By the time she died at age 89 on 20 November, Begum Sufia Kamal had accomplished what would take more ordinary folks many lifetimes. One of the earliest Muslim Bengalee women poets, Begum Sufia was also probably the first Muslim woman in the world to have taken a plane ride (in 1928), and that too in a burqah. She was part of almost all the progressive women’s movements of her time, both in pre-independent India and Bangladesh. She was an inspiration to many women politicians, but was never affiliated to any party, and this in a partisan land, is saying something.
In the last 15 years, she had been the fragile but unrelenting leader of political movements whether it was in bringing down the unpopular rule of General H.M. Ershad, or in leading the streets to demand a trial of the killers and rapists during Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence. Yet she was a far cry from the typical image of the hardened revolutionary. Frail and nearly blind for decades, she had a soft sing-song voice in which she felt comfortable discussing recipes as much as in voicing daring resolve to never forgive the ones who violated women and killed children.
Born in Barisal, south of Dhaka, Sufia saw little of her father, a practising lawyer and a mystic, who left home as a sufi when his daughter was seven months old. Thus her growing-up years were spent in the aristocratic home of her maternal grandparents. The young Sufia was much interested in education, but had to be content with learning Urdu, and taking secret lessons in Bangla from her mother.
But she was so adamant about going to school, something which girls from her background were not allowed to back then, that at one point she was being dressed up as a boy to attend classes. By then, she had become proficient in Urdu, Bangla, Arabic and English.
Sufia’s first story was published when she was only 12 (by when she was already a married girl). A contemporary of the leaders of the Bengalee literary world including Rabindrananth Tagore (at whose residence she read poems on his birthday) and Nazrul Islam she knew many of them personally. She was close to Mohammed Nasiruddin, the first magazine editor to provide space to Muslim women writers of Bengal, who were fighting the conventional and casual discrimination perpetrated by the better-educated Hindu majority literati, as well as those by conservative Muslims.
It was Nazrul Islam, Bangladesh’s national poet, who gave Sufia her break as a poet, getting her works published in Calcutta magazines. As her fame grew, the sheer power of her poetry made it impossible to ignore her, and for years, she led the literary movement, first in India and then in Bangladesh, creating space for the following generations, including the present likes of fatwa-ridden author Taslima Nasreen.
Begum Sufia Kamal and Nasreen, however, couldn’t be more different in style and belief, which perhaps reflect the two trends in contemporary Bangladesh. The former lives abroad, adrift from her compatriots’ social and political movements, being more comfortable with Western parameters of social behaviour, which, in a way, renders her out of sync with the mainstream. An anti-religious person, who writes about her sexuality with ease, openness and confidence, Nasreen is a shocker, in step with the brave new world.
Begum Sufia Kamal, on the other hand, was a deeply religious person, who would never have contemplated leaving her people. She led, along with Jahanara Imam, the toughest movement mounted since Bangladesh’s birth against the Islamic fundamentalists, a fight that lasted till her death. She was not the least bit concerned about death sentences, and was part of so many causes that she almost died of leading a million movements.
By leading a conventional and religious life in her private world and a radical anti-Islamic-fanatic political movement publicly, she proved wrong all conventional arguments about ‘backward’ Muslim women. She never missed her prayers, but at the same time was the most formidable opponent of the Jammat-e-Islami. And she lent her name and presence to causes that others dared not support. It becomes then fairly obvious why she was Amma (mother) to so many Bangladeshis. It was only last year that she was forced to slow down her public life due to failing health.
As a litterateur, Begum Sufia’s corpus included over 20 volumes of poetry, as well as short stories and diaries. By the end of the day, Sufia had won over 40 awards, including every national award, a few of which she returned, like the ones given to her by the Pakistani State.
Sufia’s last requests were not to be given a state funeral, to be buried in the ordinary city graveyard and not to have her funeral prayers led by the chief cleric of the national mosque, whom she considered an ally of the killers of 1971. All her requests were conceded, but Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, chocking with emotion over the death of her neighbour for four decades, refused the request for an ordinary funeral. Begum Sufia Kamal was buried with full state honours. But the grave is a simple one, a grave of a pauper.
A full life
- 1931 Became the first Muslim woman to become a member of Indian Women’s Federation.
- 1932 Death of first husband.
- 1933 Became a school teacher with the Calcutta Corporation.
- 1937 First collection of stories published.
- 1938 First anthology of poems, with the blessings of Tagore. Second marriage to freedom fighter Kamaluddin Khan and since then known as Sufia Kamal.
- 1946 Ran a sanctuary at the Lady Brabourne College for the communal riot victims of Calcutta. Started a number of magazines.
- 1948 Became chief of East Pakistan Women’s Committee.
- 1950 Led the Anti-communal Riots Committee during the 1950 Dhaka riots.
- 1951 Established the East Pakistan Child Protection Society. Also took up the vice-chair of the National Literature Society.
- 1952 Pioneer organiser during the February language movement.
- 1955 Organised the first protest by housewives against rising food prices.
- 1960 Became the chief of the Tagore Centenary Celebrations Committee.
- 1962 Led the move to establish cultural organisations to propagate Tagore culture.
- 1965 Was at the forefront of the anti-Ayub Khan movement, which turned into a mass uprising in 1969.
- 1969 Became chairperson of the Women’s Action Committee.
- 1970 Chief of the Women’s Committee.
- 1971 Stayed away from all activities after the 1971 military crack-1977 down and also refused to sign an endorsement of Pakistan
- and its armed actions despite threat to her life. After liberation, presided over the first public meeting at the Martyrs’ Monument. Inaugurated the first television programme in independent Bangladesh. Husband Kamaluddin died in 1977.
- 1980 Got actively involved in the anti-martial law movement and moved close to the Awami League. Became member of the committee to “Try the killers and Rapists of 1971”.
- 1990 Was at the forefront of the anti-Ershad/martial law agitation, even leading a procession when a curfew was on.