points.

Meanwhile, international education and development experts are increasingly advocating that to progress in primary or basic education, one needs grassroots-based, community-based educational movements that heavily involve adult women from the community acting as motivators, participants, galvanizers, and teachers. We need simultaneous emphasis on adult education and life-long learning for women, with a recognition that women make exceptionally successful educational mobilizers and teachers. Recent success stories in school education, whether the schooling revolution involving hill women in Himachal Pradesh, or the success of community-based, women teacher-based civil society organization based movements such as BRAC in Bangladesh or Pratham in India, demonstrate the effectiveness of women taking charge of their own lives and entering teaching and community mobilization, with a special sensitivity to girls.

This is the mighty power and success unleashed when women, education, and social capital work in synergy, and this Rokeya realised and attempted heroically to achieve on micro-scale in the last century. The heritage of Rokeya's multifaith, multicultural, gender-just vision needs to be retrieved and learned from by those of us working in the field of development who have a similar unsectarian, feminist ethos, and who want urgently to bring millions of South Asian children and adults, particularly the neglected girls and women, into the fold of education.

Barnita Bagchi
Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research
General Vaidya Marg, Goregaon E
Mumbai 400065, India
[email protected], [email protected]



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