Remembering a trailblazer for women's empowerment
When many prominent leaders of Awami League were imprisoned, including Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, by the West Pakistani regime after the East Bengal Legislative Election of 1954 (where Awami-backed United Front won almost half of the seats—143 out of 309), a courageous woman defied section-144 and took out a protest march against this injustice for which she was arrested and jailed for a month. This pioneering female political leader was Professor Begum Budrunnesa Ahmad.
She was one of those few women who contested the 1954 elections and achieved victory, creating ripples in the overly male-dominated political culture of the then Pakistan regime. She was elected thrice as a Member of Parliament and became one of the first female ministers of independent Bangladesh. Besides having a very eventful political career, she was also a renowned academician and women's rights activist. Today is this great personality's 44th death anniversary.
In 1952, when women were hardly allowed to leave the house without a male companion, Begum Budrunnesa joined the demonstration in Sylhet city for the demand to declare Bengali as the state language of Pakistan. Her active role in organising the language movement in Sylhet did not go unnoticed by the politically conscious citizens. Being encouraged by all quarters, she met Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy and Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. With their blessings and support, she participated in the East Bengal Legislative Election of 1954 under the banner of the United Front. Begum Budrunnesa openly contested in the election from Kushtia, Jessore, Khulna and Faridpur constituencies and defeated her Muslim League opponent by a wide margin.
In 1960, Budrunnesa started her teaching career at Muslim Girls' High School. Alongside her teaching career and political activities, she completed her Master of Education degree from the University of Dhaka in 1961. She also completed another Master's course in political science from the University of Dhaka in 1963. Thus, unlike Bangladeshi political leaders today, Budrunnesa continued her higher education alongside her political and social engagements. In 1960, she joined as Vice Principal at Lalmatia Mohila College, where she served for 13 years till her retirement in 1973 as its Principal and as a founder member of its governing body.
Budrunnesa's political activism reached new heights when Awami League (AL), led by Bangabandhu, began its Six-Point Movement in 1966. To accelerate the movement and ensure the participation of women, Begum Budrunnesa founded the women's wing of AL upon direction from Bangabandhu and became its founder chairperson. In the 1970's general election, Begum Budrunnesa was elected as MP under Awami League's ticket. This time, Pakistan's military regime led by General Yahya Khan refused to hand over the government to Bengalis, which ultimately culminated in the Liberation War of 1971.
During the war, she worked with Sarada Seva Sangha and Ramakrishna Mission to distribute essential food and medicine among the refugees. She frequently visited different refugee camps and submitted reports to Tajuddin Ahmed, Prime Minister of the Bangladesh Government in exile. After liberation, Budrunnesa established the Bangladesh Women's Rehabilitation and Welfare Centre to shelter, train and help rehabilitate women affected by the war and Birangonas in particular. In 1973, she was re-elected as MP and served as the State Minister for Women, Education, Sports and Cultural Affairs.
Begum Budrunnesa died of cancer on May 25, 1974, at the age of only 50. After her demise, Sheikh Mujib called her “one of the most heroic personalities of Bangladesh's struggle for liberation” and changed the name of Bakshibazar Government Women's College to Begum Budrunnesa Government Women's College. She was awarded the Independence Day Award posthumously in 1999.
During her short life, Begum Budrunnesa Ahmad contributed tremendously to the political, social and cultural emancipation of Bangladeshi men and women. However, it is unfortunate that she did not have enough time in this world to write any personal account or book for the next generation. Many of her efforts have already been forgotten in the midst of the country's partisan politics. It is our duty to preserve the contributions of this historically significant personality whose brief life was so closely entwined with the history of our nation's liberation.
Md Shahnawaz Khan Chandan is a feature writer for Star Weekend magazine, The Daily Star.
This is an abridged version of an article published in the Star Weekend in November 2017.