Sufia Begum: A lifelong rebel
People nowadays tend to think that 21st February, 1952 was when it all happened and ended. Most of us do not seem to know the struggles that followed for years to come. Sufia Begum looks back on her days as a rebel, recounting her story.
We all have probably seen this picture somewhere, maybe Ekushey Boimela, newspapers or some other place -- a group of girls, erecting a small cement and brick monument, surrounded by disgruntled adults. Sufia Begum was right at the center of it.
Sufia was a first year college student in 1953. In those days, Dhaka College provided labs and practical classes for the girls of Eden's science department. "Eden provided us with horse carriages, aka 'tomtom' in Bangla, to and from college. we rode back and forth between Eden and Dhaka College everyday."
On 21 February, 1953, Sufia and her classmates were preparing for their ride back to Eden. At about 10am, a boy from Dhaka College came to talk to them. He had a quite daring proposal for the girls. "He asked us if we could build them a small Shaheed Minaar in the field, to commemorate what happened a year ago. We said yes."
It was a politically troubling time. If boys started to build a Shaheed Minar on the college grounds, they would be stopped, beaten up and possibly arrested. But nothing like that could happen to the girls. Thus, the boys recruited their female counterparts for assistance.
Not all the girls were up for it, though. There were some who believed that the Bengali students were overreacting. Some others did not want to get into trouble at home. The rest of the girls marched onto the field. "I remember Halima, Shamsunnahar, Dolly, Sadeka joining me, among others."
Here is an interesting fact about Sufia. At that time, her father was a highranking government official. Sufia was not concerned about what might happen if she were to be identified as a rebel, colluding with anti-government groups. "I didn't think anything was more important than what we were about to do."
The girls began to build their minar. One by one, the boys of Dhaka College gathered around them and made a circle. Their intention was clear -- if the police attacked, the brunt of it would be taken by the boys. Around midday, the then principal of Eden College, Fazilatunnisa, marched into the circle.
The girls did not listen to their principal, who ordered them to stop. They completed building the monument and went home. Unfortunately, the police destroyed the Shaheed Minaar the next day.
Sufia Begum was born in September 9, 1935, in Bahernagar, Mymensingh. As the daughter of a high ranking government official, she traveled the entire country with her family. "There was this town that had no schools for girls. So, my father got one founded and enroled me in it."
Sufia's father was a far-sighted man. He was a feminist back when men were not known for being one. After what she did on 21 February, an official complaint was sent to Sufia's father for her rebellious actions. He grounded her for life. However, the next morning, when the carriage arrived, he sighed audibly and told Sufia's mother, "Tell her to get dressed and go to college."
Unbeknownst to her father, Sufia had a newfound love -- cinema. she succeeded in appeasing her mother to let her go with her friends to Rupmahal cinema hall in Sadarghat. "I had a rebellious streak in college. I never quite got over that."
Sufia enroled in Chemistry in University of Dhaka in 1955. Her brother, a couple years younger than her, enroled in Physics in the same university. He was often heard grumbling that Sufia studied less than he did, yet had better grades. He said she possessed a photographic memory. She passed her BSc in Chemistry in 1957.
In due course, she was married off to a doctor, an immigrant from West Bengal. She began her new life in Narayanganj. She was diagnosed with thyroidoxicosis in 1960. It was not as easily treatable as it is now. She underwent heavy treatment both in Kolkata and Dhaka.
The same year, she joined Narayanganj Girls' High School, presently Amlapara GHS. The school was not recognised as a matriculation school because it had no teacher with a BSc degree. The school approached Sufia and asked her to take all the science classes. Despite her health, she obliged.
Sufia became active in politics as well. She joined Bangladesh Awami League and stayed a loyal member throughout her life. She eventually became the Vice President of Mohila Awami League in Narayanganj. She continued as a teacher too. By this time, she had had three children - two boys and a girl.
Now, the school had only meant for her to be a teacher for technical reasons. They needed a BSc graduate as teacher and she was one. However, Sufia eventually became the Assistant Headmistress. She worked there for about 2 years.
In 1969, Sufia joined the mass uprising that was engulfing the then East Pakistan, in body and in spirit. She, along with other activists, rallied through the streets of her city, participating in all kinds of protests and demonstrations against West Pakistan.
After Awami League won the national elections of 1970, Sufia filed an application for candidacy as an MP for her party.
Sufia and her husband were present at the then Ramna Race Course on 7 March, 1971. After the speech given by Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, she returned to Narayanganj and founded an organisation. It was named Narayanganj Mohila Shadhinota Sangram Parishad. It was disbanded after 25 March, for obvious reasons.
Since both Sufia and her husband were prominent members of Awami League, she fled to Dhaka with her family when the war started. The family of five stayed with her parents and other relatives until September. "My life was stuck between Topkhana Road and Gulshan. I didn't let any of my children or my husband go out at any time. It was terrible."
After the Liberation War was over, Sufia rejoined politics, but she was more inclined to rebuild her home, her neighborhood and her town. She devoted most of her time in Bangladesh Mohila Parishad, Narayanganj. Sufia actively fought for the rights of women for education, health and a happy marriage for years.
"I had a visionary as my father. My husband supported me in everything I did and every initiative I took. Things like this should never be dependent on good fortune. Women should never be subject to being 'allowed' their civil rights. They must have as many privileges as their male counterparts do. I did."
Our generation might not know what Lion's Club, Lioness Club or Leo Club might be. But our parents will know all about it. Sufia founded and presided over the Lioness Club in Narayanganj around 1976. She remained president for several consecutive terms.
In 1979, she told Mrs Feroza Bari, a representative of the Zia administration, "Titas gas line goes from Titas to Dhaka via Narayanganj, but Narayanganj has no gas supply. You must provide us with gas." The Government happily obliged to her request.
For a member of Awami League to be this blunt in their demands during BNP's term in office was a pretty bold feat. Then again, few things could stop this lady from speaking her mind.
In 1981, Sufia ventured into an entirely new arena -- Law. She became the first female lawyer of Narayanganj Court, eventually becoming the first female Assistant Public Prosecutor in 1985. That was the year Narayanganj became a district.
"Why law? Well, why not law? Yes, I'll admit, it was difficult at first. I faced much sexism from my colleagues, but I didn't let it get to me. If you know what you're doing is right, Allah will guide you." Sufia mentored dozens of female lawyers that came after her. But she had her eyes set on a more ambitious place.
In 1987, she moved to Dhaka, in order to practice in the High Court. Sufia joined B Ahmed & Company as an associate and remained there until tragedy hit her.
Sufia lost her mother in 1992 and her father in 1993. In 1995, she broke her left leg, slipping in her own lawn. Her accident brought a sudden and permanent stop to her professional career and social work. However, did it stop her progress? Physically, yes. Mentally, definitely not.
Sufia had always been a spiritual person. After her handicap, she devoted herself to the study of religion, Islam, to be more specific. She focused on trying to learn everything Islam said about the roles and contributions of women in society.
"I had always been a staunch supporter of women's rights. But, in our society, you can always validate your perspctive with religious doctrine. That makes your argument stronger. So, when I tell you that men need to be modest before women have to, I'll quote you Sura an-Noor."
Sufia Begum is my grandmother. After she broke her leg, my mother moved back home to look after her. I grew up with my Nanu.
Nanu tells me that out of her five grandkids, I'm the most like her - unyielding, straightforward and somewhat paranoid. Growing up with such a headstrong woman was not easy. But she gave me a number of filters to see the world through. Most of these filters are not popular, but they are nevertheless useful.
Nanu came from a powerful family, what with her father being the Accountant General of the then East Pakistan. She herself joined politics and later became a lawyer. I remember a famous quote from the first Spiderman movie, "With great power, comes great responsiblity." I have seen Nanu use this philosophy in everything she did in life.
I remember a neighbour publicly humiliating her a couple years back, saying awful things to this lady old enough to be his mother. Everyone advised her to swallow the humiliation, as people usually say to a woman. No one even attempted to defend her or stop the abusive neighbour. Then again, she never needed help. She filed a defamation suit against him.
Nanu taught me to raise my voice against any kind of wrongdoing. She also taught me to pick my battles with caution. She educated me in religion and bought me books on our Liberation War. I learned to question a lot of biased beliefs and traditions as I watched her debate religious and social extremists.
I still live under the same roof with her.