Book review: A Feminist Foremother: Critical Essays on Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain; ed. Mohammad A. Quayum and Md. Mahmudul Hasan

Reviewed by Mir Arif

A Feminist Foremother

Title: A Feminist Foremother: Critical Essays on Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain
Edited by: Mohammad A. Quayum and Md. Mahmudul Hasan
Publisher: Orient BlackSwan Pvt Ltd.
Pages: 312 (Hardcover)

In an essay entitled “Griha” [Home] Rokeya Skhawat Hossain (1880-1932) says that Indian women are treated worse than animals since even animals have homes, but Indian women have none: they must always be dependent on a man for shelter. It was in such an unfavourable time that Rokeya emerged as a crusader for the emancipation of Indian women and dedicated her life to building a gender-just society. A Feminist Foremother: Critical Essays on Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (Orient Blackswan, 2017), takes a critical look into Rokeya’s struggle and becoming one of India’s most ‘courageous feminists’. Seen within the socio-cultural and historical context of her times, the book also examines her literary works and social reform activities to better appreciate the challenges she faced as a Bengali Muslim woman.

The book contains 13 essays by reputed academics and critics. It is co-edited by Mohammad A. Quayum, Professor of English at the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM), and Adjunct Professor of English and Creative Writing at Flinders University, Australia; and Md. Mahmudul Hasan, Associate Professor of English at the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM). They both have decades-long research on early feminist movement in the Indian subcontinent, especially in undivided Bengal. Professor Quayum has previously edited and translated The Essential Rokeya: Selected Works of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain 1880-1932 (Brill, 2013). Dr. Hasan has a Ph.D in comparative study of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, Mary Wollstonecraft, Virginia Woolf, Attia Hosain and Monica Ali.

The first essay, “Rokeya Skhawat Hossain: A Biographical Essay,” by Mohammad A. Quayum provides a comprehensive discussion on Rokeya’s life and works. Professor Quayum highlights how Rokeya—overcoming all kinds of hurdles coming both from her family and society—continued to learn Bengali and English from her elder sister Karimunnesa and elder brother Ibrahim Saber, who contributed immensely to her early literary growth. Her father Abu Ali Saber—whose ancestors migrated to India from Tabriz, Iran in the sixteenth century and settled in Pairaband in 1583—did not want her to learn Bengali or English. For one thing, the Ashraf migrant community and its members, such as Rokeya’s father, looked down upon Bengali as it was spoken by ‘low-born Ajlaf Muslims’. It also deemed Arab and Persian traditions to be ‘authentic Islamic culture’ and detested English as it was the language of a new colonial power. The essay critically evaluates Rokeya’s literary endeavour and social reform initiatives and argues that ‘both her school and her literary works have survived the test of time; both serve as enduring testimonies to Rokeya’s genius and vision as a writer, educationist and social activist.’

In two other essays of the collection, “Inspired by the Bengal Renaissance: Rokeya’s Role in the Education and Emancipation of Bengali (Muslim) Women” and “Crossing Borders: Hindu-Muslim Relations in the Works of Rabindranath Tagore and Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain,” Professor Quayum maps Rokeya’s ‘vision for Indian women in general, and Bengali Muslim women in particular’ and discusses similarities in circumstances as well as in outlook between Rabindranath Tagore and Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, two prominent writers of the Bengal Renaissance.

Professor Hasan compares Rokeya’s works with other writers of her time and examines polarized gender hierarchy during the colonial Bengal in three essays. In “Contextualizing Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s Work in South Asian Muslim Feminism,” he contends that ‘Bengali Muslim women writers are not given enough research attention because of the dominant representation of Hindu women writers by literary historians.’ To elaborate this point he gives an example how Kumari Jayawardena does not mention Rokeya at all in her ‘much circulated work’ Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World (1986), even though ‘she covers almost every major Hindu feminist writer of Bengal in the book’.

“Marginalization of Muslim Writers in South Asian Literature: Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s English Works” is another essay by Professor Hasan where he argues for Rokeya’s ‘long overdue recognition’ in the tradition of South Asian writing in English. Rokeya wrote her first English fiction, Sultana’s Dream, in 1905, but she did not continue to write in English despite receiving rave reviews by critics and readers. In the same essay, Professor Hasan agrees with Roushan Jahan about Rokeya’s discontinuation of English writing: ‘Since her main concern was to raise the consciousness of the men and women of her own class of Muslim Bengal, her own language was the most appropriate medium for achieving her purpose.’ However, Rokeya continued to write in Bengali and produced a significant body of works, which includes, among others: Pipasa (1902); Matichur (1904 & 1922), a collection of essays in two volumes; Padmarag (1924), another feminist utopia; and Abarodhbasini (1931), a spirited attack on the extreme forms of purdah that endangered women’s lives and thoughts.

Indian Muslim feminism and women’s rights movements of later generations inherited from Rokeya’s works and reform initiatives. Mahua Sarkar discusses Rokeya’s legacies in the early Indian feminist movement and how it is still relevant in the subcontinent today in her essay, “Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain and the Gender Debate.” She explores the works and activism of a slew of Muslim women poets, writers and activists— Sufia Kamal, a prominent poet and an influential cultural icon in the Bengali nationalist movement of the 1950s; Shamsun Nahar Mahmud, a well-known writer and activist; Fazilatunnesa, the first Muslim woman to study in Dacca University; Nurunnesa Khatun, a novelist; and Mahmuda Khatun Siddiqua, a renegade poet and social activist, among others—who followed in Rokeya’s footsteps and relentlessly worked to ameliorate the perception about women in society.

In her early literary career Rokeya realized that in order to emancipate women, it was important to unite them and address the issues of prejudice, oppression and literacy collectively. Her efforts and activities in setting up a new school—the Sakhawat Memorial Girls’ School and the Anjuman-i-Khawatin-i-Islam or the Muslim Women’s Association—are broadly discussed in “From Sakhawat Memorial School to Rokeya Hall: A Journey Towards Language as Self-Respect” by Sarmistha Dutta. Other essays of note in the collection are: “A Feminist Critique of Patriarchy: Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain” by Bharati Ray; “A Not So Banal Evil: Rokeya in Confrontation with Patriarchy” by Srimati Mukherjee; and “Sultana’s Utopian Awakening: An Ecocritical Reading of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s Sultana’s Dream.”

A Feminist Foremother casts a fresh look at Rokeya’s works, vision and reform initiatives that helped shape the early Indian Muslim feminist movement. Comparing her literary growth with other prominent writers and social activists in the early twentieth century, the book charts Rokeya’s extraordinary struggle to establish women’s rights in society. Most importantly, it addresses some of the injustices that Rokeya’s works faced by critics and academics from the subcontinent, putting them in the right perspective.


Reviewer’s Bio:

Mir Arif is an MFA candidate at Wichita State University.

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