Education for women
Nahid Kaisar Toma
From a very early age I realised that I am living in a world of 'fathers' where 'Necessity is the father of invention.' 'Daniel Defere is the father of English Prose, Mr Whatever-his-name is the father of 'this /that' and blah, blah and blah. This absence of 'mothers' haunted me since I knew and believed that where there is a father there must be a mother.
I did not know then why Mothers are absent on those lists, but I know it now - it is the lack of education- deprivation of education. Being a student of the humanities group, I read history for a few years, which disappointed me then, as it does still today because history is only history, not her. What shocked me most is a book, Michael H. Hart's which presents the biography of 100 famous-Men in the world. So, I looked for the content which consists only 3 female names! Mary Curie, Queen Elizabeth, Florence Nightingale. Only three? Where are the others? The one and only reason I found is women's lack of freedom-education-opportunity to work and stand on their own.
I am not going to write how education started into the sphere of women (since that will involve a universal process), I am interested to focus how it entered into the sphere of Bangalee women (both Hindu and Muslim). For my readers' clarification, I must mention that, besides a little background, I will not use any historical or literary strategy to support my points. I will just express my reflection on this condition.
Human beings have learned to write in time-immemorial-age, but women have learnt it a few centuries ago. And Bangalee women have learned to write (and also read) only a century ago. There are a very few authentic sources to provide us with the real situations and conditions under which women of old age and middle age survived. A handful of letters, a few poetry, a large body of literature depicts, presents, represents, a little number of snap- shots, which, if put together, give a very unsatisfactory picture.
That, they were deprived of the knowledge of their rights and responsibilities is due to their lack of education. Orthodox religious beliefs, dogmas, evil practices of society such as Satidaha (burning out the wife alive) with her dead husband's dead-bodies, ballya-bibaha (child marriage), bahu bibaha (polygamy among men), restriction of bidhaba bibaha (widow marriage) sacrifice of the girl-child in the name of religion are the things that Hindu women suffered from when they had no education.
Muslim women were in no better conditions. Their worst suffering was 'Purdah' (seclusion). Purdah (in Hindi, meaning curtain) is the seclusion and segregation of women (even from other women, not of family) and is a tradition that is thrust upon women. The Purdah-Nashin (secluded) Muslim women were kept in Zenana (women's quarter where no men were allowed). It's a world (zenana) where Beheshti Zewar is given to a child right after she finishes reading the Quaran. Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi's Behesti Zewar presents a contempt for the secular education for women saying that when Islam has arranged that the responsibility of providing for a woman rests upon the shoulders of a man, why should she waste her time on learning English, History and Geography?
All these may seem to us made up or partial, but things were even worse. One may ask what magician changed the condition? How it became possible for today's Bangalee women to go to the farthest corner of the world for education. Of course, they are the great magicians, they are-Raja Rammohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidaysagar, Akshay Kumar Datta, Bibi Tahera Nesa, Fouzunnesa Choudhurani, Karimunnesa Khanam, Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain, and many more unrecognised, unrecorded brave-hearts.
The idea of female education comes into force after the English colonialists started to come and spread missionaries all over the colonial India.
The first girls' school ever founded in India was perhaps a missionary school established in 1811 by William Carry, Marshman and Ward where about 40 girls were admitted (all Hindus). Another girls' school was opened in 1818 by Robert May of London Missionary Society. In 1819, another school was founded for girls named 'The Female Juvenile Society'. Since then many English women came forward to promote female education, to name few. We have Mary Ann Cook, Mary Carpenter, Safia Dobson, Annet Acryet. Besides this movement, Bangali thoughtful society also stepped forward. Social reformer like Raja Rammohan Roy and Vidaysagar felt that no reform would be possible unless women were educated. They targeted it as a means to change the society and make it better.
Vidaysagar attempted to ban the restriction on Hindu widows to remarry. In October, 1855, he perssuaded the then government to allow the remarriage of Hindi widow. In July, 1856, it was granted. Again he petitioned the government to step the polygamy practiced by the Kulins on December 27 in 1855. But the greater event of Sepoy Mutiny on May 10, 1857, changed the situation.
However, he realised that mere law cannot change the scene unless women get education and learn to respect themselves and to reinforce the law. As a result, he with the association of Bethon Sahib, set up Bethun School of women in May 1849 with 21 girls (still all Hindu).
In addition, since November 1857 to May/June 1858, he established about 35 girls' schools at Vardhaman, Hugli, Medinipur,Nadia etc. School leading to college gave two women the degree of graduation: Chandramukhi Basu, Kadambini Basu.
But Muslim women were still in darkness. The most influential Muslim woman who dedicated all her life to free women from Purdah (which she took as the darkness of ignorance) and to educate them was Begum Rokey Sakhawat. She wrote prolifically for women. Besides, she established in 1907 the first school for Muslim women which was a daring attempt at that time. Her writings reflect how patriarchy in the name of institutions like religion, marriage etc. subordinate women and suggest that the only way to 'know thyself' is to 'educate thyself'.
In a world where to be or not to be is the main question why men like Descarte claims 'I think, therefore, I am' and why not a woman claim it? It is because being deprived of education women have become used to the marginalising practices in such a way that they take it to be normalcy. In the perspective of Bangalee women, both Hindu and Muslim, Rokeya's writing is a must-read, still today, since hers is a universal appeal and the claims she made are still far to attain.
Her dreams, as expressed in Sultan's Dream (1905), are not yet fully fulfilled. Even today, not all the Bangalee women are what Rokeya wanted them to be. Since the days of Rokeya (1880-1932), Bangalee women are entering in the vast arena of the sea of education but how many of them have completed it? If completed, have all of them entered career to apply what they have learned from their institutional education?
And finally, even if they enter career, have all of them carried on or held on to their dreams and how many of them have stopped here or there for this or that? Who drop, why drop, what they need to be successful and how the true meaning of education can be achieved in its fullest richest term? These are the questions of today's Bangalee women and, I, being one of them, feel the deepest urge for searching at least few of its answers.
Those will be my own thoughts and reflections: Offsprings of my experience of 25 years on earth, 13 years of consciousness as a woman, 17 years of education, 5 years of reading on woman question and 1 year of studying feminism. The second part of this essay will present itself with those thoughts and ideas which may, to some extent, answer few of these questions.
To be continued