A trailblazer for women in politics: Remembering Noor Jehan Murshid
Few Muslim women received an education and fewer still entered regional or national politics when Noor Jehan was born in the village of Taranagar in the District of Murshidabad on May 22, 1925. The fourth of seven daughters and two sons, her arrival may have disappointed her father, Ayub Hossein Beg, a daroga at Lalgola Police Station. Her paternal grandfather, popularly known as Padri Kabatullah Biswas, because of his honesty and integrity as well as his ability to debate successfully with the European padris, softened the blow: "Look, look Ayub, she did not want to come to this world. She was slapped and sent to us! Look at the royal birthmark on her face! She will achieve glory!"
Whether Ayub Hossein Beg believed that prediction or not, he decided to give his daughters an education and delay their marriages. Sons and daughters were equally important to him, he announced. But he submitted to social and family pressures: by the time he left this world in 1946, four of his daughters were already married. Noor had resisted. She received an education, initially at home, and was then sent to Barisal to her uncle, Hosamuddin Beg, who was a professor of Arabic and Persian at Broja Mohan College. She attended the school section of the college from Grades 6 to 8 along with her cousin Amena, who became her life-long friend. For her secondary education, she went to Calcutta Victoria Institution, which was steeped in the ethos of the eclectic Brahmo Samaj. She went to Lady Brabourne College for a while and to Calcutta University to study History. Later, after marriage, when she accompanied her husband to Cambridge Mass., USA, she studied politics and enrolled for a Masters in Politics, leading to a PhD at Boston University. Along the way, she earned degrees in law and education.
Her interest in politics evolved against the background of the anti-colonial struggle in Bengal. She grew up with tales of the Faraizi movement against oppressive agrarian taxes, and of indigo rebellions (neel bidroho) to protect the soil for the production of food crops. She witnessed the youth resistance to colonial rule, presented by the colonisers as a terrorist movement, but glorified in the popular psyche through bardic tales of Khudiram, immortalised in the song Khudiramer Phanshi. She lived through the Bengal famine of 1943, believed to have wiped out half the population of Bengal, and the communal riots of 1946, a culmination of the politics of hate promoted by the colonial state. She met Abul Hashem of the Muslim League left, Husseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, the Chief Minister of Bengal, and Gandhiji during his fast unto death to put pressure on Hindus and Muslims to stop the killings. These were momentous occasions.
In 1942, while at Lady Brabourne College, she led her class out in protest, raising slogans to show solidarity with the Quit India Movement. While at university, she joined a youth reading attracted to the left movement and socialist ideas. It was called gharoa. Among her like-minded colleagues and friends were Rokeya Rahman Kabeer, Hazera Mahmood, and Shahidullah Kaiser. They took inspiration from Rabindranath Tagore and visualised a new day with new possibilities if time is not wasted: Ore nuton juger bhore dishne shomoy katiye britha shomoy bichar kore.
She found most of these friends again in independent Pakistan. As they grew into adulthood, their ideologies veered more to the centre and became less radical. However, each was acutely aware of their roles in shaping their new country and resisting all forms of oppression. Central to the fulfilment of this dream was to organise society, develop the intellect, and build human capital. Noor began to do just that wherever she went. She was the founder/president of Azimpur Ladies Club, and later of Mahila Samiti, and a founder/member of BIRDEM as well.
Her entry into Pakistani politics opened up many doors to organisational work. Her father-in-law, Maulvi Wakil Ali Ahmed Khan, MLA of the Bengal Legislative Assembly, introduced her to the Dacca political circle and she joined the United Front, participating in the 1954 East Pakistan elections through direct elections to open general seats (not reserved women's seats). She and Mrs Meherunnessa were the only two women who were thus directly elected. She became Parliamentary Secretary, working with Dhiren Datta.
The abrogation of the 1956 Constitution, the 1958 coup that led to the formation of a military government, and the end of democratic politics put a stop to the political machinations for domination and control of East Bengal for a while and also curtailed social development activities. The left went underground, the Awami League leadership was arrested, and popular political participation was at a standstill. Noor resumed her teaching career. It was a time to focus on personal development and on the family. A Fellowship at Harvard, offered to her husband, provided a perfect opportunity to do just that.
She returned fortified with greater knowledge about political participation, the importance of good governance and the theoretical means of achieving that. The Awami League was in disarray due to arrests and incarcerations. It was being held together by a few key figures, including Amena Begum. Noor began to work on organising the Mahila Awami League. Between 1966 and 1971, she was the Vice-President of the Women's Front of the Awami League. The first national elections of Pakistan in 1970 gave victory to the Awami League, but West Pakistan refused to accept the verdict and delayed the transfer of power while preparing for a final solution through genocide.
The ferocity of Operation Searchlight caught Noor off guard. She and her husband, Sarwar Murshid, were both wanted for treason. Both had supported Mujib's 1966 Six Point Demand for Autonomy. Sarwar was an advisor to Bangabandhu and a member of the Round Table Conference in negotiations with Bhutto and the Pakistan military. He had been staying elsewhere for a few days, and came home late. That tortuous, endless night sat heavily on Noor. She felt guilty for having put her family in harm's way.
In the months as refugees in India, her family came to be engaged in different capacities to serve the struggle for independence. Noor served as the roaming ambassador of the First Government of Bangladesh (in exile), alongside Fani Bhushan Majumdar and Taheruddin Thakur, seeking the recognition of Bangladesh from the Indian leadership, and support for the freedom fighters and refugees thronging India. It was estimated that ten million people were displaced and three million were killed by Pakistan.
In newly independent Bangladesh, Noor was made State Minister for Social Welfare and Family Planning from 1972-74. She had raised an awkward question in Parliament about how the declaration of independence was conveyed on March 25, 1971—saying that given the dangerous developments, it was handled with utmost secrecy, but when sections of the Bengal regiment revolted and captured Chittagong Radio Station, such a declaration was admitted to and announced. However, Noor's further development within the party ended there. She had to accompany her husband, who had been made an ambassador to Poland, Hungary, and Romania.
However, she remained active intellectually in her quest for human rights, women's rights and good governance, through her jourmal, Ekal, later renamed Edesh Ekal. She also became a member of the Presidium of Gono Forum. She became concerned with how to build a violence-free society, how to engage the youth creatively, and how to enable women to be strong and dedicated politicians. She had observed in 1994: "We never learnt politics through training programmes. We learnt through our political activities within the party and as Members of Parliament. It would have been helpful if we could organise a brief training period for effective participation of women in politics, focusing on areas like—nature of politics, political parties, parliamentary procedure, rules of debate."
Noor identified the problems women face in politics: the need for social and family support and money, and the fact that they are not treated as equal to their male colleagues. They are "outnumbered, outflanked and often elbowed out of their legitimate sphere" by their male colleagues. She argued that for women, it "has become particularly difficult to enter politics because of its criminalisation". She concluded that women would benefit immensely from a thoughtful and comprehensive programme of training, research, advocacy, and networking. These observations still remain valid in 2021, although women continue to make strides and achieve greater heights.
Noor would have been 96 years old today. Her goal oriented-approach, her optimism and her activism in search of an enlightened society continue to resonate even now.
Tazeen M Murshid, D.Phil. Oxon. is a writer, historian and social scientist. Formerly Professor in History and International Politics, Universite Libre de Bruxelles; SOAS, London; IHESS, Paris; BRAC University, Dhaka; Fellow Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin; Visiting Scholar, Columbia University, New York. Email: [email protected].