Book Review

Women's progress from historic perspectives

Muslim Women in Colonial Surma Valley is a research-oriented book by Dr. Begam Abida Sultana. It was first published by Chaitanya Publishers, Sylhet and was first made available to readers in the Ekushey Book Fair of 2016. The title of the book suggests that the author glanced back at the previous centuries to carry out her study on the status of women in Sylhet region during the colonial period. As far as South Asian perspective is concerned, colonial era refers to the governance of this subcontinent under the British Empire for almost two hundred years beginning from the middle of eighteenth century till the independence of India in 1947. It should be noted that the partition of India also took place in 1947. This book is the author's PhD dissertation under the title, "Gender and Society: A Study of Change in Muslim Women in Colonial Surma Valley" which she successfully accomplished at Assam University, India. The original thesis title has been slightly abridged while publishing it in the form of a book.

This book encompasses various issues like social aspects, gender, women's education, theological matters, history, women's socio-economic evolution through the previous centuries etc. This book consists of seven chapters. The first chapter includes an introduction to the study, women in colonial India, social reforms, aims of this study, research methodology, literature review and statement of problems. In this chapter we find references to the conservative social regulations of the colonial period which allowed almost no liberty to women. It was a widely male-dominated social scenario where women had no role to play at individual or collective levels. They were only assigned with the indoor duties of their homesteads. Even women of the Indian subcontinent had to seek permissions from their husbands or fathers to step outside the door. The first chapter makes references to some eminent social reformers of 19th century like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, De Rozio and Ishwarchandra Bidyasagar who played significant roles for the emancipation of women during the colonial times. In this chapter we also come across an observation by the author that the status of women in a society or country is an important indicator of the overall development of that nation. This is certainly a valid opinion because we can see most of the prosperous countries of the world have been able to make their female citizens self-sufficient and financially solvent.

The second chapter recalls the social movement in the Indian subcontinent which laid emphasis on accelerating women's development. At that time Muslim social reformers wanted to educate women. Names of Syed Ameer Ali and Nawab Abdul Latif are cited in this chapter with allusions to their admirable roles in the drive to equip women with academic knowledge during the middle of 19th century. These two scholars precisely understood the importance of women's contribution for social enlightenment. That's why they conducted huge motivational campaigns throughout the country during those years to convince people to allow women to take part in outdoor activities related to social welfare. Through these propagations by Syed Ameer Ali and Nawab Abdul Latif made both men and women conscious about the fact that an all-inclusive approach can bring about proper advancement in the society. The third chapter highlights the core points of the book including the plight of women along the shores of river Surma. Sylhet division is located on the bank of Surma River. So, the social standings of women living in different parts of Sylhet during the colonial era have been illustrated in this chapter. Women were subjugated to men at that time. Number of women going out of home for education was very few. Most of the families during that time only wanted to bring up their daughters to get them married to well-off grooms.

The fourth chapter analyses women's education and progress in Sylhet region. An awareness about the value of educated women spread in this area during the early 20th century. In the following chapter we find the names of some enlightened women of Sylhet and Assam who played vital roles for the female education during 20the century. Some of those esteemed women are Shamsi Khanam Chowdhury, Khairunnessa Begum, Sirajunnessa Choudhury, Samina Banu, Syeda Habibunnessa Khatun, Sitara Begum and some more female social reformers who broadly contributed for the intellectual growth of women of Sylhet and Assam during the 20th century. Particularly, Sirajunnessa Choudhury was an outstanding figure of that time with immense knowledge on Bengali, English, Arabic and Persian languages and literatures. Moreover, she established Kazi Jalal Uddin Madrassah for the education of Muslim women and she also did a lot of hard work to motivate the conservative Muslim families to allow their girls to obtain academic education. Sirajunnessa Choudhury also donated most of her land properties for the progress of Abdur Rashid High School in Sunamganj. Her son Humayun Rashid Choudhury became the first ambassador of Bangladesh to India during the Liberation War of 1971. He later on became the Speaker of the Bangladesh National Parliament in 1996 and held this post till 2001.

This book contains some more informative chapters. But all chapters of the book cannot be addressed in a short write-up. That's why readers are requested to collect a copy of the book and go through it for in-depth facts and figures about women's progress in Sylhet and Assam from the colonial period up to the 20th century.  Men and women both are equal stakeholders for social as well as national prosperity. For this reason, women should also be included for all development programs besides men and should be allowed to obtain enough education so that they can utilize their intellect and skills for the betterment of their motherland.

The writer is a columnist for The Asian Age

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