|HER WORLD||Sunday, February 22, 2004, Chandigarh, India|
trailblazer who cleared the path of freedom for others
Against all odds
I feel strongly
trailblazer who cleared the path of freedom for others
THERE are some people in this world for whom no obstacle is foreboding enough to take note of. And Begum Rokeya Sakhwat Hossain was one such bold and indomitable person. She dedicated herself heart and soul to women’s cause during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and she never stopped to look back. No amount of criticism, threat or censure could deter her from her chosen path. She saw Bengali Muslim women’s plight, wrote extensively about issues such as women’s education, opened a school for girls braving all opposition and emerged as a fiery proponent of women’s emancipation. She lived and worked in undivided India and became a role model for Bengali Muslim women.
Born in 1880 into a Zamindar family of Pairaband, a village in Rangpur district in Bengal, now in Bangladesh, Rokeya experienced the restrictive atmosphere of her orthodox home and resented the unequal treatment meted out to girls. While her brothers were educated at the prestigious St Xavier’s, Calcutta, she and the two sisters were given traditional education at home and were confined to the strict rules of Andarmahal (the inner quarters). Her father Zahiruddin Saber, a diehard conservative, imposed Abarodh on the girls according to which the girls and women were kept under stringent restriction. The family was well off and lived in a spacious house in the midst of three and a half bighas of land surrounded by beautiful woods but the females were not allowed to venture out and enjoy the sylvan surroundings. Rokeya recorded later in her biographical writings that she had to observe purdah from the age of five, even before the women if they were not members of the family. In such an atmosphere, there was no possibility of going to school. It was her brother Ibrahim who secretly taught her English and inspired her to read; her sister Karimunnessa developed her interest in Bengali, a language she revered and loved all her life and which became the medium of her creative writings.
Rokeya was married to Syed Sakhawat Hossain in 1896, when barely sixteen. Sakhawat was thirty-eight then, a widower with a daughter and a civil servant stationed at Bhagalpur, Bihar, but he was liberal in his views on women’s education and it was his inspiration that went a long way in educating Rokeya. He had imbibed the ideas of women’s emancipation during his days in England and he passed on these to his ambitious young wife, all too eager to learn new things. He encouraged her to socialise with the educated women in Bhagalpur, taught her English and gave full support to her literary pursuits. It was in grateful acknowledgement of his debt to her that she named her school for girls set up after his death as Sakhwat Memorial School. The school was founded in Bhagalpur but later when her stepdaughter made things difficult for her she shifted it to Calcutta where she too resided for the rest of her life.
Her first composition "Pipasha" (Thirst) was published in 1902 in a journal called Nabaprabha. Her next article, published in Mahila, was a radical condemnation of the custom of wearing heavy jewellery. Rokeya made fun of the practice, which, she felt was more to show off the husband’s material status than to beautify oneself. She advised women to deck themselves instead with education and achieve self-dignity. Such revolutionary ideas propounded in article after article and published mostly in journals like Nabnoor, Masik Mohammadi and Saogar were fiery enough to incur the wrath of the conservative society and she often came under harsh criticism.
Most of Rokeya’s writings were in Bengali and were written in satirical style but the main theme was protest against the degenerate, restrictive and anti-woman customs of her community. Her only piece in English that has ensured for her a place in Indian English literature, as the first writer of feminist utopia was "Sultana’s Dream." Prior to the publication of "Sultana’s Dream" in 1905, women writers in English such as Krupabai Satthianadhan, Pandita Ramabai Saraswati, Cornelia Sorabji and Toru Dutt had already made their presence felt. Krupabai’s autobiographical novels Saguma and Kamala, Ramabai’s The High Caste Hindu Wife and Sorabji’s India Calling revealed these women’s struggle for the women’s cause, while Toru Dutt’s poetry was a fine blending of English Romanticism and Indian mythological themes. Rokeya’s "Sultana’s Dream" was different from these writings and in it we get, for the first time, a feminist fantasy that has a hearty laugh at the reversal of male-female situation. It describes a society in an imaginary country, Ladyland, where women are the rulers and men the menial workers, women command and men obey, women are brainy and men are dim and muted, women are free to move about in streets while men have to confine themselves to the mardana (as opposed to the zenana). Under women’s command the governing principle is love, compassion and truth. At one point in the story, Sisiter Sara tells Sultana who is hesitant to go out in the street, "You need not be afraid of coming across a man here. This is Ladyland, free from all sin and harm. Virtue herself reigns here." At another point, justifying men’s confinement to Mardana, she says that one could not trust men out of doors. Interestingly, when Rokeya’s husband read the draft, he instantly called it "A terrible revenge." In fact, it was not a revenge piece but rather a rebellious work that gave clear indication of Rokeya’s attitude towards patriarchy, and her resentment against restrictions imposed on women.
Rokeya was not a political activist though. Nor was she involved with any of the social movements associated with the nationalist struggle for freedom. Her field was women’s cause, which in contemporary terminology we call the politics of gender. Her battle was against gender subjugation and to eradicate it was her ambition. She was, however, aware of the political happenings around her and as and when necessary, she wrote frank and satirical essays.
That was the era when women themselves had mental block to education, but Rokeya saw education as an important step to help women out of their social bondage. She also raised the question of women’s health and advocated teachers and parents to impart physical training to girls. She wrote extensively on the evils of purdah, raised questions regarding early marriage and resented gender bias. At a time when the society was still struggling with the basic issues, Rokeya was talking of the right to employment for women and advocating single status for women if need be. In her novel Padmarag her heroine shows courage to stay single, refusing to go back to her lover as his wife because his family had once rejected her. Such vision and boldness was unique to her writing.
Much ahead of her times, she was censured for using "objectionable language in bad taste," and for her anti-male, anti-purdah stance. Rokeya felt sad at such remarks but she remained unmoved and undaunted. Her struggle continued till the end of her life. After her death in 1932, rich tributes were paid to her and she was given due recognition for her fight for women’s upliftment.
Begum Rokeya Sakhwat Hossain was the first Bengali Muslim woman to publicly articulate a strong protest against the conventional society, the exploitation of women and the unfair treatment given to them. As one of her biographers, Shamsunnahar says, "From the very beginning until the last, Rokeya had one politics: Nari Jagaran. Today in Bangladesh, she is hailed as the "trailblazer in the cause of the awakening of Muslim women," and is held in great esteem as a role model for contemporary women’s movement in that country.
If feminism is defined as a movement
for generating awareness of the exploitation and oppression of women,
and the determination to change the situation, rokeya Hossain certainly
was an early feminist as well as a feminist writer.
MEN are on the threshold of losing the definitive authority that they have been enjoying at the cost of women who have now been confined to the social and mental boundaries set by their male counterparts for way too long. What goes up must come down and vice-versa. Women are finally getting their due, albeit in a small and lop-sided manner. There are women who are more aggressive than their ‘better halves’ and also women who are afraid to come out of their shadows.
It is not easy for women to be suddenly out on their own to prove themselves to be better than men to be regarded even as an equal. While men are ready to make room for them, they are not ready to make changes for them. Men have the added advantage of enjoying years of being in positions of authority and have all the experience there is. But the good thing is that women are adjusting to the new scenario pretty swiftly. The catch is — men are not as adept to fine-tuning themselves to new situations. After generations of having bossed around and expecting their women folk to adjust to their whims and fancies, poor guys have almost forgotten how to deal with change. They are the ones who are having a rough time sharing their pie and trying to smile through it all.
Women are being brought up to believe that they are about just as helpless without men as a bird is without a car. It is not as if women have become autocrats overnight, it is just that an increasing number of women are testing the waters, pushing the limit and landing snugly on male territory completely armed with mascara wands, contraceptive pills, fat pay checks and male subordinates. This sends the men into a tizzy. While they want to seem welcoming, they end up looking like confused rabbits, waiting to be held and guided out of the mess (just as women once were). And in this global scenario, the Indian male seems to be putting in a lot of effort to fit in.
Men can now be seen helping their wives in sending their kids to school. He is happy dressing up the kids, packing their tiffin and dropping them off to school. He does this without feeling like a wimp and acknowledges it with pride. He no longer considers kids to be the responsibility of his wife alone. He is actively involved in their day-to- day activities and considers it important to make time for their parent-teacher meetings. Gone are the days when fathers were not even aware of the class in which their children are studying.
He is aware of their grades, friends and even his eating habits, in case he packs his lunch. A growing number of wives have to leave for their jobs before they can prepare any meal and the equalising equation between husband and wife makes it acceptable for the husband to know a few basic kitchen manoeuvres. He does it and he does it with elan! It is now not unheard-of for wives to be bragging about their husbands’ culinary skills (even if he can only boil an egg, a little ego boost could maybe get him to try out a parantha someday).
With the system of joint family giving way to nuclear families, men can now help their wives more freely without the fear of being ridiculed. They could both be shelling peas in front of the TV, hanging out clothes to dry or changing a flat tyre. Most men take pride in a wife who is an equal and respect their individuality. Trying to suppress your spouse is not seen as being macho but as being insensitive. The remote also changes hands between both the husband and the wife. The husband no longer considers the TV as his private property; he is ready to share the viewing time with his wife. He doesn’t think it is derogatory to help her lay the table as she cooks chapattis. Men want wives with whom they can talk and connect on an intellectual level.
Just as there are women who are happy
being in charge of their homes without trying to prove their competence
to their husbands, there are men who would rather have a wife who fusses
over them than one who tries to outdo him in every sphere. As long as
they have an equation that keeps them both happy and satisfied, there
should be no reason to complain. The scales have long been tipped in the
favour of men; it is high time they swing the other way. And men realise
that it is best to sway with the times and smile and take what is
WIDOWHOOD, in the Indian scenario, can be the beginning of an ordeal. Harbir K. Singh, a resident of Chandigarh, became a widow at the young age of 29. Three decades ago, her husband, Kirpal Singh, became a casuality in a naval exercise. She was left alone to fend for their three children, aged six, four and two. They hardly knew the meaning of ‘death’. For them, their dad had gone on another exercise.
Harbir was suddenly faced with the task of coming to terms with her irreparable loss, acting as a single parent and also facing the unending domestic chores. Her parents as well as in-laws went all out to help her. But she wanted a regular job, not only for financial independence but also to keep her self occupied.
Prior to marriage Harbir had done her MA in Hindi and B.Ed plus ‘got a’ diploma in Public Relations. These qualifications were put to use after this tragedy. One of Harbir’s sisters helped her getting the job of a hostel warden in a local government college. She devoted the next 30 years of her life to guiding and counselling hostlers for day-to-day problems. The students were not only good company but this job helped her in meeting her responsibilities.
Besides, writing short stories and poems for in-house college magazines was a passion with young Harbir. Harbir can write in English as well as in Hindi with equal felicity. Whenever she finished her chores, penned down her thoughts conscientiously. The pen helped her to tackle her depression by giving her a creative outlet.
She collated her thoughts and emotions to bring out an anthology of poems in English. Pain, Hold the dreams, You and me, The healing touch’, etc have earned her acclaim.
Harbir continued to explore avenues of growth and self enrichment. After writing, it was Reiki that absorbed her. Reiki, a Japanese reinvention of the Vedic Indian science of invoking cosmic energy for healing people of certain maladies through mere touch, attracted Harbir. A Japanese allopathic doctor, Mikao Usai had reinvented this process of healing by touch and prayer. A therapist channels cosmic energy into a patient to activate his or her will for natural healing. Harbir followed and learned this system of healing, as propagated in India by a Delhi-based organisation, Reiki Healing Foundation, soon after she became the hostel warden. In the course of time, she acquired her Masters in Reiki and is at present the regional head of the foundation for Chandigarh.
Harbir’s children have settled and are doing very well. They take immense pride in Harbir’s resilience and forbearance.
Asked about her post-retirement
avocation, Harbir says: "Well, no problem at all! I am a
grandmother to a sizable brood of grandchildren: lovely, affectionate
and possessive. They all keep me so busy and engrossed. Moreover, Reiki
too keeps me so busy." Harbir displayed tremendous grit and
determination in coming to terms with her adversity.
"If one longs for happiness, let him cast off all desires; he who has cast off all desires will find the most perfect happiness — Buddha.
THE primal craving of every woman is happiness. Being happy enhances her reasonable self-satisfaction. According to the famous psychologist Elizabeth B. Headlock, the three A’s of happiness are achievement, acceptance and affection.
It is believed that a person can best be happy when he or she is free from responsibilities and thus "carefree". T here is little evidence that this is true. Women, men and children who have no responsibilities are bored and unhappy. The monotonous routine overtakes their life. Feelings of personal inadequacy, inferiority and frustration creep in.
It is often observed that young girls look forward to the day when they’ll get married and live a life of comfort and security with their husbands. Educational qualifications and jobs for many are first a matter of matrimonial value. Soon, after marriage when the mushy romance fades, reality strikes. It is then they realise life is not as rosy as it had seemed in fantasies. When the husband goes off to work and the chores of the house are taken care off, the feeling of uselessness and being unwanted leads to unhappiness rather than the happiness they had anticipated.
Achievements lead to a sense of fulfillment, personal satisfaction and pride. If the achievements are recognised and appreciated by others, personal pride and satisfaction elevate her self-esteem soaring heights. For a housewife, achievement could be in the form of a well-kept house, well-behaved children who score high grades in school, serving timely nutritious meals to the family and, of course, catering to the needs of her husband. Being socially accepted among peers and known in the social affairs of the community heighten her feeling of wholeness.
On the contrary, a working woman takes pride in meeting deadlines at work, efficiently dealing with clients, being financially independent and striking a balance between work and home. In both the scenarios, social acceptance plays an important role in determining the degree of happiness women experience. Being able to establish close relationships and being on friendly terms with all enhances their self-worth.
Achievement and acceptance alone do not lead to happiness. If a woman is working and fulfilling her monetary needs with a highly-paid job but is not receiving affection and love of her near and dear ones, it leads to stress and unhappiness and, in extreme cases, even to depression and suicide. She may have many friends owing to her family’s prestige or money which enable her to entertain or to have status symbols that arouse the envy of others, but that does not guarantee that she will be genuinely liked. People may like her for what she possesses rather than for herself as a person.
So what is it that brings the feeling of ‘inner harmony’ in women? To an extent, it is being at peace with herself and with others. The reason for all disharmony is high expectations. Unrealistic expectations from family and society amount to the feeling of discontentment and masters the insatiable plant of human mind. If a woman expects unrealistic behaviour from her husband, children, friends and so on... and they are not able to rise up to her expectations, she will be persistently unhappy.
Persistence of an unfulfilled desire that becomes a need leads to unhappiness. If aspirations are modest and achievable, she is not likely to fall below her own expectations and regard herself as a failure. Expectations are more likely to be realistic when the person formulates them herself rather than allowing others to influence her unduly.
To be truly satisfied and stimulated by life a woman needs to be intrinsically satiated. It is thus apparent that a women can be happy only when she has a realistic appraisal of her abilities and potentials to develop realistic aspirations and expectations. So long as her self-appraisals are unrealistic77, her aspirations and expectations will be happy. Being healthy contributes to happiness at any age. And finally, an optimistic outlook and cheerful disposition towards life is a healthy outlook without which it is difficult to be happy.