On this Friday in 2019, we finished work with perhaps more exuberance than a usual end of a work week. We were attending a concert that evening. Always an experience that brings great joy in this world of individuality, for one whole evening we get to swim the waves of a communal sea, and we are not alone – shared humanity felt amongst some 50,000 people for at least one evening. This evening was more exciting since this was part of the Irish band U2’s Joshua Tree tour, honouring an album published and promoted before I was born and an event, by all logical deductions, impossible to partake in in my lifetime. This was an opportunity to travel back in time – this could not be taken lightly.
A much bigger surprise awaited that night. By the third act of the night, the show started getting decidedly political. At this point, they started playing Light my way, otherwise known as Ultraviolet, a well-known song, slightly delirious in its celebration of a devoted by his devotee. This time though the band decided to use it to pay tribute to the women of the world – everything about the song made a new sense now, beginning with the 200 feet wide screen lighting up with the word “history” to instantaneously change to “herstory”, a feminist expression used since the 80s, to refresh telling of history that included female perspectives. We were on the precipice of something magical. The guitar blared on, and the screen started filling with images of women, the first ones in history who worked towards emancipation, and equality of the sexes. The shock of all shocks, images of– Mary Wollstencraft, followed by Sojourner Truth and then Begum Rokeya filled the screen. I can only hope all South Asians felt how I felt at that sight.
Begum Rokeya, is celebrated in Bangladesh through a day observed as Rokeya day, ostensibly to hand out an award to females ‘doing well in their chosen profession. I know no one who has any serious knowledge or awareness of this woman, her work and the importance and gravity of all that she achieved. Admittedly, those in my acquaintance are well-off members of society, having access to not just the best of education but also books, literature, films, and journals that are not easily found. This can only mean one thing; the issues Rokeya was fighting against are no longer relevant.
Only yesterday, several male students from universities in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, a city of some 20 million people and by no means a city friendly to its women residents, “protested”- held up signs urging females to dress “modestly” and not sacrifice “national culture” by wearing clothes that excite men. I do not want to remind the readers of the many women wearing ‘traditional’ garb that was not only violated but also killed in that same city, and country. I want to wonder about how these humans (?) attend a university. I want to scratch my head about why the rest of the students did not hold up a mirror in front of the male whose placard requested women to not “seduce” him.
I do not know any woman in Dhaka who has not faced harassment- both verbal and physical kind. I know there are no men who are not aware of this sad fact as women inevitably share their experiences with their partners, friends, and family members. Whichever publication one chooses, inevitably have past articles on the very same, interested readers can look these up.
That women exist to ensure men are not tempted every day, that women need to take a survey of opinions on acceptable clothing for the workplace, schools and the streets, and that men consider themselves the decider of modesty and culture- all point to but one conclusion. As I type this in 2022, I am still receiving messages from women frustrated with society’s expectations of them- to be a wife, to be a mother, to be a good mother, to not be harsh, to be decent, to be modest, to not be too successful, to not have too many aspirations.
I hardly think Rokeya’s work has finished.
The alienation of capitalism, the evils of social media, and aspirations to live up to an imaginary higher standard- are just some of the common reasons cited at any adda when discussing the disintegration of the middle classes in Bangladesh. The middle-class – an aspirational layer of society, is made up of those that not only have access to stable finances but also consistently strive to uphold a standard of decency and culture. In the struggle between making a good living and surviving in the urban jungle, character and values have diminished. My deduction tells me a considerable decline in educational standards resulting in an inability to interpret language and striving to constantly connect to an improved culture- whether western or middle eastern- resulted in today.
Now, if the perpetrators won’t, the victims must resolve this situation. I return once more to Rokeya.
I want every woman to know in the late 1880s, in a remote village in British India, this extraordinary woman was born, in an upper-class Muslim family. The layers of her disadvantages were myriad. I do not for one second believe there was a time, a moment, a second where society, did not discourage her from her life’s work which if pursued by a man would be considered quite noble- education and educating girls.
I cannot ascertain if Rokeya read Oscar Wilde or Virginia Woolf, certainly, she understood to live incontestably a woman had to be a man. The supreme irony of Poddorag’s main character pretending to be a man leaving his sister at a home for women castaways from society to then showing up at the home in her actual guise is not lost on readers. Netflix’ I am not an Easy Man came out in 2020, Rokeya had the gall to write Sultana’s Dream in 1905. I suspect Aborodhbashini, first published in 1931, would in today’s Dhaka ruffle more than a few feathers too. I encourage those in want of time to read the preface to the 1st edition of Rokeya Rachanaboli. Of course, writing is not all that she did. She responded to critics of whom there were many, established and ran a school for Muslim girls, fundraised, persuaded families with girl children to send them to her school, wrote scathingly against social norms that promote the subjugation of women and lamented about not having enough funds to establish a university. This was a woman who gently smashed the patriarchy to smithereens many years before it became part of colloquial language.
Begum Rokeya lived a short life. What she made of those 50 years is sufficient to inspire women today and tomorrow to do what they want to do, what they need to do. No one asked her to fight for that school, no one will make it easy for today’s women either. It is a maddening pity that over a century later, women are being labelled “be-purda” (without covers) to justify harassment and indecent behaviour of and by men. But then, it is a bigger regret that Begum Rokeya has not been hero-worshipped to the extent she truly could have been. Perhaps, she remains even now too radical to be made too accessible.
TS Eliot wrote, “..the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”. True an Irish band from the other side of the world did what Brown women should have done many years ago- pay tribute to this trailblazer and bring her in front of more than 3 million people across the world. I started this essay with U2 paying homage to their album, I end this by urging all Brown women out there to take a leaf, if possible multiple leaves, from Rokeya’s life and work. There is a fire there that needs to spread far and wide today. You do you girls, and while you do it, don’t forget to thank the person who lit the way for the subcontinent and its women centuries ahead.
Writer’s Bio: Global citizen, student of society and culture, Public Policy practitioner. Can be reached at: [email protected]