Dr. Yasmeen Haque:
A Voice of Strength
Yasmeen Haque is a researcher, educator, human rights activist, philanthropist, a mother and a wife. This issues cover story takes us to a conversation with a women of great character and intellect, who is not afraid to share her views.
These days, despite the ever-increasing number of educational institutes, the likes of the iconic educators of old can be hard to find. With the teaching profession being of the noblest, this is perhaps an issue that bears thought. In shaping this nation, nurturing its talents, giving it direction, our educators are the ones that bear the brunt of the responsibility. As such, when things go awry in our societies, naturally it is our educators that we look towards first, in search of answers. Yet, whatever the questions might be, whatever unrest our societies face, we hold our educators responsible first for being detached from it themselves, and second for keeping those entrusted to their care insulated from it as much as possible.
Our societies are changing. The issue of gender equality is today not just a much talked about ideal, but a social goal that is close to being achieved in many walks of our lives. I have known of Yasmeen Haque for a while, but perhaps not as well as I would have liked. When my recent trip to Sylhet afforded me an opportunity to meet her in person, I was excited.
Yasmeen Haque is the Dean of the Life Science Department, Head of the Physics Department, Provost of the Shohid Janoni Jahanara Imam Hall, and a researcher at Shahjalal University of Science and Technology. An active human rights activist and philanthropist, her contributions towards society are many and varied. Her research on Radio frequency plasma deposited polymers that enhance cell growth had secured for her team an international patent.
I asked Yasmeen Haque what feminism means to her. Are you a feminist, I asked.
“I don't think I am a feminist. I like to think of myself as an activist.” She tells me that she her work is geared more towards promoting human rights overall, rather than addressing gender issues. Of course there is no denying the gender imbalance that has prevailed in all parts of the world, depriving women of basic rights and opportunities. The principles of the feminist movement are of course based on this injustice, and of course there is no denying that are wrongs to be righted. But she tells me that for her, the gender rights issue is a part of a greater whole, the human rights issue, and it this greater issue that she is concerned with the most.
“I don't have any complaints being a women. I am comfortable in my own skin. I am very focused, straightforward and vocal about my beliefs, and I think this is important in securing my rights not just as a woman, but as a human being. I believe once women finds their voice, a voice to protest wrongs, a voice to claim their rights, half the gender rights battle will have been won.”
“In all walks of life, on my own campus, I see women who lack the confidence, the courage to speak up against the wrongs being committed against them. In recent times, the issue of eve teasing, and the number of extremely regrettable incidents surrounding it, has received widespread media coverage. I belief for women, this lack of courage, this lack of confidence to raise their voice, is a major part of the problem.”
|Dr. Yasmeen Haque leads her students on a nature hike
She tells me about the Karate self-defense course she has started to organize on her campus for women. At first, she couldn't get too many to sign up. But now, she has over 200 enrolled and even more on the waiting list. She believes that this course would not only give her girls the mental and physical stamina to cope with the rigors of their curriculum, but also give them the confidence to find their voice. She strongly feels that the other universities should consider incorporating this programme into their own curriculum, as it would help their girls find this same mental fortitude.
“In a sense, women are much more tolerant than man in many regards. While this is definitely a positive thing, this tolerance can at times take the form of passive acceptance of wrongs and injustices. We need to fight against this passive acceptance. Finding our voice is a key part of establishing our rights, and I will always support any effort that strengthens this voice.”
She considers education to be key part of finding this voice. Yet, even here the passive acceptance of the wills of society play a role in repressing their ambitions. She points towards the trend of girls getting married, bowing down to the wills of her parents and in-laws, and dropping out of their courses.
“SUST, being a science and engineering oriented university, attracts some of the brightest minds of the nation. The girls who have made it this far has already faced many adversities and triumphed. So when some of these girls dropping out due to external pressures, it is not just a personal loss I feel, but it is a loss for the nation.”
In all earnestness, as draconian as it may be, she says the government should consider enacting a law that bars girls from getting married before completing their education to stop this brain drain.
We turn to politics. Is Yasmeen Haque a political person?
She takes some time to think about it. “I am not a political person, but I am a politically conscious person. As I have said before, I am very clear in my beliefs. I strongly believe the damages done this country in 1975 and the following years has dragged this country so far back that even today, 35 years onward, we are still trying to recover from it. My father was briefly involved with the government at that time, and I was able to get a close view of how this country was being run.”
|Dr. Yasmeen Haque with her collegues and her husband Dr. Md. Zafar Iqbal
“It is vitally important for us to know the facts about the origins of this nation and the subsequent years. Every Bangladeshi should know the real history of the War of Independence, without which I don't think it is possible for us have a real sense of ourselves.”
Both her and her husband, Dr. Md. Zafar Iqbal, the renowned intellectual activist and writer, strongly believes that those that live in this country but cannot accept the idea behind it in their hearts and minds, cannot accept the Constitution of '72, cannot be friends of this nation. “Those who do not accept this nation, those who do not appreciate this nation, are better off finding a place for themselves in a nation they can agree with.”
We talk to Dr. Md. Zafar Iqbal. Tell us about Yasmeen Haque the person, the mother and the wife.
Dr. Md. Zafar Iqbal has known Yasmeen Haque for what would seem like a lifetime. They had studied together in Dhaka University, and later in University of Washington, Seattle. Since then, these two individuals, so like-minded and yet so different, have made a very happy life together.
|Dr. Yasmeen Haque and Dr. Md. Zafar Iqbal
“Yasmeen has always been the naturally gifted of the two of us. Throughout our academic careers, it has always been her with the superlative grades. But she has been a wonderful mother, and the sacrifices she has made in her career has meant that I haven't have to make the same sacrifices. Her priority has always been this family. She has always put what is best for this family before what is best for her. When we joined Shajalal University of Science and Technology, I joined as a Professor and she as Assistant Professor. Even though she was more than qualified to take on the role of a Professor herself, she chose to prioritize spending time with her family rather can seeking achievements for her career.”
“Between all her boundless energy, her selfless dedication to her family, and her intellect, she is simply a better person than I am. Once one of our students died in a train accident. While all of us were busy offering our sympathies and condolences, she actually went to the distressed family's home, and stood next them in such a bleak hour. It was more than just a shallow show of sympathy, she was actually there for them. That is perhaps more than any of us would have done in that situation.”
He says that if he was to pick out a flaw in Yasmeen Haque, the obvious one would be that she is not always the most diplomatic, neither does she want to be. Her enthusiasm and energy is also hard to keep up with at times.
“Yet these apparent imperfections endear her to all around her. All of my friends I bring back home invariably tend to become friendlier with her. There is a gravity about her that is hard to escape.”
For whatever reasons, our communities have been facing a dearth of true icons. The likes of Jahanara Imam and Begum Sufia Kamal, the visionary leaders of old, have never been truly replaced. But as always, my glass remains half-full, I remain convinced that the advent today's icons is only a matter of time. And when I see someone like Yasmeen Haque, when I hear her talk about her visions and ideals, when I feel her boundless energy, her eternal optimism, I feel my conviction growing in strength with a gusto.
Photos by Dr. Md. Zafar Iqbal
Here's what some ex-students and current colleagues have to say about Yasmeen Haque.
Department of Anthropology,
Shahjalal University of Science and Technology And Assistant Provost Proposed Jahanara Imam Ladies Hal Shahjalal University of Science and Technology Sylhet.
”She is always so full of energy. Even at a younger age, it is difficult for me to keep up with her. Her contributions towards all our lives has been immense, yet she never expects any in return. Her complete honesty and sincerity is an ideal for all of us to follow.”
Shahidul Islam Sumon
Lecturer, Department of
Shahjalal University of Science and Technology
”I could talk to her about my problems like I would with my mother. She was always extremely supportive and understanding”
Abu Awal Md. Shoeb
"Anybody blessed with a wife like Yasmeen Haque could become a Zafar Iqbal!".
(R) thedailystar.net 2009