Our comrade Ayesha Khanam, president of Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, left us on January 2, 2021. Like everyone else, I had been convinced that she would defeat cancer and come back strong. She had always fought a good fight, after all, be it during the 1962 student movement, the mass uprising of 1969, or in 1971, raising awareness across India along with the members of WIDF and forcing the transnational community to acknowledge the oppression and genocide that was underway in then-East Pakistan. She invested her whole life into movements, be it with the Chhatro Union or Mahila Parishad, always standing tall, relentless and indomitable.
Ayesha Khanam was my shero—a fighter, mother, comrade and leader. She was part of the matriclan that I would watch in awe from a distance as a child. They were so powerful, so full of life—a force to reckon with. They made it look like anything was possible to achieve if one would only commit, and I wanted to hold that fire in me. It was an inevitable rite of passage for me to join Mahila Parishad in 1993, when I was only sixteen; I was ushered in by Begum Sufia Kamal, our founding president. I have grown up as a person and an activist over the past 27 years. My love for the organisation met my academic curiosity; I felt an urgency to record everything before it was too late, and I did, in my own small way.
I had the privilege of interviewing Ayesha Khanam for my research. She had read my earlier piece and admonished me for my concern with the deradicalisation of the women's movement, even bringing up the article and the discrepancies between activist and academic narratives in one of our national council meetings. And there I was, face to face with the Ayesha Khanam, the giant of the women's movement on whose shoulder I stood. I told her politely why such an articulation was necessary for our generation, and her engagement was crucial in rethinking my own arguments. We both agreed that "dissidence with love" was the only way to grow, and that both of us should work toward creating such an enabling space. With that hope and promise our conversation continued, until our last meeting.
Ayesha Khanam was an activist first, but she was also a trained social scientist. She may have declined a university teaching position but she sharpened her scholarship throughout her life, and her strategies always reflected her insatiable appetite for reading. She would always remind us that the women's movement has been, and will always be, part of something larger. Like a true Marxist at heart, she would always emphasise the material conditions in which movements thrived and focus less on individuals. She said, "The role of individuals is important, but the process is equally important. Socio-economic and cultural realities contribute to the process, and in that process many individuals come and events take place. So, if we think of women's movement as food, then lots of ingredients and recipes have gone into that food; and there are different schools." This very consciousness had led her to champion major coalitions within the women's movement.
She never wasted a single second worrying about the future of the women's movement. She showed up every day in the office, on the street, and in the forums, even instructing her fellow comrades while she was critically ill, because she did not think that she had the luxury to take a break until her job was done. She once reminisced, "Politically, the 1960s and 1970s were the turning points for us. Many of us were part of the Students Action Committee and witnessed our seniors organising very closely. There was a hunger within society for a progressive women's movement, and East Pakistan Mahila Parishad (later Bangladesh Mahila Parishad) just responded to that call. Sufia Kamal, Nurjahan Murshid, Nilima Ibrahim and all the other progressive women guided us to establish Bangladesh Mahila Parishad regardless of their political positions. Yes, it is true that many of us had a Left lineage, but it was truly an organisation for women's emancipation regardless of their politics." She went on to say, "We envisioned a 'new woman' who would be independent economically and socially, and fight against all forms of oppression." Five decades later, however, that dream has yet to materialise.
The most radical forces within the post-independence women's movement invested their energies in rebuilding the war-torn nation in the 1970s, working closely with the state to secure women's rights as full citizens, placing them in a powerful but ambivalent position. The subsequent autocratic/military regimes saw numerous mass mobilisations targeting the state, a clearly identifiable "enemy" for both civil society and women's organisations. The state had to present itself as promoting "women empowerment" to the UN and donor agencies. Women's organisations had no choice but to reckon with these neoliberal forces and align themselves with UN agencies. Ayesha Khanam became the general secretary of Mahila Parishad in such challenging times, steering the organisation through these transitions. Local needs and the requirements of the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action drove the women's organisations to register as NGOs, and post-Beijing administrative feminism became the way forward. Despite these challenges, Mahila Parishad only allied with donor agencies when they had the liberty to pursue their agenda, and Ayesha Khanam along with her fellow activists managed to retain the voluntary, movement-based character of the organisation. In fifty years, we have won many battles, and lost some as well; but whatever we have achieved has been possible because every member poured their heart out for the cause.
With Ayesha Khanam's demise, many have asked: Can Mahila Parishad recover from this loss? Is the women's movement coming to an end? The answer, of course, is that while Ayesha Khanam is irreplaceable, her spirit will certainly live on. Mahila Parishad anticipated these crises in leadership in the 1990s; I still remember our seminar in the old Liberation War Museum where we discussed the future of the movement. Organisationally, every vice-president and general secretary is trained over the years to step up and fill the void when needed. Politically, she had invested her own time and effort to nurture future generations of activists who will carry the baton forward. When we were in our early twenties, we had demanded for study circles; now we have a full-fledged certification course, engaging like-minded academics and young activists, with hundreds of programmes engaging with school, college and university students across the country. Something is bound to emerge from all this.
Yet I am also keenly aware of the fact that our generation cannot invest as much time as Ayesha Khanam and her generation were and are still capable of. Time is the capital that is fundamental in sustaining such a massive organisation. Ayesha Khanam understood that. She would listen to us carefully in every meeting, and allowed us to work as much as we could. No, I am not yet ready to walk in her shoes; but some of us still hold the fire our predecessors lit, and we will keep walking along, holding their hands.
Personally, I have lost one of my mothers of the matriclan. Our camaraderie has been and will always be thicker than blood. The Left lineage that bound all our grandparents, parents and us together provided an alternative family, enveloping us and shielding us from individual and collective loss. Movements are not only about transforming the outside world—they push us to live up to certain ideals in our personal lives too. My beloved Ayesha khala did that. She offered us a home, enabled us to be our own person. To take part in her last rites along with Urmee, my sister, is the only solace I have right now. I have held her face for the last time, and I wish I could have a last hug and tell her how much I loved her, and that her fight will not go in vain. Rest in power, my comrade!
Seuty Sabur, PhD, teaches anthropology at the Department of Economics and Social Sciences, Brac University.