Rupjalal by Nawab Faizunnesa (1834-1903) is the first full-length literary piece penned by a Bengali Muslim woman. Written in part-prose and part-poetry, the semi-autobiographical fiction was first published from Dhaka in 1876. The owner of Faizun Library, Faizunnesa was well-read in different literatures and religions, which is reflected in her references to various religious texts in the allegorical fiction. Written in the mixed style of the punthi tradition and jarigan, it begins with a traditional invocation of Allah and 'homage' to the Prophet Muhammad and his companions. Faizunnesa used many Arabic, Persian and Urdu words, which was the prevalent literary convention among the Bengali Muslims at that time.
Rupjalal's author Faizunnessa was not only the first Muslim woman to publish a full-length work, but also a pioneer of women's education. Her others literary pieces are Tattva 0 Jatiya Sabgit, Sabgitsar and Sabgitlahari. She established schools, madrasas, free medical centres and charitable institutions at home and abroad, especially for women. In recognition of her social and philanthropic activities, Queen Victoria conferred on her the honorary title of Nawab in 1889'an appellation reserved exclusively for male zamindars until then. However, the publication of Rupjalal is considered to be the author's greatest achievement and has remained a significant marker in the history of Bengali Muslim women's writing.
The central subject-matter of the text is polygamy. In its Preface, Faizunnesa mentions that she composed the work to allay her sufferings in a troubled conjugal life with her bigamous husband Mohammad Gazi Chowdhury and her relationship with his first wife Nazmunnesa. However, as the story develops, an attitudinal divergence to the institution of polygamy becomes apparent between Faizunnesa and her heroines in the story. While Faizunnesa preferred a single life to living as a co-wife, the fictional Rupbanu and Hurbanu readily accept Prince Jalal's bigamy and happily live with him. And this makes the text problematic. Although Faizunnesa's own marital life was of all bitterness, she delineates in Rupjalal a happy picture of Jalal's bigamous marriages.
By forcing Faizunnesa to live with his first wife, Gazi violated the stipulation of the marriage contract where Faizunnesa's right to live separately in her parents' house was guaranteed. Conversely, Prince Jalal in the story gives equal attention to his wife and keeps Rupbanu and Hurbanu separate and maintains a happy conjugal life with both. Perhaps, while rejecting the iniquitous polygamous relationship her husband maintained, the religious Faizunnesa depicts an alternative scenario where the Islamic institution of polygamy can be justified. Apart from the subjects of polygamy and female sexuality, the text is also an indictment on the cruel custom of honour killings. Rupjalal also strongly counteracts gender stereotyping. As the author states: 'why blame all women ? / Of course there are some who are to condemn. / But the rest of women have solid rock hearts / That man can never tear apart / And give her a bad name and shame.' [Md. Mahmudul Hasan]