Early feminist writing is somehow not really associated with writers from the subcontinent. I was happy to be corrected of this misconception last this weekend by reading one of India’s (Later Bangladeshi) earliest feminist writers – Rokeya Hussain. This was my introduction to her in the form of Barnita Bagchi’s English translation of two writings – Sultana’s Dream, a short story and Padmarag, a novella.
Written in the first quarter of the 20th century, these works present the lives of ordinary women in the troubles that they face, many of them which exist today as well – little access to education, seclusion in the name of honour, the refusal to allow them any say in the decisions that impact them. But they are also a look at what could be, a different world that Rokeya envisages for women, a world where they are free of these constraints and can play their roles boldly in the intellectual life of a nation.
Sultana’s Dream is a fantasy where a country is run entirely by women, and men have been bound to domestic roles, confined to the ‘mardana’. To me, this was a reflection of the sad state of affairs at the time – Rokeya cannot visualize a time when men will ever “allow” women to occupy the helm – therefore the only time when women can actually lead, is in an utopian (and therefore by definiton, un-real) state where the men have been put away. While it is written humourously, there is a tinge of fatalistic acceptance to it – the writer knows this is a fantasy never going to be fulfilled.
Padmarag is a more gritty novel, partly based on Rokeya’s attempts in running an institution for girls. It showcases the lives of the women in Tarini-Bhavan and workshop, a shelter for oppressed women who are taught the skills they need to resume their lives. I found it refreshing that the heroine of the story, while she indulges in a romance that keeps the interest through the novel, in the end chooses a radically different path for herself, unfazed by a society that expects women to narrow their world to marriage and domestic bliss.
Rokeya mentions this in her preface, dedicating the book to her brother - My composition has not adhered to social norms. I have merely painted the portrait of one whose love embraced the whole wide world".. A book suffused with humility and boldness at the same time, a great effort for someone who had to tread carefully between her feminist ideals and the strict Islamic society that she lived in, and a good read too.