Noor Jehan Murshid, or a power woman | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, September 01, 2012 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, September 01, 2012

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Noor Jehan Murshid, or a power woman


Noor Jehan, born as Noor Jehan Beg in Taranagar, Murshidabad, on 22 May 1925, rose to become a political figure committed to the empowerment of women. She was an educationist, a social reformer, a media personality and deeply liberal and secular in her world view. This owes to the influence of the liberal tradition of the Bengal Renaissance reflected in her home environment, her schooling and a consequent confidence that she had a social and a political role to play in the years to come.
The fourth of seven daughters of Janab Ayub Hussain Beg and Bibi Khatimunnessa, she received her early schooling at home under the strict guidance of her father, chief of police, daroga, in Lalgola, Murshidabad, under the British Police Service. For her further schooling, her father defied social pressure to marry off his daughter at a young age, and instead sent her to Barisal to his brother Hosamuddin Beg, who was Principal of Broja Mohan College. She attended the school section of the college for two years and went on to finish her secondary education with a first division at Victoria Institution, Calcutta. Despite wanting to study medicine, she was enticed into studying history and politics at the same institution for her undergraduate degree. The discipline and culture of this institution steeped in the ideals of the Brahmo Samaj were to have a profound impact on the mentality of Noor, as she used to be called at the time. Her ideological moorings were eclectic, her style disciplined, but her manner was easygoing, always ready with a smile.
Subsequently, she obtained her Master's degree in history from Calcutta University, where she was taught Islamic History by Professor Habibullah, already renowned as a gold medalist in academic distinction. Alongside her studies, she became superintendent of Munnujan Hostel, which provided accommodation for female students. Simultaneously, she began to work as a broadcaster for All India Radio. Notably, she was the first Muslim woman to work for this establishment.
During these years, she was influenced by the Swadeshi Movement, the Quit India Movement and deeply moved by Gandhi's fast unto death, aimed to stop the Great Calcutta Killings of 1946 that was paralysing Bengal. She accompanied Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy to Sealdah Station to persuade 'bapuji' to give up the fast, out of concern for his failing health. The encounter was a moving and life-changing experience for her. She was to take up many causes in her life subsequently.
The partition of the sub-continent in 1947 forced her to abandon her family home in Murshidabad and leave her work in Calcutta and move to Dhaka in East Bengal. Here she lived with her younger sister Latifa, initially under the guardianship of her elder sister Jasi and brother-in-law Eshahaq, until her mother and remaining sisters also emigrated through exchange of population and land schemes. Latifa married Quazi Nazmul Huq and took the name of Quazi Latifa Huq and eventually became a poet who wrote for children. By this time, Noor Jehan had already met and married Khan Sarwar Murshid, a young lecturer of the Department of English at Dhaka University, in 1948.
In East Pakistan, Noor Jehan Murshid continued to work for the media, broadcasting for Radio Pakistan and rising to become a programme producer that brought her into contact with figures such as Shamsul Huda, Laila Arjumand Banu, Laila Samad and Kamal Lohani. The demands of a growing young family persuaded her to change her career path and focus on teaching. She obtained a teaching qualification from the Institution of Education at Dhaka University. She became Principal of Syedunnesa Girls' High School in Barisal, and later taught at various institutions in Dhaka, such as Quamrunnessa School, Viquarunnesa Noon School and Holy Cross College.
Her penchant for politics continued in the fifties and until the seventies. With the blessing of her father-in-law Ali Ahmed Khan, she entered politics in East Bengal shortly after her marriage, and was one of two women to be directly elected to the Provincial Legislative Assembly of East Bengal in 1954 on a United Front ticket. With the onslaught of Martial Law under the dictatorship of Field Marshal Ayub Khan in 1958, democratic politics was in retreat in East Pakistan. Many political stalwarts, including Bangabandhu, were imprisoned. In that vacuum, she took the task of organising the women's wing of the Awami League. And during the movement for autonomy in 1969, she was at the forefront leading women in demonstrations, demanding the release of political prisoners. In the first ever national parliamentary elections of Pakistan held in 1970, she had a resounding victory from her constituency in Dhaka.
The armed crackdown by the Punjabi dominated military in East Pakistan on 25 March 1971 aimed to crush Bengali aspirations as a final solution to power sharing. Noor was forced to flee with her family and take refuge in India. A staunch believer in the rights of Bengalis, she addressed a joint session of the two houses of the Indian parliament, the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha in 1971 as an accredited deputy of the Mujibnagar Government in exile. She sought the recognition of Bangladesh from the Indian government, essentially to raise support for the War of Liberation. That prompted the Pakistan military junta to sentence her to 14 years rigorous imprisonment in absentia. In independent Bangladesh, she was appointed in 1972 as state minister for health and social welfare in the cabinet of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. She was elected to the country's first parliament in 1973. She lost heart in politics after the terrible tragedies of 1975: the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the jail killings of four key cabinet ministers, including Tajuddin Ahmed, prime minister of Bangladesh in exile, and Syed Nazrul Islam, former acting president of Bangladesh, in exile.
She gradually withdrew from politics, initially focusing on the needs of the family, and then joining civil society initiatives such as Nagorik Udyog to strengthen democracy, encourage accountability, and campaign against violence in society and for a sane society or shushil samaj. She increasingly began to concentrate her attention on analysing the social and political problems that faced Bangladesh in general and the condition of women in particular.
No wonder then that in 1985, she brought out a Bangla periodical called Ekal and became its editor. Later renamed Edesh Ekal, it focused not just on the problems of women, but also explored various social and political issues that confronted Bangladesh, including violence, representation, corruption and democratic deficit. Among her notable contributions to the journal were a series of interviews of personalities like the writer Nirad Choudhury, once the personal secretary of A. K. Fazlul Huq of the Krishak Proja Party, poet Shamsur Rahman and painter Quamrul Hassan, who incidentally had illustrated the cover page of her journal. The journal folded in 1991, due in part to financial constraints and in part to weariness that was multiplied by the hardship faced by the middle classes after the big floods of 1988, wrote Noor.
There are several other dimensions to the life of Noor Jehan Murshid. She was determined and meticulous in all her endeavors. Her interest in politics was not simply at the activist level. She also studied it at the academic level. She studied law in the evenings at Dhaka University as was the practice among politicians, and in the sixties, she undertook post graduate studies in politics at Boston University in order to be a better informed politician. She published academic articles in Jigyasha and in New Values --- on politics, on symbolism, on Plato, and on sane society. She also had a knack for creative and satirical writing. Thus, she wrote short stories on various social themes, and even poetry to some extent, which were sporadically published in the popular press.
Noor had a long career in political and social work. She was the first President of the Bangladesh Mahila Samity, the founder President of Azimpur Ladies Club, the founder of Agrani Balika Bidyalay, a founder member of Birdem Diabetic Clinic, a sponsor of Ain-o-Shalish Kendra at its infancy, the founder of Sreyoshi, a club for the wives of Dhaka University teachers. Notably, the request of the ladies to seal one of the entrances to the university compound and its subsequent accomplishment saved the life of Noor and her family that fatal night in March 1971.
The first Bengali Muslim woman to act on stage in East Pakistan in 1949, when women came out in rickshaws only inside screens of cloth tied around the vehicles, Noor crossed another social barrier, albeit with the full support of her family and colleagues. She was a pioneer in opening up the doors to public performance for future generations of genteel young women.
Colleagues and friends reminisce about her with much fondness and regard. Referring to her participation in the 1969 movement, Mrs Mazharul Islam noted, 'Nurjahan Apa called us and we went out of the house, no questions asked'; another said, 'She was a role model, we used to observe her from the window as she went to work, all in white'; yet another, 'we referred to her as the first lady, she was so smart'. 'Muslim young men would make it a point to listen to her broadcast, wondering if she would ever take notice of them', remarked Prof Raychaudhuri. She was indeed a path breaker for her generation, smoothing the road for the next.
Noor Jehan considered culture, music and literary achievements to be marks of distinction and honour. In this, she was well matched by the family culture into which she had married. Her husband, also eclectic in his cultural outlook, was a patron of the arts and of literature, Bengali and English. Their common position on the place of Tagore in the heritage of Bangladesh and their social consciousness combined with their commitment to principles of equality, justice and democracy attracted around them a ring of fellow enthusiasts and idealists who were all in the quest for a sane society. Among them were, to name a few, Prof Rehman Sobhan, Prof Nurul Islam, the late Prof Muzaffar Ahmed Chowdhury, Dr Kamal Hossain, the late Prof Rokeya Rahman Kabeer, and Prof Musharraf Hossain. They belong to a generation of nation builders and visionaries who tried to give shape to their society and create a fertile ground where their children and grandchildren could flourish and thrive socially and intellectually.
The much loved Noor passed away on the 1 September 2003 in Dhaka of natural causes.

Tazeen M. Murshid, daughter of Noor Jehan and Khan Sarwar Murshid, is an academic, author and literary critic. E-mail: tazeenmurshid@yahoo.co.uk.

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