It was a hot and humid afternoon in the early 1850s in Banhera, Bijnor (Uttar Pradesh). A 10-year old girl sitting on a prayer-mat after namaz was crying in front of her Allah as she prayed, “Most Benevolent Allah, show me mercy and guide me across this dreadful chasm to my goal. If ever I get to learn how to read I shall, Allah willing, teach that skill to anyone who desires it, and even forcibly to those who may not want to learn, for I shall never forget so long as I live the anguish I feel at this moment.” Allah listened to her prayers and granted her wish.
This small girl was Ashrafun Nisa Begum, or Bibi Ashraf as she was known to her students. In a society where girls were forbidden to learn the art of writing and nobody wanted to teach her the art of reading Bibi learnt the art of reading and writing through her own efforts without any teacher. She kept her promise with Allah and taught the small girls the art of reading and writing. Muhammadi Begum, the first woman editor of a weekly in India, admired her as a teacher and thinker so much so that she desired herself to be buried near Bibi’s grave.
Bibi Ashraf was born in 1840 in Bijnor at a time when women, of any religion, were not allowed to learn writing. Muslim women were allowed to learn to read the Quran, needless to say without understanding the meaning of Arabic words. In Bibi’s household women, like her own mother, knew how to read Urdu. Women used to read marsiya (religious poems) in their gatherings.
When Bibi was seven her grandfather hired a woman, who had lost her husband, to teach her and her female cousins at home. When she was in the seventh chapter (siparah) of the Quran when the teacher got re-married. Her furious grandfather prohibited her entry into the home. In his view, a widow marrying a second time was a shameful act and she had no business to meet his granddaughter again. While other girls continued reading the Quran with their mothers, Bibi's mother died. Bibi who dearly wanted to read begged her aunt and other women to teach her but in return would only get sneering remarks. She used to pray to Allah and cry.
Bibi’s grandmother asked her to read the seven chapters of the Quran again and again as it would comfort her deceased mother. Either it was her willpower or Allah’s mercy upon her that soon she could decipher words of later chapters of the Quran. Without any teacher, she read the whole Quran.
Now, after learning to read the Quran the next task was to learn to read Urdu. Bibi wanted to read Urdu so that she could read religious poems and literature. She begged women of the family but only to be reprimanded. This time she borrowed books of religious poems and started copying them. It is a moving story of the determination of a young girl child who wanted nothing but the skill to read and write. Bibi took blackening from utensils in an earthen lid and broomsticks, with the help of these pens and ink she would imitate the words written in the books on a paper. In this fashion, she actually copied many books. She could not read or write, still, she copied those books. Keep in mind, she had to do all this secretly because writing for women was forbidden.
One fine day, when she was reading the Quran a young boy, cousin of her father, came and asked her to teach lessons in the Quran. He showed Bibi her back with the marks of beating. Bibi started helping her with the lessons. She herself was hardly ten at the time. One day she asked this boy, who is much younger than her, to teach her Urdu. After much argument, he agreed. Obviously, he was not a teacher but for Bibi it was like a light in a dark tunnel. He could teach her only three pages of the Urdu book when he was sent to Delhi. The book remained with Bibi.
Bibi Ashraf started reading the words of Urdu by herself. At times she read correctly. Soon, she was able to read the pages she had copied with broomsticks. Her joy had no bounds. She thanked Allah for this gift. She realised that she could write from her memory.
Women soon came to know of her skills. They kept it among themselves. Bibi started writing letters for all the women of the neighbourhood. The women would pour their hearts out to her as they dictated the letters for their husbands.
Around the same time, Indians rose in revolt against the British, 1857. Bibi’s father and uncle were in Gwalior. For eighteen months correspondences were stopped. After the normalcy returned her father wrote a letter asking their well being. In reply two letters were sent, one from her grandmother’s brother and one was written by Bibi.
Bibi’s father replied that while his uncle’s letter conveyed only the well being of the immediate family his daughter’s letter described all the events of 1857 in great detail. He wrote that the letter gave him the joy of reading a newspaper or a history book. He asked, perplexed, from where and how had she learnt the writing. When he came to know that it was through her own determination his joy knew no bound. Bibi’s father sent her gifts for the achievement.
The reaction of Bibi’s uncle was just the opposite. He was furious and wrote a letter reprimanding her. Bibi had to promise him that she would never write a letter to any man or any married woman. A promise she kept till she wrote to Muhammadi Begum, a favourite student, who was married to Syed Mumtaz. Still, her uncle never forgave her for this ‘sin’.
After her marriage, Bibi shifted to Lahore with her husband, Syed Alamdar Husain. In 1878, after the death of her husband, she started teaching at Victoria Girls’ School, Lahore. For twenty-five years she taught young girls, a promise she made to her Allah as a young child. Muhammadi Begum was one of her disciples who later persuaded Bibi to write for her journal Tehzeeb-e-Niswaan. Muhammadi Begum willed herself to be buried beside her and later Begum Hijab Imtiaz, a well-known writer and first Muslim woman pilot of India, also willed herself to be buried there.