Dossier 22: In Memory of Begum Sufia Kamal, the Unrelenting Voice for Democracy, Secularism and Women’s rights in Bangladesh

Publication Author: 
New York Times
January 2000
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• Excerpts from: New York Times, November 28, 1999

Sufia Kamal, Bangladeshi Writer and Women's Rights Advocate, Dies
By Douglas Martin

Sufia Kamal, a Bangladeshi poet, political activist and feminist, died at age 88 on Nov. 20 1999 and was buried [...] with full state honors, the first woman to receive that recognition from Bangladesh. [...] [Thousands] of people paid their respects to Ms. Kamal at her funeral [...] in Dhaka. [...] [Begum Kamal] ... devoted her life to fighting for the rights of women and the poor and against the forces of religious fundamentalism. [...]

She published her first story at 14, and her prose and poems drew favorable notice. Some works were aimed at children. Some were translated into English and Russian. Increasingly, she wrote against religious communalism, fundamentalism and superstitions. She promoted democracy and women's emancipation. "The culture was to keep the women at home, train them in household chores and make them perfect women: docile, ready to please everyone in the family," she said in an interview this year. "There was a strong anti-British movement, and my family also believed that women should stay out of it. "But I had an indomitable nature and I crossed my limits to get a taste of all there was. I was allowed to learn Arabic and a little Persian, but not Bengali. I made it a point to learn Bengali from people working in the house." That became the language she used for her writing.

Though she called herself a romantic poet, her work more and more reflected the struggles to preserve the Bengali language and culture and to fight Pakistani rulers. During Bangladesh's struggle for independence from Pakistan in the early1970s she worked to help women hurt by the war. She also worked with an organization [Nirmul Committee (a committee for demanding trial of all War Criminals of 1971)] to try to bring to justice those Pakistani officials whom the Bangladeshis considered war criminals.

In later life, she made women's rights her top priority and headed Bangladesh's largest women's organization [Bangladesh Mohila Porishad] for any years. She did not see the oppression of women as mainly a class issue. "My own experience as a woman made me sensitive toward the condition of women of all classes," she said. "Be poor or middle-class or upper-class, the violence against women in family, society and in public life was always there. Women were exploited and deprived of opportunities."

In 1993, an Islamic fundamentalist group called for her execution as punishment for her denunciation of the fundamentalists' treatment of women [...].

• Bangladesh newspaper 'The Daily Star' (Dhaka) on January 1, 1996

Following are extracts from her conversation with Mahfuz Anam

The Poet Speaks: An interview with Begum Sufia Kamal

[...] Q. What are your feelings on the occasion of the 25th Victory Day?

A. I could not attend this year's Victory Day celebrations. But I have been told, and I also read in the newspapers that it was a grand celebration. I am very pleased to hear it. Now the young people will get to know a little better about our Liberation War. What happened at that time, and at what cost we gained our independence. Our young people must learn that a country cannot be formed on the basis of religion. That is what Pakistan tried. There are Muslims all over the world - Arab Muslims, Indian Muslims, Indonesian Muslims, Thai Muslims, and Bengali Muslims. Religion is the same for all of us, but we are different nations. Everybody has his or her own religion. A state cannot be built on religion. This our young people must learn, and this was the reason for our war against Pakistan. Muslims of Bengal have always been Muslims, and they lived side by side with Hindus for hundreds of years. There was never any friction or fight between them. So everyone must be allowed to live with their own religion.

Today nobody is exploiting us - not Russians, Japanese, Indians or Pakistanis. Today we Bengalis are fighting against one another and destroying ourselves. It is we who are killing, injuring, abusing and insulting one another. We have become our worst enemies. The present widespread terrorism is doing immense harm. On the 25th anniversary of our Victory, how can I live with the fact that terrorism has engulfed our society completely? Who will save us from this? That is what you all will have to think about.

Q. What would be your message to the nation on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of our independence?

A. We must bring respect and dignity to our country and to our people, and reach the fruits of independence to the masses. We must all work together to build our country. We should not allow ourselves to be misled by a vested group, in the name of religion, and let people exploit our religious sentiments for narrow political ends. Our younger generation must be taught the values of our Liberation War and the ideals for which million gave up their lives.[...].

• On the occasion of the Independence Day this year [1999] Navine Murshed interviewed Begum Sufia Kamal. ... her last interview to the Daily Star (Dhaka)

A Pristine Spirit
Extracts from the conversation

[...] DS: What do you feel towards the present generation in terms of cultural awareness and their attachment to their roots? Do you feel that we have been able to live up to the spirit of 1971?

SK: The present generation has been deliberately kept away from the real spirit of 1971. The whole nation, with the exception of the traitors, Rajakars and Al-Badrs, fought for an exploitation-free, non-communal, egalitarian and above all a democratic society. It was written in the 1972 constitution. But over the years, the autocratic and military rulers have deliberately erased the spirit of liberation from people's minds for a generation without self-esteem and patriotism is easier to subjugate than people with self-respect and idealism.