Divorced and Destitute Muslim Women of West Bengal hold Protest-march in Kolkata
Dr Radhasyam Brahmachari
On Thursday, December 9, 2010, a unique and unbelievable incident took place in Kolkata. Over 2000 divorced and destitute Muslim women assembled at College Square. Most of the women were from the district of Murshidabad, one of the Muslim dominated (70%) districts of West Bengal, a state of eastern India on the border of Bangladesh. Women from a few other districts of the state were also assembled and these unfortunate women were either divorced by oral ‘triple talaq’ or simply driven out by their husbands along with their children. They selected the date 9th December as on this date the Muslim lady Begum Rokeya Shakhawat Hussain, the progressive and well known social worker, died in 1932. She spent her life for the uplift of the Muslim women and founded the first Muslim Girls’ school, the Shakhawat Memorial School, in Kolkata for educating the Muslim girls.
But her activities were highly condemned and bitterly criticized by the Muslim clerics, who wanted to see Muslim women illiterate. It is needless to say that these clerics were in favour of using women as sex objects and a machines for producing children as many as possible. In fact, they practically excommunicated her from the Muslim society. The bitterness went to the extent that when she died on December 9, 1932, the clerics refused to bury her body in Muslim burial ground at Gobra, Kolkata, even though many prominent Muslim personalities of her time, including A K M Fazlul Haq, the then prime minister of the undivided Bengal joined her Janaja prayer.
To introduce Begum Rokeya (or Roquia) Sakhawat Hussain, Wikipedia writes, “She was a prolific writer and a social worker in undivided Bengal in the early 20th century. She is most famous for her efforts on behalf of gender equality and other social issues. She established the first school aimed primarily at Muslim girls, which still exists today. She was a notable Muslim feminist; modern feminist writers such as Taslima Nasrin cite her as an influence. Roquia Khatun was born in 1880 in the village of Pairabondh, Rangpur, in what was then the British Indian Empire and is now Bangladesh. Her father, Jahiruddin Muhammad Abu Ali Haidar Saber, was a highly educated zamindar (landlord). Roquia had two sisters, Karimunnesa Khatun and Humayra Khatun; and three brothers, one of whom died in childhood. Roquia’s eldest brother Ibrahim, and her immediate elder sister Karimunnesa, both had great influence on her life. Karimunnesa wanted to study Bangla, the language of the majority in Bengal. The family disliked this because many upper class Muslims of the time preferred to use Arabic and Persian as the media of education, instead of their native language, Bangla. Ibrahim taught English and Bangla to Roquia and Karimunnesa; both sisters became authors.”
Roquia Khatun was born in 1880 in the village of Pairabondh, Rangpur, now in Bangladesh. Roquia married at the age of sixteen in 1896 to Khan Bahadur Sakhawat Hussain, who was the Deputy Magistrate of Bhagalpur, which is now a district under the Indian state of Bihar. In 1909, Sakhawat Hussain died. He had encouraged his wife to set aside money to start a school primarily for Muslim women. Five months after his death, Roquia established a high school in her beloved husband’s memory, naming it Sakhawat Memorial Girls’ High School. It started in Bhagalpur, then she moved the school in Kolkata in 1911.
Begum Rokeya wrote many books and few of her notable works include: Sultana’s Dream Oborodhbashini (“The woman in captivity”), Motichur, Paddorag (“Essence of the Lotus”) Narir Adhikar (“The Rights of Women”), an unfinished essay for the Islamic Women’s Association
She also founded the Anjuman e Khawateen e Islam (Islamic Women’s Association), which worked for raising the status of Muslim women. Begum Roquia remained busy with the school, the association, and writings for the rest of her life. She died of heart problems on December 9, 1932. In Bangladesh today, December 9 is celebrated as Rokeya Day. Begum Roquia was an inspiring figure and it is she who inspired Dr Maleka Begum, Dr Afroja Khatun, Begum Khadija Banu, Begum Mustaei Banu and other women leaders to stage the demonstration in Kolkata, particularly on the ‘Rokeya Day’. These leaders estimated a gathering of around 3000 Muslim women, but many of them were blocked by the local community leaders and Muslim clerics, on their way to Kolkata.
Dr Maleka Begum is an Associate Professor in the Department of Women and Gender Studied in the Dhaka University (in the 4th Floor, Arts Building). Begum Afroja Khatun is the Convenor of the “Bengal Forum for Muslim Women’s Right and Empowerment” (BFMWRE), based in Kolkata. On December 6, BFMWRE issued a hand bill where Begum Afroja Khatun appealed to the divorced and destitute Muslim women of the state of West Bengal (WB) to join the Protest March from the College Square to the statue of M K Gandhi on the Mayo Road in Kolkata. It also said that a meeting would be held on the final destination of the protest march and deputations would be sent to the Governor and the Chief Minister of WB to draw their attention to the grievances and demands of the unfortunate Muslim women. The demands contained:
1) Both men and women must have similar rights to divorce their spouses. The Muslim tradition of divorcing his wife by oral ‘triple talaq’ must be abolished and a divorce by a decree of the court be only granted as a valid divorce.
2) The Muslim tradition of polygamy must be stopped immediately.
3) Both men and women must have equal rights over the properties of the ancestors.
4) The law of adaptation must be revived.
5) Laws must be legislated for supporting the tortured, divorced, deserted women and aged women and make them financially independent.
The leaflet also contains a few important quotes of Begum Rokeya e.g.
“The religion (Islam) has tightened our shackles of slavery and males are dominating over us, in the name of religion.” (Nabanur)
“We have gone to the lowest level of slavery, but none of our sisters could raise her head high. The most important reason is, perhaps, whenever any of our sisters raised her head and made a protest, at once her head was smashed in the name of religion.” ( The Downfall of the Women)
“In fact, any ornament is an instrument of slavery. If it is considered as an object for beautification, is that notion not disgraceful? Is an effort of beautification not an weakness of mind?” (The Downfall of Women)
“What is the purpose of veil? Is it not captivity for women inside the four walls of a room being deprived of all kinds of freedom and privileges?” (Three Huts)
“There is not even an iota of doubt that we have not born to live as a slave.” (The Downfall of Women)
After the women assembled at College Square, a meeting was held. The meeting began sharply at 10 am, after garlanding the portrait of Begum Rokeya Shakhawat. Then the protesters took out a procession where more than 2000 women took part. The main meeting was held at that spot where many prominent speakers and organizers spoke about the heart rending sufferings of the Muslim women, who were either divorced or driven out by their husbands.
The main speaker Dr Dr Maleka Begum, an Associate Professor in the Department of Women and Gender Studied in the Dhaka University, harshly reproached the so called secular Government of WB and the Central Government of New Delhi for still allowing the Muslim men to divorce their wives by simply the oral ‘triple talaq’ and without any alimony, whereas in many Muslim countries, the practice has been declared illegal and abolished. She said that even in the neighbouring Bangladesh, which is a Muslim country, the practice of triple ‘talaq’ and ‘hilla marriage’ have been declared illegal and a punishable offence. She expressed her amazement how in secular India these mediaeval practices are being allowed to continue still today.
The important people who were present at the meeting were Begum Afroja Khatun, Professor Khadija banu, the president of Rokeya Naari Unnayan Samiti (a NGO fighting for the rights of Muslim women), the well known human-rights activist Rabindranath Datta, Giasuddin, the founder, and Mujaffar Hussain, the secretary of the Dharmamukta Manabatabadi Mancha (A Forum for the establishment of human-rights apart from religion). Ten divorced and destitute women also expressed their experience. They broke into tears while narrating their heart rending stories.
Khadija Banu, in her speech, said, “An investigation would reveal that in every village of the district of Murshidabad, there are 10 to 15 women, who were either divorced or driven out by their husbands. In fact there are 300,000 to 350,000 such women in this district alone.” Extreme poverty is leading them to leave the district and migrate to adjacent districts. Till date, they have not received any dole or any other assistance from the government.” Wile replying the journalists, she said, “On the contrary, they are facing obstruction and threats from the religious clerics and community leaders.”
While delivering his address, the social activist Rabindranath Datta (the co-author of this article) said that the Muslim Clerics did not allow Begum Rokeya’s body to be buried in the Muslim Burial Ground at Gobra, in Kolkata. Even a request by Fajalul Haq, the then Prime Minister of undivided Bengal, fell on deaf ears. At last her body was laid to rest at the residential area of one of her kin at Panihati. Her offence was – she tried to educate Muslim women.”
Memorial Centre, Pairabondh, Rangpur, Bangladesh
The Meeting was presided over by Justice Malay Ray, who served as Chief Justice of two High Courts. Among other prominent speakers, there were Professor Alauddim, Swapan Mandal and so on. All the speakers harshly deplored the Government for allowing the Muslims to follow separate Islamic Personal Law and accept oral ‘triple talaq’ as a valid practice, even after 63 years of obtaining freedom. The speakers appealed to the Government to abolish the practice as soon as possible. Other speakers said that the enforcement of uniform civil law-code, irrespective of religion, can only end this cruel and inhuman practice of ‘triple talaq’.
It is really shocking that both the print and the electronic media, guided by the Muslim appeasing State and the Central Governments and, perhaps funded by the Arab petro-dollar, maintained complete silence about the incident. Only the organs of several NGOs, fighting for human-rights, highlighted the incident in detail with pictures.
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