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  • Early Feminists of Colonial India: Sarala Devi Chaudhurani and Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain
  • Shefali Chandra
Early Feminists of Colonial India: Sarala Devi Chaudhurani and Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain. By Bharati Ray. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Discussing the lives and political agendas of two prominent Bengali women, Sarala Devi Chaudhurani (1872-1945) and Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (1880-1932), this study by the historian Bharati Ray will certainly interest scholars of gender, colonialism and feminism. Perhaps the most striking feature elicited by this comparative analysis is the vast difference in the formative and everyday experiences of the two women, experiences that diverged because of the relative influence of Hindu and Muslim cultural expectations on their lives, hence shaping different social realities, modes of expression as well as political possibilities. Chaudhurani and Hossain were almost entirely contemporary, living and working in the cities of Calcutta and Dhaka, both spoke and wrote in Bengali, and both were connected to the elite, landowning and new middle classes of colonial Bengal. Yet Chaudhurani’s Hindu background, her family’s connections (Chaudhurani’s mother was Rabindranath Tagore’s sister) as well as her exposure to the mainstream nationalist movement all shaped her very differently from Hossain, whose own experiences led her to constantly foreground the seclusion of Muslim women and to seemingly avoid direct participation in nationalist politics.

It is evident that both women were remarkably accomplished and committed to their political ideals. Sarala Devi Chaudhurani founded several organisations aimed at the social and cultural association of women: the first ever all-India women’s organisation — the Bharat Stree Mahamandal (1910), a girls’ school — the Shiksha Sadan, and the Lakshmi Bhandar that showcased and sold handicrafts produced by women. Rokeya, who too was raised in the midst of the escalation in literary and pedagogic experiments on the construction of ideal womanhood, obviously had to work much harder to elude conservative elements in her family. Shaped as she was through the Muslim gentry’s search for a distinctive cultural, linguistic identity, as well as by the heightened domestic and sexual control exerted on women in such historical moments, Rokeya too turned to education and political organisation. She started the Urdu medium Shakhawat Memorial School as well as the Calcutta branch of the Anjuman-i-Khawatin-i-Islam (the All India Muslim Women’s Conference) in 1916. Interestingly enough, she often clashed with the leading Muslim social reform organisations of the time — the officials of the Aligarh Muslim school system, for reasons such as the practical necessity of retaining purdah for the immediate present.

Beyond their institutional innovations, distinctive aspects of Sarala and Rokeya’s achievements lay in the manner in which they sought to bring their messages to larger audiences. Sarala’s use of Hindu mythology, her conviction about a fortified nationalism and celebration of the heroic masculine body contrasted sharply with Rokeya’s distinctly secular and simultaneously searing while obviously feminine works of prose. It is evident too that the former identified colonial rule as the immediate adversary, and launched her struggle by somewhat predictably aiming at a regeneration of Indian masculine and feminine social roles. Rokeya on the other hand believed that social inequity was constituted by various forms of native patriarchy, and that the solution lay in influencing the minds of women and men: it was to the realm of ideas and ideology that Rokeya would repeatedly turn as she articulated her agenda for social transformation.

Sarala Chaudhurani invented historical traditions: inaugurating the Birashtami Utsav (festival of heroes), producing a play commemorating the life of Pratapaditya — a Hindu Bengali zamindar whom she celebrated for his resistance to Mughal and Portuguese incursions, and inventing another festival, Udayaditya Utsav to commemorate another hero who too had fought Mughal power in Bengal. She also formed youth groups and a gymnasium with connections to Bengali revolutionary movements. Sarala’s mission was to inculcate physical prowess amongst Bengali men and to correct the perception that they lacked a historical, masculine and martial tradition. While men were to be trained to realise their physical potential, Sarala identified the domestic and maternal as providing the paramount space for women to participate in and realise the goals of Indian nationalism. Her...

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