Sufia Kamal, (June 20, 1911–November 20, 1999), lived a long and eventful life. She not only witnessed great cataclysms in history but played a major role in empowering women in an oppressive society.
The life of little Sufia, aged seven months could have been very different, especially after her father, devoted to Sufism, left home in search of divine enlightenment and was never to be seen again. But fate had other plans for the future poet, champion of women's rights, pioneering cultural icon in the Bengali nationalist movement and Liberation War activist.
Sufia's young mother had little option but to take her two little children to live at her parents' home in the Shaistabad estate in Barisal. But although the extended family lived in a palatial home with a rich library, studying anything other than the holy scriptures was considered taboo for girls.
Sufia was tutored to read and write Bengali by her mother, even though Urdu was spoken in the household. This opened up a whole new world for her and she became an avid reader of literary journals such as Tagore's Probashi with write-ups by Begum Rokeya, Tahera Banu and more. Her life took another turn when at 12 she was married off to her cousin Syed Nehal Hossain, a budding writer.
Soon after, Sufia settled down in Barisal. The bustling town gave her a chance to finally emerge from seclusion. She busied herself in social work. She even took part in the non-cooperation movement of Mahatma Gandhi and began to spin cloth with a charka as a mark of protest against the British rulers. Inspired by her husband, she authored a short story “Sainik Badhu” and a few poems which were published in a literary journal. But these small steps at emancipation attracted the ire of her relatives as they went against the norms of Muslim aristocracy at the time.
Despite the challenges, Sufia came in contact with literary giants, social reformists and educationists including Rabindranath Tagore, Kazi Nazrul Islam, and Mohammad Nasiruddin, (editor of Saowgat), who was not only keen about politics but also about women's emancipation. She began to write for Saowgat.
She briefly came in contact with Rokeya Sakhawat's social organisation that stood for women's freedom. Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain had made great contributions to society by devoting her life to making education accessible for Muslim girls. Slowly the societal perception of women started changing in urban areas.
But just as Sufia was starting her work as a writer and social activist, her life took yet another turn. Her husband died of tuberculosis in 1932 and shortly afterwards a flood destroyed her grandparents' palatial estate. A widow at 21 with a six-year-old daughter, Sufia Kamal was compelled to move to Calcutta (now Kolkata).
With no formal education, her back to the wall, Sufia Kamal took a bold decision. She became a school teacher at the Calcutta Corporation on a meagre salary of 50 rupees. But within a year, conservative society was up in arms against her. Even her family publicly denounced her close association with literary personalities. But such barriers only pushed her to become a crusader against such imbalances in society. Her poetry reflected both her struggles and her convictions.
In 1937, her first book, Keyar Kanta (The Thorn of Flowers), a collection of short stories, was published. The following year, her poetry collection, Sanjer Maya (The Twilight Illusion) was published. In spite of the popularity of the books, depression engulfed her.
At this juncture, she got married to Kamaluddin Khan. He was a liberal and educated young man who became a great supporter of her literary and social pursuits. It was at this time she changed her surname to Kamal.
The 1940s were turbulent times in the history of undivided India and communal riots flared up frequently.
Sufia Kamal worked at a temporary shelter camp set up at Lady Brabourne College during the 1946 riot in Calcutta. In those difficult times, her belief in humanitarian work strengthened, and she became a fierce opponent of societal division along communal lines.
Immediately after Partition in 1947, Sufia Kamal moved to Dhaka, the capital of erstwhile East Pakistan. She lived in an orphanage where she came in touch with legendary revolutionary Leela Roy, a close associate of Indian nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose. Sufia Kamal founded the Peace Committee to rehabilitate victims of communal riots and maintain Hindu-Muslim harmony.
Sufia Kamal took active part in the 1952 Language Movement and was at the forefront of many protest movements. Meanwhile, Mohammad Nasiruddin relocated Saowgat's offices to Dhaka. He continued the publication of Begum, the first weekly magazine for women, where unsurprisingly Sufia Kamal was one of the earliest editors.
Sufia Kamal played an active role in organising the annual literary conferences that provided a major platform for liberals to come together in the 1950s. Kanchi-Kanchar Ashor, an organisation for children's cultural and educational development, was also founded by her. During the birth centenary of Tagore in 1961, the Pakistan government tried to derail the celebrations as they considered Tagore an ideological misfit in Pakistan. Sufia Kamal and her fellow workers resisted and formed the National Committee to conduct the celebrations with her at the helm. She also founded Chhayanaut, a cultural organisation, which gradually became the iconic centre for promoting Bengali culture.
In 1969 she founded Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, which is now the largest women's organisation in Bangladesh. She remained its president till her last days and inspired women all over the country to stand up for their rights.
Sufia Kamal led the way through sheer courage in many other instances. Whenever the authorities imposed any black law curtailing civil liberties, she was at the forefront of the protest. Once General Ayub Khan, the military ruler of Pakistan, remarked at a meeting that laypeople are like beasts and as such, not fit to be given franchise. Sufia Kamal at once stood up and protested, “If the people are beasts then as the President of the Republic, you are the king of the beasts.”
During the Liberation War, she took great risks to help the Freedom Fighters with medicine and money. She did not adhere to any political party's philosophy—her only motivation was her devotion to humanism and a fairer society.
Less than three weeks after the independence of Bangladesh, Sufia Kamal along with Badrunnessa Ahmed, MP of the Awami League, took up cudgels to rehabilitate women war victims of 1971. Together they set up Bangladesh's Central Women's Rehabilitation Centre on January 7, 1972. A deeply concerned Sufia Kamal sought the advice of Mother Teresa on the vital issue of children born to captive women during the war. She stood up for their rights and worked relentlessly for their adoption and rehabilitation.
She continued her work on the other great battle front of women's rights. To her it stood for the liberation of humanity. This gained momentum under her leadership. Gradually, the association gained momentum and spread to the grassroots level. She organised international assistance and legal assistance for women and won the trust of men and women alike.
Her struggle for a society free of disparity, and her ideologies earned her over 50 awards including the Ekushey Padak, Swadhinata Padak and Bangla Academy Padak.
Despite her uncompromising stance on social values, she was seen as a humble and deeply religious person. A frail figure in her later life, she was seldom seen in anything other than a white sari, her head covered and always an expression imbued with intellect and humanism. Although her father had left her side at an early age, she seems to have followed him in Sufi traditions in standing against the wave of hatred and intolerance. Her name—Sufia—seems to be a derivation of the belief that devotion and sincerity of purpose can be an indomitable force for the service of humanity.
Sadya Afreen Mallick is Chief, Culture Initiatives and former Editor, Arts and Entertainment, The Daily Star.