Imagine it: India. The year is 1880. Her Majesty Victoria, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Queen, Defender of the Faith, Empress of India sits on her golden throne. The East India Company and the Great Rebellion are things of the past, the British Raj is in full swing, and British troops are stationed everywhere, it seems.
Sir Richard Temple, in India in 1880, writes that
…under the plastic touch of western civilization, the face of the land, the economic conditions of the country, are undergoing modification, and the religious ideas, the moral sentiments, the social habits, the political aspirations, of many classes of the people are changing fast. Whether these movements shall be for better or for worse, must depend on the conduct of England under the guidance of an all-wise Providence. Wonderful as India has been in her past, and is in her present, she will be equally wonderful in her immediate future.
It is clear that Temple’s future “wonderful” India was predicated on the persistence of British rule, but by 1880 social reform was in the air. The Hindu middle class had become less tolerant of racism and more aware of India’s history as a great civilization, one that could, and would, flourish again on its own terms. On the other hand, the recalcitrant Muslim population of Bengal had only just begun to come to terms with the Raj and all it had to offer — education, employment, and infrastructure.
In this year of tea and turmoil, a girl is born in the village of Pairabondh in Bengal, in what is present-day Bangladesh. Her name is Rokheya Khatun, and she is Muslim. She will be raised in seclusion and denied formal education, though she will study Bengali and English at home. At the age of sixteen she will marry, but she will not sit still. In 1909 she will open a school for girls in Bhagalpur, Bihar and later moved to Kolkata, where it became the Sakhawat Memorial Girls’ High School, which still operates today. She is a feminist, a writer, a social worker, and she is one of the grandmothers of science fiction.
She wrote two feminist utopias: Sultana’s Dream, published in The Indian Ladies’ Magazine in 1905, and Padmarag, published in 1924. It is Sultana’s Dream, with its shift from one world into another — a world of solar heat, atmospheric adjustments, laser beams, and air-cars! — that is one of the early examples of science fiction. Sultana’s Dream is gloriously, unabashedly, feminist, as are all of her works. The Sultana, uncomfortable at being out among the crowds unveiled in this strange world, is reassured by her companion:
This is Ladyland, free from sin and harm. Virtue herself reigns here.
Sultana’s Dream was not the beginning of Begum Roquia’s literary career. Her first published piece, “Pipasha”, appeared in 1902 in the journal Nabaprabha. In 1903, “Alankar na” appeared in Mahila. She went on to publish articles, novellas, essays, and poetry, ending with Abarodhbasini in 1931. She also founded the Islamic Women’s Association, establishing herself as one of the first Islamic feminists, and was recognized as one of the leading writers of her time.
During her lifetime she witnessed the failed partition of Bengal, the creation of the All India Muslim League, the rise of Mahatma Gandhi, the death of Lala Lajpat Rai, and the Purna Swaraj, the Declaration of the Independence of India. She witnessed, and she did not sit still. She, and others like her, helped pave the way for the Indian Independence Movement, which in 1947 achieved its goal of complete self-rule.
Roquia Sakhawat Hussain died in 1932 on the 9th of December, a date now celebrated in Bangladesh as Rokeya Day.