[First published in Cafe Dissensus Everyday.]
The Bengali weekly magazine, Begum, was first published in Calcutta on 20 July, 1947, when India was poised to attain freedom from the British colonial rule. While many Hindu women had played an active role in the freedom struggle, the involvement of Bengali Muslim women was negligible, owing to their social and educational backwardness. There were pioneering feminists like Begum Rokea Sakhawat Hossain (Sakhawat Memorial School in Calcutta is named after her), who consistently wrote about women’s education (Sultana’s Dream, one of her prominent narratives) and worked tirelessly for it. But such examples were few and far between.
From the very first issue, Begum wanted to reach the Muslim women. Those who conceptualized the magazine – Mohammad Nasiruddin was the publisher and the poet, Sufia Kamal (1911-99), was the founder-editor, subsequently edited by Nurjahan Begum, daughter of Mr. Nasiruddin – had hoped that it will become the voice of Bengali Muslim women in time.
The educated Muslim men had thought that the magazine will teach their women about cooking, sewing, and rearing children, more like the production of modern Hindu women based on Victorian ideals at the turn of the nineteenth century. Others had thought that the magazine will serve as a space for the publication of literary pieces by those Muslim women, who couldn’t get published in mainstream magazines. (Here one might remember Charu’s pride at getting published in a literary magazine in Satyajit Ray’s film, Charulata, adapted from a Tagore story.) Or it will function as a space for those men, who loved to write in their wife’s name, in order to amuse themselves.
However, the magazine gradually became an important site for the articulation of Bengali Muslim women’s thoughts and ideas about education and progress. In 1950, the magazine moved to Dhaka and has been published from Dhaka ever since. Begum is one of the very few Bengali women’s magazines that have been published without almost any break.
In 1954, Mohammad Nasiruddin, the founder-publisher, opened a Begum Club, which served as a forum where women writers met once a month and, later, once a year. The club was active until 1970.
In 2006, a massive three-volume compilation of excerpts were edited by Dr. Maleka Begum, a noted Bangladeshi feminist. The volumes collected pieces from 1947-2000. The excerpts in these volumes give a rare insight into the changing perceptions of Bengali Muslim women about their society and their critical view of Muslim women’s issues.
In 2014, some of these ideas might appear ordinary and clichéd. But if we read the excerpts keeping in mind the time when they were first published, the ideas would appear truly radical. Café Dissensus Everydaywill publish translations of some of these excerpts, whenever possible.
The following excerpt (from volume one of the compilation, page 117), ‘Women’s Education and Their Right to the State’, was written by Rebeka Sultana Chowdhury, who contributed to Begum regularly. This essay was published on 28 March, 1948. While the Bengali word for freedom ismukti, the author uses, azadi, which is used in the Arabic and Persian/Urdu inflected Bengali, commonly spoken in Bangladesh.
Women’s Education and Their Right to the State
By Rebeka Sultana Chowdhury
We are witnessing the dawn of azadi (freedom) in our country (East Pakistan, at the time). We are the inhabitants of a completely free nation. The women of a free nation must live with their own independent will. The women must claim their place both in the society and in the echelons of the state.
Whenever we talk about women claiming their rightful place in society and state, we can’t avoid the question of their educational backwardness. It is often said that uneducated women will never be able to claim their right to the state. However, the state itself is at the root of the present lack of education and backwardness of Muslim women. Leave alone the villages. In how many cities women can move about freely and educate themselves?
It has come to notice that when women travel to the town hall for attending meetings, they are often teased by men, who make unwelcome gestures. Grown up girls are not able to walk to their schools. Most of the guardians cannot afford to pay their daughters bus fares. Themaulavis still dominate the villages. They threaten to boycott families that send their daughters to school. The women feel discouraged when they consistently face such challenges. Women’s education takes a backseat.
We must counter such regressive attitudes with our collective effort. The women must realize that they can never attain true azadi (freedom) unless they learn to resist the repressive rules of a worm-eaten society…There must be a revolution in women’s consciousness and in their perspectives. And that is possible only through women’s education…
Rebeka Sultana Chowdhury wrote for Begum regularly. Introduction and translation by Mosarrap H. Khan.