Enlightened souls of Bengal
Many enlightened women souls have shaped the socio-cultural and economic conditions of Bengal. Of them, some names are the most celebrated ones which must be talked about.
Nawab Faizunnesa Chowdhurani (1834-1903), was the only female Nawab of Indian sub-continent and renowned among women. She was the pioneer of woman's education and emancipation of Bangladesh. She was awarded the title of first female 'Nawab' of Bengal due to her contribution to women's education and other social welfare activities by Queen Victoria in 1889.
She was the landlord of Laksham in the Comilla district. Faizunnesa broke the new ground for women's education as a social reform activist. She realized without proper education, women would have no significant place in the society. So, she established many educational institutes in her locality.
She built around fourteen primary schools, madrasa, college and many more. Later, the madrasa was converted to Nawab Faizunnesa Government College. Then Comilla Girls High School was built by her in 1873.
She worked for the welfare of the people all of her life. She built ten-tombed mosque and family cemetery, dug fourteen ponds to provide water to her estate, also rest houses for travelers, many roads, bridge, culvert was constructed by her during that time.
Nawab Faizunnesa's first book "Rupjalal" was edited by Abdul Quddus and published by Bangla Academy in 1984. She also wrote two sets of book on poetry called "Sangeetsar' and 'Sangeetlohari'.
She was fluent in around five languages and could write in ease. She was not only a landlord but a lady who dedicated her life for social welfare of the people. For her outstanding achievements, she was awarded posthumously prestigious "Ekushey Padak" by the government of Bangladesh in 2004.
Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (1880-1932) is another celebrated woman. She was an educationist, poet, social reformer and pioneer to women's education and empowerment. Though she was born and brought up in the ambiance of wealth in a noble family, she had to live strictly behind the veil. For the women of her family, learning Bengali and English was prohibited, and only Arabic was allowed. She learnt Bengali with the help of her elder sister, and later learnt English with the guidance of her elder brother.
In 1897, she was married to Syed Sakhawat Hossain, an Urdu speaking highly educated and very liberal man. Rokeya was inspired by her husband and started literary writing.
From then her writing started to get published in various periodicals. Her first book "Motichur" was published in 1905. She was encouraged by various writers of that time. During this time she wrote Padmarag, Aborodh Basini and Sultana's Dream. Begum Rokeya's whole literary works reflect the negative impact of superstition and strict veil system of the society. She focused on social degradation of women, women's education and progressive views on women's right and emancipation.
After moving to Kolkata, she established Sakhawat Memorial Girls School in 1911. Though there were some schools there, but due to strict veil law those were inaccessible to the Bengali Muslim girls. Rokeya realized that, education is the only way for women to be free and self-reliant. She believed in the equal rights among men and women. Even today, her open mindedness, sense of logic, creativity and scientific view are rare and inspirational ones.
Sufia Kamal (1911-1999), was another pioneer of women empowerment and education. Like Rokeya, at that time education was not accessible to women and she did not receive any institutional education. She passed her childhood in her maternal grand father's home. Her mother taught her to read and write.
She was married off at very early age with her cousin. She was inspired and encouraged by her husband to pursue literature and social activities. Kamal met Begum Rokeya in Kolkata in 1918 and moved by her works and words. Rokeya's ideals had a far-fetched effect on her life while both of them worked in "Anjuman-e-Khawateen-e-Islam". She was also inspired by Rabindranath Tagore, Kazi Nazrul Islam and Sarat Chandra Chottopadhay. Her first poem "Basanti" was published in periodical "Swagat" in 1926. Later on she published many books and poetry.
Due to the financial crisis, after the death of her husband, she worked at the Kolkata Corporation School till 1942. Before 1952, she was the editor of women magazine Begum and later on she moved to Dhaka.
She actively participated in the Language Movement of 1952, and inspired and encouraged other women to join the Movement. In 1956, she established "Kochi Kachar Mela" for children. In 1961, she was elected as the President of Chhayanaut. In 1969, she was elected as President of Women's Struggle Committee and participated in mass upsurge. She led the procession of women in 1971.
In the movement for the women empowerment of independent Bangladesh, she was one of the pioneers. Till her death, she fought in favour of freethinking, and against communalism and fundamentalism. She died in 1999 and she was the first woman of Bangladesh to be buried in full national dignity.
Nurjahan Begum (1925-2016), the editor and publisher of 'Begum', was the first female journalist of Bangladesh. From very early childhood "Nuri" developed such a keen interest for the foreign and local magazines and books that her father Mohammad Nasiruddin, renowned journalist and editor of the monthly Shawgat, brought that she could file the publications separately just by looking at the pictures, even before she had learned to read properly.
She was initially named Nurun Nahar, born in Chandpur on 4 June, 1925. She was brought to Kolkata by her father after she faced two drowning accidents in the village. The sights and sounds of Kolkata dazzled Nuri and her father aimed to modernize his daughter into a progressive-minded, confident woman who can fight against the deep-rooted misogyny of the society.
Impressed by her intelligence, her grandmother renamed her Nurjahan Begum. Upon Begum Rokeya's request she was admitted to Sakhawat Memorial School at Baby Class. At school, Nuri grew up with the ideals of Begum Rokeya, in 1942, she passed her matriculation from Sakhawat Memorial School. In 1944, she passed her intermediate examinations and, in 1946, her Bachelors in Ethics, Philosophy and History from Lady Brabourne College.
Initially, she was assigned to help her father with filing, pasting and other general task at Shawgat. For the first four months, Nurjahan worked as the acting editor of the weekly magazine helping the editor poet Begum Sufia Kamal with collecting, editing and selecting writings for the issues.When Sufia Kamal had to move to Dhaka with her husband, Nurjahan took the charge of Begum as editor and till date steered the women's magazine, defying all kinds of political, social and financial difficulties.
In the last seven decades, Begum had to witness Partition, Liberation War, change of regimes, change in printing technology, but its editor Nurjahan Begum never wavered. She continued to breathe life into Begum, when many other women's magazine from 1950s could not stand the test of time, Begum lived on, inspiring women not to give up. In Nurjahan Begum's words:
"There will always be problems we will have to face. There will always be religious conflict, social bindings and people trying to hold us back. We can lie low for a while, but ultimately, we have to move forward. It's the only way to go."