So famous did the zamindar, a descendant of the Timurid dynasty from which the ruling Mughals derived become, in work to develop female education and other issues of social deprivation of women in the latter half of the 19th century, that Her Imperial Majesty Victoria, Empress of India, personally intervened to award the title of “Nawab.”
In that unique process, Begum Faizunnesa Choudhurani became the first woman in South Asia to be so honoured.
Homnabad-Pashchimgoan, now known as Laksam, close to the Indian border in Comilla District of Bangladesh, was a zamindari, characteristic of the British period, being held by a Muslim family in an area which, even today, enjoys a rich heritage of fine Hindu Temples that betrays a probable Hindu majority of the time.
She was born in 1834 to a very devout Muslim family, with its very aristocratic heritage, and was, very strictly, brought up in purda; although, in fact, her father was of sufficiently liberal mind to hire a male tutor to enhance the education of his two daughters.
Of course, in the great traditions of Islam, such an upbringing may not have permitted a great deal of social intercourse, but it is clear that it did facilitate for her an opportunity for a high degree of self education: Reading. Sadly, a vital form of education that has diminished in modern times.
That process of self and home education was, certainly, effective. Arabic and Persian in the household would have been the most commonly used languages, as in most such aristocratic families of the time; indeed, Persian was commonly used, even by the East India Company in its communications, and was an essential learning for Company employees.
Faizunnesa, in the preface of her famous work of poetic fiction, Rupjalal, was to acknowledge her tutor, Ustad Tazuddin, as the source of inspiration, and learning.
It may also be interesting to speculate that she had access to newspapers, that, as English language publications, would certainly have aided a familiarity with social changes, even in Britain.
Two years before her birth, 1832 was the year of the First Great Reform Bill passed by the British Parliament.
The act, itself, only marginally extended the voting franchise, still limited to males, as well as reforming Parliamentary seats. However, in 1817, Jeremy Bentham had first advocated enfranchisement of women, and although it was to be nearly another century before such reform was enacted in Britain, together with the succession to the throne of Queen Victoria in 1837, emancipation of women, combined with an embryonic movement for women’s rights, were certainly already on an international agenda from before the Begum’s birth.
Fascinating, indeed to suspect that, so early already, deep in the rurality of the lands that are now Bangladesh, and in a very strict Muslim family, it appears that something stirred in the field of female educational rights and opportunities.
Which, amongst other things, begins to raise suspicions that the movement towards independence, which seems largely in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to have emerged from a more “anglicised” upper and middle class in the sub-continents, may well have had some roots amongst the more leisured zamindari, especially those of ancient lineage.
However, Faizunnesa found herself at the age of 27, in a traditional polygamous marriage to a neighbouring zamindar, a distant cousin, Muhammad Gazi, becoming his second wife with whom she had two daughters.
In fact, it was a marriage at an unusually high age; at the age of nine, Muhammad Gazi, on a family visit, became obsessed with her, and sought marriage then.
Faizunnesa’s father denied permission then, on the grounds of her youth, but in the ensuing years, found it difficult to arrange any marriage for his daughter, over the well-known objections of her older suitor.
It was evidently not a marriage or situation that suited the well-educated, evidently rather independent-minded young woman.
After bearing two daughters, she returned to her parental home. There then ensued a lengthy process of obtaining marital alimony, at the end of which she received property as a settlement.
It is, however, clear that she remained on good terms with her husband, blaming his first wife, who he had married on rebound from his original failure to marry Faizunnesa, for the failure of the marriage.
On the death of her father, her apparently similarly self-assured and educated mother, took over administration of the zamindari.
On her mother’s death in 1883, Faizunnesa inherited the zamindari.
It is evident that, like so many, she was not content with British colonial rule; we may well surmise that the 1857 rebellion, although it had little impact in Bengal, and indeed the lands still at the time designated as a part of Tripura, especially the suspicion engendered by the role of Muslims in that uprising, was also contributory to her discontent.
Other women rulers in India had proved themselves content with the title Begum, usually the way in which a zamindar’s wife was addressed; Faizunnesa, alone, and a Muslim woman, made it clear that she found it degrading not to be recognised equally with male zamindars
In her writing, she also refers to the suicide of her maternal grandfather, Mozaffar Gazi Chowdhury, preferring death to submission to the then colonial ruler, the East India Company.
In the period between the Battle of Buxar, that facilitated the Company’s domination of the lands, and the Act of Permanent Settlement in 1793, governance was so rapacious that 75% of zamindari are believed to have changed hands. It was not a period in which such aristocratic rulers could work easily.
But it is apparent that she was determined not to be suppressed by the rule of the successor administration, the British Imperial rule.
As zamindar were invited by Magistrate Douglas, the district magistrate of Tripura, to contribute to funds for his provincial development plan, she was the only zamindar who responded to the request, donating -- in the absence of other support -- all the funds requested.
As a result, Douglas requested the British government that she be awarded with a title. Nawab,was, at the time, the highest honorific awarded to zamindars.
The male zamindars, however, objected vociferously, and Faizunnesa was awarded the honorific title of Begum, with the agreement of Queen Victoria.
She rejected the offer, pointing out that she was already known in her lands by that title; she demanded that she be treated with equality to male zamindars. The British Parliament decided in her favour, and she became Nawab Faizunnesa. It is not hard to imagine her satisfaction beating the system!
Other women rulers in India had proved themselves content with the title Begum, usually the way in which a zamindar’s wife was addressed; Faizunnesa, alone, and a Muslim woman, made it clear that she found it degrading not to be recognised equally with male zamindars.
Her work as zamindar was far from limited to the effective administration of the lands she held. As early as 1893, with the support of her mother, she had established one of the earliest privately established female schools in the Indian sub-continent.
She also established a school at Pashchimgaon, now upgraded to a college.
In 1893, she established a dispensary for women, particularly destitute women, as well as a hospital for women in Comilla.
Her semi autobiographical “allegory,” Rupjalal, published in Dhaka in 1876, eventually brought her a worldwide literary reputation, but she also remains an outstanding figure in the continuing fight for women’s rights in the lands that are now Bangladesh.
Her origins and her upbringing suggest how hard it must have been for her to plough her furrow, despite her advantages of wealth and family.
A conspicuous, and perhaps somewhat neglected figure in the social and religious cultural development of Bangladesh today.
Tim Steel is a communications, marketing and tourism consultant.