On the occasion of International Women’s Day (March 8), I decided to dig out some books and, then, proceeded to explore the Status of Bengali Women Over The Years. While doing research for this article, I have been educated myself, not only, on Bengali women’s history (or rather, I should say, herstory) but also on the trajectory of Bengali society in general. I hope that the readers of creativeBangladesh, upon reading this article, will also experience, at least, some of the enlightenment that I went through.
The sole purpose of this article is to provide an overview of the subject. For more detailed analysis and scholarly opinions, readers can look at the books I have cited as sources below. Some of these books are conveniently available on google books (you gotta love google for this!). After the article, I have included a list of leading Bengali/Bangladeshi women who have contributed to our progress.
Also of importance to note is that this article is not meant to vilify men. There are very wonderful men out there (including among cB readers) who respect, cherish, and give importance to the women in their lives.
And to those equally very wonderful women out there – Congratulations on carrying on the torch for women, children, the underprivileged, and humanity for hundreds of years! (now, you can give yourself a pat on the back).
Best Wishes, Labiba / creativeBangladesh
The Status of Bengali Women Over The Years
by Labiba Ali for creativeBangladesh
Ancient Times : Not much is known about the history of ancient Bengal and so it is also difficult to decipher the status of Bengali women in antiquity. However, the presence of Goddesses in indigenous and non-Aryan societies in Bengal show that women were revered for their ability to give birth and, hence, were worshipped as a symbol of fertility. This is not an exclusively Bengali phenomenon. Other ancient, egalitarian, and non-urban cultures also worshipped Goddesses before patriarchy fully entrenched itself in society with the advent of the agricultural revolution and urban centers. Archaeology findings in Catal Huyuk in present-day Turkey ( 7500 BCE to 5700 BCE) and parts of the Middle East from the Neolithic period (9500 BCE) show the supremacy of a goddess figure, thereby, indicating women’s elevated and, maybe, even dominant position in society. In recent times we can see equal status for women among the egalitarian societies of the Pygmies of Central Africa. Meanwhile, women in many Native American tribes such as the Iroquois in the northeast were important and respected. Inheritance passed through the mother, women were politically active and when a woman wanted a divorce, she simply put her husband’s things outside the door (what a cost effective way to divorce – no lawyer’s fees or headaches!).
In ancient Bengal, Goddesses such as Chandi and Manasa (snake Goddess) held very important positions among the indigenous peoples. Under Tantric traditions, which prevailed in ancient Bengal, women were accorded a high respect as they were supposed to be the embodiment of the female energy. Some tribal and native groups even credited women with the invention of agriculture. In present day Bankura district of West Bengal, a festival called Bhadu Puja still takes place to worship Goddess Bhadu during the early harvest season (Samaren Roy). The belief is that praying to Goddess Bhadu will bring a good harvest.
These early Goddesses were eventually integrated into the Aryan/Brahmanic pantheon of Gods and Goddesses, whereby they became a wife or a daughter of Shiva. Chandi evolved into Durga/Kali as Shiva’s wife whereas Manasa became his daughter. But what is important to note is that originally these Goddesses ruled supreme without being affiliated to a male counterpart. This shows that in our indigenous society, the male God did not play a significant part and this may indicate that the prevailing culture at that time might have been matrilineal or even matriarchal with women holding a more central position in society than men. The Garo community in Bangladesh continues to maintain a matrilineal tradition where the women inherit and own property. And, to this day, there is a major festival and a major national holiday, in both Bengals, that is dedicated to a Goddess – Durga Puja. Does this not, then, signify women’s importance in indigenous, ancient Bengal and which has trickled down in some form to the present?
[above image: print of 'Girl' by Abdus Satter; watercolor]
Folk ballads or, rupkatha in Bangla are a good source to learn about the nuances of rural history. Richard Eaton commented on a folk ballad from Chittagong called ‘Nizam Dacoit’ which conferred special reverence on women. Eaton reflected, ‘… we see the tenacity of the Bengali emphasis on divine power as manifested in female agency’. The Mymensingh Geetika, published in 1905, is a volume of folk ballads collected by Dinesh Chandra Sen, who was the Ramtanu Lahiri Professor at Calcutta University. These folk ballads provide us with a valuable insight into the position of Bengali women in rural societies of East Bengal, which was less Aryanized and Brahmanic than West Bengal, and, consequently, retained more of its indigenous culture. Dinesh Chandra Sen wrote:
‘The high cultural level reached by the people of Eastern Mymensingh is manifest in their folklore and ballads. Here the girls select their own bride-grooms and they do not marry before attaining puberty. If the choice of the girls ran counter to that of their guardians they did not yield to the decision of their elders, but followed the bent of their minds. In doing so they remained true to their vows and still behaved as modest women without showing that spirit of defiance and coquettish revolt which have characterized the heroines of some of our modern novels (Labiba’s comment: for an example of modern novels, think of Sarat Chandra’s stories where the image of the woman is one of a docile homemaker who devotes her entire life to caring for her husband and his family). On the other hand their spirit shows the holy flame of unflickering devotion with a graceful modesty and firmness of purpose which truly adorn the feminine nature.’
Recent scholarly research has disputed the original dates of these folk ballads and have now dated them to be of more recent times. Nevertheless, they still give us a glimpse of indigenous Bengali rural culture and women’s significant role in it.
[above image: print of 'Santal Woman' by Safiuddin Ahmed; wood engraving]
Pala Dynasty (750 CE – 1174 CE): From Emperor Ashoka’s reign (304 BCE – 232 BCE) to the Pala Kings, Buddhism was the main religion of Bengal. The Pala Kings were Buddhists and during their reign much of Bengal was also Buddhist. Historical evidence from this period suggests that women enjoyed a relatively good status in society. They tended to be educated, did not live in seclusion and travelled freely. The Buddhist Bhikhunis (female monks) were experts in religious texts and customs and conducted religious ceremonies.
Tantric Buddhism also developed during the height of Buddhism in Bengal. It was a synergy between Tantric and Buddhist rituals. Therefore, the high respect accorded to women in Tantric traditions, in all likelihood, carried over to Tantric Buddhism giving the women of Bengal at that time a higher status than, as we shall see below, in later periods.
Sena Dynasty (1070 CE – 1230 CE): The Sena Kings were warriors from Karnataka (South India) who served in the army of the Pala Kings. With the demise of the Pala Kings, the Sena Kings took over and established their dynasty. During the Senas’ rule, there was a revival of Brahmanism, specifically Kulinism, and, gradually, Buddhism lost its prominence. Under the Brahmanic influence, society became more stratified and caste conscious with the Brahmins residing at the top of the class hierarchy. As a result, while the ‘male elite’ occupied a superior class, women slowly began to lose their prior status and to live under stricter environments.
Later in the 16th century, there was a religious reform movement led by Chaitanya that, to some extent, undermined the established Brahmanic order. He revitalised Vaishnavism, which revered Vishnu rather than Shiva, and gave devotion (bhakti) a priority in religious practice over the scriptures. The rigid caste structure of Brahmanism was not allowed to make an entrance in Chaitanya’s Vaishnavism. Ghulam Murshid surmised that since Vaishnavism had close ties to folk culture, Vaishnava women also enjoyed more rights. Many Vaishanava women had knowledge of the sastras (religious scriptures) and helped to spread the new religion’s message.
[above image: print of 'Prosadhan' by Samarjit Roy Chowdhury; pastel]
Delhi Sultanate / Mughal Empire (1204 CE – 1760 CE): The status of women did not improve under the Muslim Sultans or, the Mughal Empire. The seclusion of both Hindu and Muslim women were fully established and rooted, predominantly, in the urban areas and the upper classes. Most women were not educated during this period. In the case of Bengali Muslim women, at the most, they may have been taught basic Arabic to read the Quran but not to understand it.
It is very important to note here that in Bengal urban Muslims and rural Muslims differed significantly from each other. Most of the urban ‘ashraf’ Muslims were descendents of Arabs/Turks/Central Asians/North Indians who settled in Bengal after the Turkish conquest. They followed a more orthodox form of Islam, which had its roots in the male-centric Islam largely developed during the Abbasid empire. Conversely, the rural Muslims were mostly converted to Islam by Sufi pirs. Under Sufism, women had a much higher status than in orthodox Islam. As Leila Ahmed noted in her book, ‘Sufi ideas permitted women to give a central place in their lives to their spiritual vocation, thus by implication affirming the paramouncy of the spiritual over the biological….in contrast, establishment Islam gave precedence to women’s obligations to be wives and mothers’. Of course, the Bengali rural culture was already more liberal and open, which made Sufism more attractive to rural Bengalis than orthodox Islam. Therefore during this period in Bengal, rural Muslim women were, in effect, more emancipated than upper class and urban Muslim women.
Eaton wrote in regard to Bengal, ‘The idea of Islam as a closed system with definite and rigid boundaries is itself largely a product of 19th and 20th century reform movements’. And sadly due to these ‘reform’ movements, we have lost much of the beauty of the original rural Bengali-Islamic culture, which was organic, spiritual, and porous. Even then, quite a bit of it still exists in our present rural culture. For example, Bauls have seamlessly incorporated teachings from three schools of thoughts: Tantric, Vaishnavism, and Sufism. Meanwhile, Murshidi folk songs, which are sung in our villages, have traces of Buddhist ideology.
[above image: print of 'Tribal Girl' by Abdus Satter; watercolor]
Bengal Renaissance – 1940s (late 1700s CE – 1940s): Historically, poor rural women probably had a higher status and were more vocal than their upper class counterparts. This was because a poor rural woman, in most cases ,worked alongside her husband in the fields to provide for the family or tended to the vegetable garden which brought in additional income. During harvest, certain jobs were the domain of the woman, for example, chaffing the rice stalks. Her contribution to the family income, hence, gave her more voice which women from richer families did not have as they did not participate in the economic activities of their families. But with the Bengal Renaissance, the upper class women usurped her rural sisters. This period saw upper class women beginning to be educated, coming out of seclusion, and even going onto to having careers. Some notable Bengali women from this period were:
1. Bamashundori, Brokhomoyee Devi, Nistarini, Radharani Lahiri, Jyotirmoyee Gangopadhyay, & Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain were instrumental in spearheading Bengali women’s education.
2. Chandramukhi Basu (was likely the first highly educated Bengali woman), Bidhimukhi Basu (MBBS doctor), Jamini Sen (medical doctor), Kadombini Ganguli (medical degree from UK), Fozilatunnessa (was likely the first Bengali Muslim women to pursue higher education, was also a professor at Bethune and Eden Colleges ).
3. Gyandanandini Devi and Krishnobhabini Das helped to bring women out of seclusion and the purdah. Gyandanandini Devi allowed her daughter to choose her own husband, which was unheard of in those days.
4. Nawab Faizunnessa Choudhurani contributed to women’s education by establishing schools, the most famous one being Faizunnessa Girls’ High School in Comilla. After her mother’s death in 1883, Faizunnesa inherited her property and became the zamindar of Pashchimgaon. For her social work, Queen Victoria awarded her the title ‘Nawab’. She was also the author of several books.
[above image: print of 'Uki' by Quamrul Hassan; goauche]
Now let’s take a look at why the Bengal Renaissance brought about the subsequent women’s liberation movement in Bengal. The East India Company arrived in Bengal in the 17th century (1600s). In 1757, the English defeated Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah at the Battle of Plassey (aka Palashi). Although Nawab rule continued for a few years after the battle, it was not until 1765 that the East India Company took over the complete rule of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa from the Nawabs. By the latter decades of the 1700s the English had established Company rule, colonialism officially started, and Calcutta became a major hub for economic and intellectual activity. Consequently, towards the end of 1700s and beginning of 1800s, there arose a new Bengali middle class employed in Company administration and well-versed in English and western education.
It was in this environment that Raja Rammohan Roy started the Brahmo Sabha in 1828. The main thesis of the Brahmo Sabha was to reform Hindu society. Rammohan strongly believed that for these social reforms to be successful, women had to be emancipated because they reared and shaped the minds of their children. The Brahmo Sabha became the Brahmo Samaj in 1843 at the initiation of Debendranath Tagore (Rabindranath’s father) long after Rammohan’s death in 1833 in distant Bristol, UK (his grave is still there at Arnos Vale Cemetery, if anyone wishes to visit). According to David Kopf, who has done extensive research on the Brahmo Samaj, ‘…this community played a crucial role in the genesis and development of every major religious, social and political movement in India from 1820 to 1930‘. It is no wonder that Gopal Krishna Gokhale, a Marathi politician and a member of Congress, made that famous comment in the early 1900s: ‘What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow‘.
Earlier in 1817, the Hindu College, which later became the renowned Presidency College, was set up in Calcutta (also by Rammohan Roy) to provide Bengali men with a western style education. Many of these newly western educated young men of Hindu College were attracted to the ideas of social reforms promulgated by the Brahmo Samaj. With the influence of Brahma Samaj’s progressive philosophies combined with a western style education, these young men desired a wife who could be a supportive life companion and with whom they could have lively intellectual discussions. Prior to this, husbands and wives in Bengal did not have a relationship based on friendship; marriage fulfilled other purposes, namely procreation and safeguarding the inheritance line.
[above image: print of 'Fallen Tree' by Abdus Satter; watercolor]
Around this time wives were encouraged by their western educated husbands to take up studies and become educated like them. This brings to mind a scene from Satyajit Ray’s rendition of Rabindranath’s ‘Ghore-Baire’ where Swatilekha Chatterjee is taking lessons from a female English tutor hired by her husband. In 1849, the Bethune School was established in Calcutta by John Elliot Drinkwater Bethune to provide education to Bengali women. By the 1850s, more girls’ schools were set up in other districts outside Calcutta through the efforts of Vidyasagar. Bengali women took this opportunity and maximized it to their advantage, using education to carve out a new modern image of Bengali women. At this junction of the Bengali women’s movement, Bengali Hindu women played a very crucial role – their contribution helped to shatter the initial barriers. They had to overcome various obstacles, the biggest being the criticisms from mainstream society. Many families who sent their daughters to schools were shunned by society and some even lost their castes.
It is interesting to observe that the near exact phenomenon occurred in Egypt during its British occupation of 1882-1922, where Egyptian men educated in western-type secular schools began to also educate their wives and daughters. The same maybe said about other nations under colonial rule and exposed to ‘western education’.
For Bengali Muslim women, the journey to education and, subsequent, emancipation was longer. This was because Bengali Muslim men embraced western style education much later than their Hindu brothers. And as a result, Bengali Muslim women had to wait until their husbands were themselves educated to realize the gift of education. Bangladeshi women’s activist, Farida Akhter, pointed out a noteworthy observation of Bengali Muslim women (which I couldn’t resist not sharing). She remarked that while Bengali Muslim women have held onto wearing the sari, Bengali Muslim men (at least in the urban areas) have forsaken the lungi in favor of the ‘punjabi-pajama’ and ‘pant-suit’. With this she gave an example of how Bengali Muslim women did not readily give up her heritage as did their men. And with this she also showed that Bengali Muslim women were indeed fighting for their rights even from behind seclusion. I, for one, find the lungi-clad village farmer with his natural biceps to be quite sexy!
With perseverance and with trailblazer women such as Begum Rokeya, Sarala Devi and Sufia Kamal, the women’s movement in Bengal gained more momentum in the late 1800s and the early 1900s. It took several more decades and well into the 1900s to see women actively participating in most aspects of Bengali/Bangladeshi society. It was not an easy ride for those pioneer Bengali women. And there are yet many more miles to go before we can rest, not only for Bengali/Bangladeshi women but for the entire women race. Hopefully, someday soon, we will regain our lost ancient status as strong, independent women, who are respected and revered by all of society.
100 years of Bengali/Bangladeshi Women
The ten names that appear below are taken from the book, Shoto Bochorer Bangladesher Nari (100 years of Bangladesh’s Women), which was published by Narigrantha Prabartana in 2003. The order of names was not determined by me but by the book’s editors, most probably by date of birth. There are a total of 79 women featured in this book. It was not possible to type in all of their names (I only have two pairs of hands and limited time!). Therefore, I hope the readers will be satisfied with the ten names below. This obviously does not encompass the countless unnamed women who have led and continue to lead the Bengali/Bangladeshi women’s movement.
1. Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (1880-1932) birthplace: Rangpur – she needs no introduction. What she has done for Bengali women, especially for Bengali Muslim women, is immeasurable. If it wasn’t for her, I might not be sitting here in NY, with a college degree and a career, writing this article. My immense gratitude to this wonderful celebration of womanhood - Begum Rokeya.
2. Nurunnessa Khatun Bidyabinodhini (1892-1975) birthplace: Murshidabad – first Bengali Muslim female published novelist. She was widely published in the literary magazines of those times including Shawgat and Kohinoor. In a short time she published six novels, which was rare for any women or, men during that period. Nikhil Bongo Shahitya (literary organization) conferred the title ‘Bidyabinodhini‘ (knowledgeable one) upon her.
3. Sara Taifur (1893-1971) birthplace: Barisal – was a writer and social worker. Her writings were published in Shawgat as well as in other publications. She also wrote a biography of Prophet Mohammad. Through her social work, she was a member of Nikhil Bharat Mohila Samiti-Dhaka, All India Women’s Council and Bengal Presidency Women’s Council. She was also Dhaka Radio’s first Muslim female broadcaster. In 1939, Sara Taifur caused quite a stir when she led a congregation of women to the mosque for Eid prayers.
4. Ashalata Sen (1894-1986) birthplace: Noakhali – was a poet, a social worker, and politically active. She played a significant role in India’s Independence Movement. At the age of ten, a nationalistic poem written by her was published in Ontopur, a monthly magazine. At a young age she would help her grandmother to get signatures for petitions for the Swadeshi Movement. For her social work, she established ‘Mohila Samiti’, where women would sell deshi made koddor as part of the Swadeshi Movement. During her life she set up many such organizations such as Kalyan Kutir Ashram, Jurain Shikkah Mondir, Bikrampur Rashtrio Mohila Shongyo.
5. Akikunnessa Ahmed (1896-1982) birthplace: Mymensingh – she was the writer of two books on modern marriage: ‘Adhunik Stri’ (modern wife) and ‘Adhunik Shami’ (modern husband). Her first book, ‘Adhunik Stri’ became very popular and was hotly debated. In response to these debates, she wrote ‘Adhunik Shami’ to show that men must put in as much effort as women do to make a marriage work. Her books were instrumental in shaping a new image for the modern Bengali marriage.
6. Monorama Mashima (1897-1986) birthplace: Barisal – although she was not educated and grew up in a poor family, Mashima was very active in social work, politics, and the Swadeshi Movement. In Barisal, she set up a branch of Sorojonlini Mohila Samiti where underprivileged women were given training in handicrafts so that they could earn an income. She also started the Matrimondir Ashram for destitute women. Until her last days, she continued to live in Bangladesh and carried on her social work, even though, her children had already moved to India. Such was her love for her motherland.
7. Meherbanu Khanom (1885-1925) birthplace: Dhaka – a famous female painter of her time. One of her paintings inspired Kazi Nazrul Islam to write the poem, ‘Keyaparer Toruni’.
8. Nawabzadi Poribanu Khanom (1884-1958) – birthplace: Dhaka – although she was brought up in purdah, she educated herself and learnt as many 7-8 languages. To help out her father, she used to actively manage their zamindari estates. At 21 she was widowed but managed to raise her children single-handedly and made sure that they were brought up in a liberal, progressive environment. Her daughter was one of the first Muslim woman to be awarded a BA in Sanskrit from Calcutta University in 1927.
9. Leela Nag (1900-1962) birthplace: Sylhet – first female student of Dhaka University. Previously, DU did not enroll female students, but it was due to Leela Nag’s insistence that the authorities started to admit female students. Prior to her MA from DU, she got her BA from Bethune College. She was also politically active, especially, during the Quit India Movement. Through her efforts, Dipali Shongho, a women’s organization, was established in Dhaka. In 1931, she started publishing a women’s magazine called Jayashree, which was administered by an all-female management.
10. Jobeda Khatun Chowdhury (1901-1986) birthplace: Assam – she spent most of her life in politics and social work. Jobeda Khatun was politically active during India’s Independence Movement. She helped to set up ‘Shrihot Mohila Shongyo’ during Gandhi’s Salt March. Later she helped to start 28 more branches of this organization throughout Sylhet. During WWII, a women’s organization called ‘Mohila Attorokka Samiti’ was established in which Jobeda Khatun played a huge part. This organization taught women how to develop self-confidence and think independently. After partition, she participated in the Bangla Language Movement – she and a few other women signed a petition, which stated that Bangla should be declared as the state language, and sent it to the government. It was mainly through her efforts that Sylhet Mohila College (women’s college) was able to re-establish itself after partition.
Credits: the first print used as cover is titled ‘Four Women’ by Abdus Satter; mixed media.
1. Shoto Bochorer Bangladesher Nari (100 years of Bangladesh’s Women), published by Narigrantha Prabartana, 2003.
2. Hajar Bochorer Bangali Sanskriti (1000 years of Bengali Culture) by Ghulam Murshid, Abosar Publishers, 2006.
3. The Ballads of Bengal by Dinesh Chandra Sen, Mittal Publications, 1923.
4. The Bengalees: glimpses of history and culture by Samaren Roy, Allied Publishers Ltd, 1999.
5. The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier (1204-1760) by Richard Eaton, University of California Press, 1993.
6. Women and Gender in Islam by Leila Ahmed, Yale University Press, 1992.
7. The Brahmo Samaj and shaping of the modern Indian mind by David Kopf, Princeton University Press, 1979.
8. A People’s History of the United States (1492-Present) by Howard Zinn, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2001.
Announcement – Adhunika Pohela Boishakh Celebrations
This is 1417 Bangla New Year’s much awaited event!
Adhunika is a global volunteer based organization that aims to bring about social change in the lives of women through the use of technology. This event will help to raise much needed funds to administer Adhunika’s IT training center for women in Azimpur, Dhaka, Bangladesh. In the past, many women have benefited from the free classes provided by Adhunika’s IT training center. You can also help with donations or, if you are in the NYC area, you can show your support for Bangladeshi women by attending this event. The Adhunika team is looking forward to seeing you there!
Festivities will include:
• Band performances by the Heights Collective, GanJam, Notun, Tin Konna and featured performance by Shoma Rahman
• Dazzling dance performance
• Tribute to the renowned Bangladeshi designer, Late Shahruk Shahid – vibrant fashion show featuring exclusive Shahruk’s Collection
• Nityoshongee products by Shahruk’s Collection
• Keynote speakers
• Authentic Bangladeshi food
• Complementary raffle draw (exciting prizes in store) and much more!
DATE: Saturday – April 17, 2010
TIME: 6.30 – 10pm
LOCATION: PS 234, 30-15 29th St, Astoria, NY 11102