Md Mahmudul Hasan translates a speech of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain. The speech in Bangla was first published in the 1338 Jyaishtha (1931 May) issue of the Masik Mohammadi, Kolkata.
HONOURABLE chairperson and distinguished audience: I always bother you with the issue of Sakhawat Memorial Girls’ School to such an extent that some people may consider me a ‘nuisance’. Had I been a pagan and had an idol to worship, the deity would have definitely been irritated and said: ‘During the time of worship, instead of making supplications like “Give me wealth! Give me glory!”, this girl continuously pleads, “Give the school a place! Make it a success and give it growth!” So take her away!’
Today I seek some time from you and want you to kindly hear a few words of mine with patience.
You all know that my life will not be in danger if Sakhawat Memorial Girls’ School ceases to exist. Certainly, no calamity will befall me, that
My homestead will be razed to the ground,
Cooking pots will not be put on the fire
The physician will not find a pulse
And I will be gasping for air in a dying state.
I will not suffer any loss at all if this school does not continue to function. Why do I want the progress of this school then? I want its progress not to increase my fame. It is not to commemorate the memory of my late husband either that I want the school to do well. I want the school to grow only for the welfare of the Bengal Muslim community. If the two words ‘Sakhawat Memorial’ cause any harm to the school, then let them be removed from the ‘signboard’. To be honest, I will not gain or lose anything if the Muslim community survives or goes to the dogs, because I do not have any offspring whose future life chances — possible misfortunes or misdeeds — will vex or worry me. So you understand that there is no personal interest in my care and concern for this school. My appeal to those who have children and want to look after the community is this: please turn this much needed, motherly girls’ school into a model institution.
Please turn over the pages of history once, and you will see that a time came when the light of knowledge dawned on the dark houses of the Bengali Hindus. As a result, they opened their eyes. With the twittering of birds they came to realise that the night was over, and it was morning. They left their idle beds and stood up. However, where could the Hindus go? Because of innumerable taboos, they become outcaste by doing this or by eating that. Therefore, they converted to Christianity in droves.
As a result, gradually, ‘Bandyopadhyay’ became ‘Bannerji’ and ‘Sarker’ became ‘Sirker’. In such a critical situation, renowned social welfare workers such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Keshab Chandra Sen founded the Brahmo Samaj (in 1828). This prevented the Hindus from becoming Christians en masse. Then they had their own schools and colleges, and their sons and daughters no longer went to the Christian schools. Thus they protected themselves by standing on their own feet.
Conversely, the Muslim community was sleeping in the woods and dreaming of castles in the air. At that time, a sense of awakening also encompassed their rundown, thatched cottages. They could not remain satisfied with reading the Pandenama and Shahnamah only. They rushed to the schools run by the Hindus and Christians, as they did not set up any schools or colleges of their own at all. By receiving education from the Christian colleges, they turned into good sahibs. They spoke the English language, called household attendants ‘behara’ instead of ‘beyara’ and porters, ‘coolie’ instead of ‘motey’.
Still then, no widespread harm befell the Muslim community. Because children could not see whether their fathers drank tea or smoked cigarettes in the clubs. They always saw their pious and prayerful mothers at home. They followed that role model and offered namaz (prayer) in emulation of their mothers. Facing east, south or any other direction, they used to copy the call for ritual prayers, ‘Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar.’
Eventually, the educated fathers could not remain satisfied with having their daughters at home read books like Rahe Najat and Sunabhan only. They sent their daughters to convent (Christian) and Hindu schools. As a consequence of Muslim children going to convent schools, Laila’s name was changed to ‘Lily’ and Zaynab’s to ‘Jenny’. Equally, after going to the Hindu schools, Ayesha became ‘Asha’, and ‘Kulsum’ turned into ‘Kusum.’ If it had stopped at that point, it would not have caused much damage to the Muslim community. However, that was not the end of our tragedy.
Subsequently, in the next generation, Christian ayahs were required to bring up Jenny’s children so that they could learn how to speak English. Her daughter’s name became ‘Barbara Areef’. Now, Barbara does not see her mother praying at home, so the church has become the centre of her playful activities. She comes back home and sings what she has learnt at the convent school:
Jesus saves me this I know
For the Bible tells me so —
Muslims are unfaithful
Beat them with shoes and pull their ears.
On the other hand, Kusum’s daughter’s name has now become Saudamini Begum! Soudamini’s mode of playing is idol worshipping and making idols with clay. She sings:
Smearing the clay of the river Jamuna on the body
Write the name of Lord Hari on it;
Let all friends meet together and sing the glory of Lord Hari
When your heart breaks.
The tonsured Muslims,
They have neither wealth nor honour.
The other day, I happened to meet a ‘Mussulman Brahmo’ woman on the occasion of the Bengal Women’s Educational Conference. She quite bluntly told me that, since there was no provision for female education in the Muslim community of her childhood, her father sought the support of the Brahma Samaj and thus arranged for her higher education. The kind of education and cultural training she received did not give her opportunities to learn the Qur’an and the Hadith. So she could not fit in well with the Muslim society.
The Muslim community, including her parents and brothers, had to lose such a well-educated woman. Due to the lack of opportunities for female education, the accounts of losses of our society has been becoming extremely heavy. I have been informed by a reliable source that some respectable, high-born young Muslim men are advertising in newspapers that if graduate brides are not available, they will not marry; or, if graduate women are not found in the Muslim community at all, they will become Christians.
Some lament: ‘My mother gave me in marriage to an illiterate woman; now let her live with her daughter-in-law. I can’t live as a householder with that wooden doll.’ Some gentlemen keep demanding brides with IA degrees. Some want at least matriculation; otherwise, they intend to become Christians or Brahmos.
The main reason for this perverted taste is the current irreligious education. As the poet Akbar of Allahabad brilliantly puts it:
How can the infant get any scent of its parents’ character?
While it is fed on tinned milk and gets educated
by the [colonial] government.
It appears that nowadays families of highly educated Muslim men are not illuminated without brides with MA degrees. Instead of rebuking those gentlemen, however, arrangements should be made so that we do not lose them. I know that many aberrant, godless men have reformed at the hands of suitable, learned wives.
In this twentieth century many other communities have amended and refined their practices and then held onto them tight. By incorporating our social norms involving inheritance, divorce and khul’a in their customs, they are trying to pass bills on issues such as daughters’ inheritance in fathers’ property, divorcing one’s wife and divorcing one’s husband. On the contrary, we are turning into some peculiar brutes by abandoning our very beautiful religion and social practices. How will a name like Surendra Salimullah Samuel Khan sound?
The sum and substance of this is that the only remedy to this situation is an ideal Muslim girls’ school where our daughters will receive a superior education that will enable them to keep pace with people from other communities and regions of the modern world. Muslim women from other civilised communities and even those from other parts of the subcontinent are becoming doctors, barristers, councillors and members of the Round Table. Why should our women be deprived of this splendid development? An ideal Muslim girls’ school will produce ideal Muslim women whose children will be like Hazrat Omar Faruq and Hazrat Fatema Zahra. To realise this goal, the spread of the teachings of the Qur’an in a great measure is necessary. That is to say, it is essential to spread extensively its translations into Bangla and Urdu languages.
In my childhood, I used to hear my mother say: ‘The Qur’an will protect us as a shield.’ That statement is very true. However, this is not to say that we need to fasten a big and beautifully wrapped-up Qur’an tightly on our backs. Rather, in my humble opinion, it suggests that the universal teachings of the Qur’an will guard us from the dangers of superstitions of various kinds. Religious practices according to the Qur’an will protect us from moral and social degeneration.
Md Mahmudul Hasan teaches the English literature at the International Islamic University Malaysia.