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Sufia Kamal: Her journey toward freedom

  • Published at 03:20 pm July 15th, 2018
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A tribute

Sufia Kamal (20 June, 1911—20 November, 1999) lived a long life. She not only witnessed great changes in society and history but also influenced the positive transformation of the status of women as well as the Bangladeshi society. Her life was, in the truest sense, a long walk to freedom but not a journey of a loner, rather of one who had equated her fate with those of all the women in her society. Her cherished goal was not personal but social emancipation. In that sense her journey still remains unfinished; death has not put an end to it, on the contrary, even after her demise she is very much a part of the greater struggle of the nation and will always remain so.

She was born in the aristocratic Muslim gentry, but not as someone with a golden spoon in her mouth. Fate played a cruel game with her and she had to struggle hard for every little achievement in her life. To understand the full extent and significance of her struggle, it is necessary to focus not only on her personal life but also on the social reality and upheavals that influenced her.

Unlike other families in the aristocrat Muslim gentry, Sufia Kamal's family was quite well educated and many of its members were successful professional people in administration, legal affairs, and bureaucracy. Sufia Kamal was the second child of her parents but her father became a Sufi saint and left home in search of Allah, never to come back again. At that time she was only a child of seven months, her elder brother was aged three and a half years. The young mother of Sufia had to go back to the fold of her parents with two little children as she had no other alternative. The extended family lived at a palatial house with a very rich library. But education, schooling, and reading—all was carried out in the male's domain. Even learning anything other than religious texts was considered immoral for the girls. There, however, were winds of change blowing, especially after Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain embarked on a mission to open the doors of education for Muslim girls. But that opportunity was confined to the large urban areas; in greater part of rural Bengal, female education especially for Muslims was like the forbidden fruit.

Sufia Kamal as a child went to a Maktab, a mosque based religious learning center where one can learn to read the Arabic scripture without knowing its meaning. After a short while even that was discontinued as she was considered to have grown up. The boys of the family went to the district town to get admitted to high schools whereas the girls remained within the confines of the palatial building till their marriage was settled.

Even within the four walls, denied of all opportunities, Sufia Kamal as a child could feel the resonance of a greater world of art and literature. She wrote, “From my uncle, I used to get information about the world outside. At night after saying prayers, all the aunts used to sit around him and he would read aloud from Bengali novels. He also knew Sanskrit quite well. He used to render in Bengali translation the stories from Sanskrit classics like Agni Vamsa, Meghdut, Rajtarangini, etc. I was a little child at that time, but I still carry in my heart the pleasant sound of his reading. He also used to recite English, Bengali, Arabic, Persian and Urdu poems. He used to subscribe to various journals and I remember the horror story 'Bunip' that was published in Bombay Chronicle, which scared me to death.”

Sufia Kamal was taught to read and write Bengali by her mother. This opened a new world to her and the family library proved to be a treasure trove where she could spend considerable time. Whatever little learning all these highly disorganized, non-formal methods offered, Sufia Kamal took full advantage of those. At the age of 12, she got married to Syed Nehal Hossain, her cousin.

After marriage, Sufia Kamal left Shaistabad and settled in Barisal, the district town. Her husband was an aspiring writer associated with a literary journal. The town life offered her an opportunity to come out of home, of course with proper veil, and get involved in social work along with the progressive Brahma women. She also took part in the non-cooperation movement called by Mahatma Gandhi and wove thread on charka as a mark of protest. Inspired by her husband, she wrote a short-story Sainik Badhu and a few poems which were published in a literary journal. Seeing Sufia's writing in print, her uncle became furious as it violated the norms of Muslim aristocracy and took Sufia back to Shaistabad. Such was the beginning of Sufia Kamal's literary career.

When the little girl Sufia got married, her husband was also quite young, still a student. After marriage he continued his studies and went to Calcutta for higher education. He brought his young, energetic wife along with him and their life in one of the major metropolises of the world made a lasting impact on Sufia's mind. She got involved in literary activities, came to know Kazi Nazrul Islam, the rebel poet (1899-1976) and Mohammad Nasiruddin (1888-1994), a great patron of Muslim authors. Nasiruddin, the editor and publisher of Showgat, a literary journal that promoted young and upcoming writers, inspired Sufia Kamal to engage herself into writing. Sufia put much effort in reading books and sharpened her writing style. She also had a very short but fruitful contact with Rokeya Sakhawat's social organization promoting awareness among women, especially in the slums.

When Sufia Kamal was blossoming in Kolkata with active support of her husband, trying her hand in creative writing and getting involved with social work, a great disaster struck her. Her husband died of tuberculosis in 1932. Shortly after this tragedy, a sudden flooding of the river Kala Badar engulfed the palatial building of her maternal grandparent in Shaistabad as well as much of the family's landed property. Sufia Kamal, the young widow with a six-year old girl child was in a fix and she decided to be on her own.

In 1932 the young widow Sufia Kamal decided to lead an independent life in Kolkata, instead of going back to the township of Barisal and leading a life of dependency on male members of the family. If she were born some 50 years earlier, such an option could not have been thought of. Ghulam Murshid in his book Reluctant Debutante wrote that in the late 19th century “a woman could earn independently only by working as a house maid, illiterate midwife or as a dancer.” Sufia Kamal joined Calcutta Corporation as a school teacher and brought her mother from Barisal to stay with her. It was a very bold decision for a Muslim widow of 21 years old.

The coming years were very crucial in Sufia Kamal's life as she went through the test of fire. Sufia Kamal did not have any formal education, nevertheless her well-wishers managed to find her the job of a school teacher. But life did not become easier even after getting the job. The conservative attitude prevalent in society found reflection in considering her as the 'evil spirit' in the family, one who begets misfortune. Moreover her job as a school teacher which required more open presence in society and her contact with writers and publishers made her a pariah in the family. Sufia Kamal became a lone crusader against social barriers and the difficult struggle sapped her energy. Her feelings were reflected in a poem she wrote:

The tune of my flute vanished in the sandy isle,
The dark waves of river Bador has devoured everything.
Those who used to kiss me with love
Now no longer want to see my dark face.

The 1930s was a period of great personal crisis in Sufia Kamal's life. She was tired of life and could not see the light at the end of the tunnel. Her only solace was in writing poems and communicating with her author friends, most of whom became important personalities in her later life. In 1937, her first book, KeyarKanta (The Thorn of Flowers), a collection of short stories, was published. The following year, her book of poems, Sanjer Maya (The Twilight Illusion) was published. In spite of the publication of these books, depression engulfed her. She became sick and frail.

At this juncture, a well-wisher arranged her marriage with Kamaluddin Khan, a liberal and educated young man who became a great patron of Sufia Kamal's literary and social pursuits. Sufia found a new meaning in life and rediscovered her own self. In Showgat she wrote a poem titled “The Letter from Spring”:

I was perplexed
and never knew when the dew covering my pain evaporated,
When the flowers blossomed in spring.

The 1940s was a time of great turmoil, and the nationalist struggle reached a new height ultimately forcing the British to leave India. Tension was also on the rise between Hindus and Muslims. Political leaders were playing with communal fire and failed to mend the gap between the two major communities. As communal relationship deteriorated, riots flared up in different parts of India. Sufia Kamal worked very hard during the 1946 riot in Kolkata. She worked at the temporary shelter camp established at Lady Brabourne College. In those difficult times, she never lost her humanitarian belief, nor did she allow her outlook to be tarnished with communal feeling. The multicultural cosmopolitan atmosphere of Kolkata was a source of inspiration for her. She had met a great number of litterateurs, both Hindus and Muslims, and received encouragement from them.

When Sufia Kamal first met Mohammad Nasiruddin in 1927, she was wearing a veil and the editor told her that a poet like her should not be under a veil. She replied that although she personally did not endorse it, she had to wear veil because of familial and social norms. Soon after this meeting, she stopped wearing the veil. In 1929, Shawgat decided to publish photographs of female writers along with their work, and Sufia Kamal was the first woman to agree to publish her portrait. When Nasiruddin took her to the studio of the famous portrait photographer, C. Guha, he was very surprised as that was the first time any Muslim lady stepped into his studio to be photographed.

The initial phase of Sufia Kamal's struggle was unique since there were very few Muslim women active in the social arena and she found support mostly in a progressive, liberal, male-dominated Muslim circle; this core group was considerably active in Kolkata. Such contacts and exposure made her a littérateur as well as an activist in the mainstream society.

Immediately after the partition of 1947, there was mass exodus of people across the border and Sufia Kamal left Kolkata to settle in Dhaka, the provincial capital of East Pakistan. Just after her arrival, she had no place to go to and took shelter at an orphanage where she was contacted by Leela Roy (1901-1967), a legendary revolutionary and close associate of Subhas Chandra Bose. She came to know about Sufia Kamal from various people but they had never met before. Roy assisted Sufia Kamal to find a house and got her involved with the work of Peace Committee founded by herself to provide succor to the victims of communal riot and maintain the Hindu-Muslim amity. Roy was the first female student of Dhaka University, established in 1921. She founded and edited the journal Jayshree, led a revolutionary organization, and was in jail for ten years. She realized that as someone from Hindu community, it will be difficult for her to stay and work in East Pakistan, so when Sufia Kamal arrived in Dhaka, Roy immediately knew on whom she could rely to carry forward the struggle for emancipation.

Pakistan came into being with the overwhelming support of Bengali Muslims. The communal conflict fueled the rise of two-nation theory whereby Muslims of Pakistan were identified as one nation blurring their distinct national cultural identities. This inherent contradiction of the state flared up very soon and on 21 February, 1952 students came out in protest against declaring Urdu as the only state language of Pakistan. Sufia Kamal took active part in the language movement and was at the forefront of many protest demonstrations. Ever since the early days of Pakistan, Sufia Kamal continued to be at the forefront of almost all the major protest movements and over time, the short and frail lady turned into the tallest and the boldest woman in the movement.

Meanwhile, Mohammad Nasiruddin shifted Shawagat to Dhaka. He also continued the publication of Begum, the first weekly for women, which was initially edited by Sufia Kamal, in Dhaka. Noorjahan Begum took charge of editing while Sufia Kamal remained a close associate. She gradually became more involved with various kinds of social activities. In the early 1950s, the annual literary conferences provided major platform for liberal people to come together and Sufia Kamal played an active role in organizing such conferences in Cumilla, Chattagram, and Dhaka. She founded in 1956 Kanchi-Kancher Ashor, an organization for children's cultural and educational development. This later on turned out to be the largest children’s organization in the country. In 1961, during the birth centenary of Rabindranath Tagore, the government tried to scuttle the celebration as they considered Tagore ideologically alien to Pakistan. This was resisted by the Bengali nationalist forces and they formed a National Committee to celebrate the centenary with Sufia Kamal at the helm. She also founded a cultural organization Chhayanaut, which has gradually become the center for upholding Bengali culture. She traveled all over the country to build up the children's organization, attend cultural celebrations or take part in other activities. In 1969, she founded Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, which is now the largest women’s organization in the country, with thousands of volunteers working under its umbrella. She remained its President till her death and inspired women all over the country to come forward to uphold their rights.

Sufia Kamal also showed her bravery during times of crisis. Whenever the authority imposed any black law curtailing civil liberty, she was at the forefront of the protest. Once General Ayub Khan, the military ruler of Pakistan, at a meeting with social elites of Dhaka, commented that ordinary people are like beasts and as such, are not fit to be given franchise. Sufia Kamal at once stood up and remarked, “If the people are beasts then as the President of the Republic, you are the king of the beasts.”

After the emergence of Bangladesh, Sufia Kamal continued her great multi-dimensional work and secured for herself a unique place in society. She did not belong to any political party, nor did she adhere to a particular organized philosophy. She once mentioned that she obeyed the dictum of consciousness. With immense love for people, especially for the downtrodden women, she became a solace for people from all walks of life. Her voice was always one that upheld human dignity and built a liberal society where everybody including women could have equal opportunity. She always remained a strong secularist upholding the right of every religion, protesting against fundamentalism of every kind.

She with her conviction and role of an activist drew the wrath of Islamic fundamentalist forces from time to time. More than once, they termed her Murtad, the betrayer of faith. She herself was a religious person but her religion was imbued with deep humanism, it was a religion of tolerance in the best Sufi tradition of Bengal, against the religion of hatred and intolerance of the fundamentalists. She was a great champion of national identity. She always upheld the syncretistic nature of Bengali culture where Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic and Western influence intermingled to create a new flowering. She was a great champion of women's causes; she firmly believed that women's rights are basically human rights. She was a true internationalist. She traveled and met many people from different countries and everywhere she made a lasting impression. She never allowed her nationalism to be cut off from the great achievements of humanity.

Today, both nationally and internationally, we witness retrogressive developments. The end of the cold war did not usher in a world of peace and disarmament. Rather, we see further deterioration of international norms and proliferation of violence. Nationally, the struggle to establish a secular liberal society has been thwarted time and again by the resurgence of militant Islam. The Wahhabi variant of Islam, with funds and support from outside, made inroads into the society, generating hatred and violence. In spite of the difficulties and complexities, the ideas embodied by Sufia Kamal have not lost any of its significance. Religion which breeds intolerance and disrespect ultimately ruin the entire social polity. A liberal society with the free flow of ideas and equal opportunity for all, especially for the women is an absolute necessity in order to march towards progress. Everything that Sufia Kamal stood by and worked for has become more significant today. Most importantly, her intense love for people irrespective of religion, nationality, class, caste, and creed is the ideology that can salvage us from the deep crisis we all are facing.

Sufia Kamal was Muslim by religion, Bengali by culture, and humanist by nature. She could blend all these components into a harmony with her great love for all people everywhere. Such is the legacy that she has left for us.

At the end we can quote from one of her poems written in 1989:

Dawn will certainly follow the turbulent night,
United effort will topple the rock for sure
Bridging the gap between nations, tribes, communities.
Tearing apart the religious hypocrisy Human conscience will prevail.
Awake, Adam and Eve! Defeat the evil, spread the message of peace across the earth!


Mofidul Hoque is a co-founder and one of eight Trustees of the Liberation War Museum. He is a writer, researcher and publisher based in Dhaka. His books include Deshbagh, Sampradayikata Ebong Sampreetir Sadhana (University Press Limited, 2012).