A SON'S TRIBUTE | The Daily Star
12:05 AM, November 01, 2013 / LAST MODIFIED: 03:51 PM, October 31, 2013



Dr Maliha Khatun Dr Maliha Khatun

I was in Beijing serving as Ambassador to China, when I was informed that my mother, Dr Maliha Khatun, was in critical condition, following an eye operation. As is common in such cases, she appeared to be recovering but her condition deteriorated suddenly and she passed away peacefully in a room at Samorita Hospital in Dhaka in the early hours of 24th May, 2002. She was surrounded by her children, brothers, sisters and relatives, leaving behind her children, brothers and sisters.
My mother was one of the few Muslim women who had the opportunity to receive modern education. She got this rare opportunity as her father was a professor of Arabic and Persian at the Presidency College in Calcutta, and more importantly, he permitted her, and her sisters, to leave the confines of “pardah” to go to school and college. She completed her Matriculation, securing a first division from Sakhawat Memorial Girl's School (established in 1911) and was one of the early batches of students of the School.
Her role model was Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, about whom she learned and came to admire during her school days. She endeavoured to emulate Rokeya's academic and social accomplishments. After her marriage, my father extended his support and encouragement, which enabled my mother to continue her relentless pursuit of knowledge. Having obtained study leave, she did her Diploma and Post- Graduation in Education and Masters in Psychology from the University Edinburgh (UK) in 1957. After her return in December that year, she obtained M.A. in Philosophy, followed by M.A. in Bengali from University of Rajshahi. Even with all these degrees and qualifications, my mother still did not feel fulfilled. At the culmination of her Government service, she resolved to obtain a Doctorate degree. The unexpected and tragic death of her elder daughter, Shamima Nargis, in an underground (“tube”) disaster in London on 28th February, 1975, caused her immense mental anguish and deterioration of health. Surmounting many challenges and difficulties through sheer perseverance, will power and hard work over five long years, she finally obtained her Doctorate in Educational Psychology in 1987 from Dhaka University.
Following Begum Rokeya's noble mission, my mother believed that acquiring knowledge to become an “educated” person was not enough. Like Begum Rokeya, she felt the most effective method was to spread the knowledge she had acquired through the print media, as well as boldly speaking out on women's issues in gatherings, meetings and seminars. To put her conviction into practice, my mother established the 'Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Shoronee Samity' that began functioning from her Dhanmondi residence; she was the General Secretary for many years.
As a disciple of Begum Rokeya, my mother devoted her life to social and humanitarian work with emphasis on welfare of the poor, orphans and women. In the early 1950s, as Assistant Inspectress of Schools (Rajshahi Division) she was an active member of All Pakistan Women's Association (APWA), a non-profit, non-political organization to promote economic and social development of the women of Pakistan. It had branches in 56 Districts in East and West Pakistan. After Independence, APWA was re- named as Bangladesh Moliha Samity. Professor Maliha Khatun was the Founder- President of Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Samity that held meetings and discussions at her Dhanmondi residence. Her residence was also the venue of Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Memorial School providing basic education for street children of nearby shanty areas.
Dr Maliha Khatun received many awards, which included the Dewan Abdul Hamid Literary Award, Nazrul National Award, the Sher- e- Bangla National Award, Women Federation for World Peace, in recognition of her literary achievements and social work. In January, 2001, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina conferred the Begum Rokeya Padak to Dr Maliha Khatun (along with Hena Das) for her life-long social service and promoting women empowerment and welfare.
My mother led a frugal life and utilised her savings from her meagere salary to assist many needy relatives, individuals and welfare organisations. She invested her lifelong savings to establish a charitable trust in 2002, called Shamsul Haque – Nargis – Maliha Khatun Trust which provided financial assistance to needy and meritorious students, as well as to orphanages, institutions and NGOs which helped the ultra-poor and vulnerable segments of the society. This Trust continues to carry forward Dr Maliha Khatun's mission after her death.
A prolific writer, she authored forty-one books which were novels, short stories, plays, poetry, travel, as well as several publications for children. She was a columnist and regularly contributed to newspapers and periodicals, where her thrust was on women- children issues and pressing social problems. She was also an extensive traveller inside and outside the country. As Assistant Inspectress of Schools and later, Inspectress of Schools ( Rajshahi Division ) she had to undertake regular 'inspections' of all government girls schools in Rajshahi Division. For remote areas, she had to travel by bus, horse drawn carriages, rickshaws, country boats, even oxen driven carts. After completing her higher studies from the University of Edinburgh (Scotland) she journeyed back to Dhaka by car, in late 1957, with her husband and young son, traversing twelve countries in Europe, West Asia and South Asia; it took more than two months. My father, Professor S.M. Shamsul Haque, who drove the car, along with a Bengali colleague, from Edinburgh to Calcutta, wrote a book about this memorable car journey called, 'Through the Car Window'. My mother brought out a Bengali version of my father's book.
My mother belonged to a group of educationists who were considered as pioneers of Muslim women education during post- Partition era. Although born in Pabna, her parent's ancestral home, she grew up and completed her primary, secondary, college and university education from Calcutta where her father lived and taught at Presidency College. She was one of the early batches of students at the Sakhawat Memorial Girl's School during the 1930s. She went on to complete IA from Bethune College, BA & BT from Calcutta University. It may be mentioned here that Bethune College (established in 1879) was the first women college in India. Akhtar Imam, Pritilata Waddar, Ila Mitra were some of the students of Bethune College.
The Partition in 1947 caused a serious shortage of teachers, at all levels, especially in women education, in the then East Pakistan. It was the college graduates of Lady Brabourne College and Bethune College, coming home from Calcutta that largely assumed charge of the women education system. These pioneers also laid solid and enduring foundation and set high standards, acquired from Bethune and Brabourne Colleges, in the infant women education system of the newly emerged Muslim nation. My mother, after teaching for a few years, was appointed Assistant Inspectress of Schools, Rajshahi Division and subsequently, Inspectress of Schools of same Division based in Rajshahi, where she spent a major portion of her career. Subsequently, she served as Principal, Women's Teacher's Training College, Mymensingh; Deputy Director of Public Instruction ( DDPI) and the first women Principal of Dhaka Teacher's Training College before retiring in 1982.
It seemed then that my mother was always available when I needed her. When I was happy, she shared my happiness. When I was sad, she would lessen that sadness with words of encouragement and hope. She used to say, a difficult task is like a long journey. If one takes the first few steps, the journey will eventually end.
One of the last programmes that my mother participated was at the 90th anniversary of the establishment of Sakhawat Memorial Girls' School , organised by the Sakhawat Memorial School Alumni Association on March, 15 and 16, 2001, just fourteen months prior to her passing away. She was weak with ill-health, unable to walk without assistance but her spirit was as strong as ever. She was determined to attend the event and reconnect with her childhood friends. The 90th anniversary brought together over 200 students, most of them holding important careers, contributing to the development of women and society and inculcating the lofty values and principals of Begum Rokeya. Fourteen delegates came from Kolkata for the celebration, which included former teachers and students who were in the School at different times during the 1950s, as well as present teachers. My mother was one of the fifteen alumni members who were presented with a crest from the association in recognition for their contributions to society.
No matter how much one writes about one's mother it is still not enough to encompass all her virtue - her fathomless love, sacrifice, devotion, patience, will power and courage. The gift that mothers bestow on their children cannot be measured, weighted or counted. It can never be repaid. It prepares them to face life's ever changing scenarios and also its dangers and pitfalls. Mothers have the uncanny gift and instinct to anticipate what lies ahead for their children in the uncertain journey of life and prepare them accordingly. Yet, sadness is mixed with a feeling of insecurity and apprehension at the loss of one's mother. Some have described their mother's passing away as a light house suddenly losing its light, leaving everyone in the confusing dark. That is perhaps the most apt description of the emptiness one experiences when faced with such a devastating loss.

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