A BIOGRAPHY OF BEGUM SUFIA KAMAL
Poet, Litterateur, Social Activist, Feminist
(20 June 1911 – 20 November 1999)
Begum Sufia Kamal a poet, litterateur, social activist, feminist, was born on 20 June 1911 in a landowning family of Shayestabad, in Barisal, dedicated her life to advancing the causes of women’s rights and education. She pursued education and utilized it as a tool to improve the lives of women in her community in defiance of the social standards of the time. Her social work and advocacy helped Bangladesh become a nation with a more just and equal society. She was deeply committed to social justice, as evidenced by her poetry, which beautifully expressed the hardships of the human condition. Her commitment to safeguarding Bangladesh’s cultural legacy also brought her widespread acclaim on the national and international levels. People are still inspired and motivated to work toward making the world more equitable and inclusive by Kamal’s legacy.
Life Of “Begum Sufia Kamal” At A Glance
Name: Syeda Sufia Begum
Known For: Poet, litterateur, social activist, and feminist
Born: 20 June 1911
Birthplace: Shayestabad, Backergunge District, Eastern Bengal and Assam (Barisal)
Father: Syed Abdul Bari (lawyer)
Mother: Sabera Begum
▣ Syed Nehal Hossain (m. 1922; died 1932)
▣ Kamaluddin Ahmed (m. 1939; died 1977)
Death: 8 July 1997
Begum Sufia Kamal was born on June 20, 1911, into a wealthy family in Barisal, Bangladesh. Her mother, Sabera Begum, was a well-known social worker, and her father, Syed Abdul Bari, was a renowned attorney. Her paternal family, who were the zamindars of Shilaur in Brahmanbaria, traced their lineage back to Ali, the fourth Caliph of Islam. The life of young Sufia, only seven months old at the time, could have taken a completely different path. This was especially true after her father, who was deeply committed to Sufism, left his job and left their home in search of spiritual enlightenment and never returned back to them. Sufia was brought up by her mother, Sabera Begum, who was the youngest daughter of Nawab Mir Muazzam Hussain, in Shayestabad. Due to limited options, Sufia’s young mother had no choice but to move with her two small children to her parents’ residence in the Shaistabad estate in Barisal. However, despite the family residing in a grand house with an extensive library, it was considered unacceptable for girls to study anything other than religious texts. She traveled to Kolkata alongside her mother in 1918, where she had the opportunity to meet Begum Rokeya. It was in 1925 when Kamal encountered Mahatma Gandhi, an encounter that influenced her to adopt modest attire.
Begum Sufia Kamal’s mother supported her in pursuing her passion for poetry and her early intrinsic interest in Bengali literature. She spent her days writing poems, articles, and columns for numerous local and national journals after she and her husband divorced. Begum Sufia Kamal persisted in pursuing her love of literature and culture despite the social and political difficulties of the day, blossoming into a prolific poet, author, and cultural activist. She became a symbol of women’s empowerment in South Asia thanks to her work, which was far ahead of its time and made a substantial contribution to the campaign for women’s rights.
Education and Career
Sufia Kamal started her schooling at a local maktab, where she studied Arabic. As she became older, she moved to home schooling in accordance with cultural customs there she learned Hindi, English, Urdu, Arabic, Kurdish and Persian from her house tutors. She learned also Bengali from her mother even though Urdu was spoken in the household, Sabera Begum, who also taught her how to write. However, due to prevailing social norms and limited opportunities for women’s education at the time, she was unable to pursue formal education beyond the primary level. Sufia Kamal continued to educate herself through extensive reading and engaging with literary circles. She had a deep appreciation for Bengali literature and poetry, and her self-education allowed her to become an accomplished poet in her own right. She wrote extensively on various social issues, women’s rights, and the struggle for independence in Bangladesh.
Sufia Kamals feminist ideologies were reflected in her literary works from the very beginning of her career. She published her first story titled “Sainik Badhu” (The Soldier Bride) in 1923, which reflected the cause of women’s empowerment which she so passionately believed in and advocated for. Sufia came to be known more as a poet later on, for her instinctive and natural verses, with the publication of her initial poetry book, ‘Sanjher Maya.’ Subsequently, in 1937, she released her anthology of short stories titled ‘Keyar Kanta’ which were praised by legends like Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam. Sufia Kamal assumed the role of the first editor of Begum, a weekly magazine dedicated to women’s issues, in 1947. The magazine was published by Mohammad Nasiruddin. Following the partition of India in October 1947, Kamal relocated to Dhaka, Bangladesh. During a period marked by tensions between Muslims and Hindus, Kamal actively promoted friendship and harmony by participating in the Peace Committee. In 1948, she took on the position of chairperson when the Purbo Pakistan Mohila Committee was established.
She ceaselessly picked up elements from her surroundings and incorporated them in her poems, all the while forming strong and beautiful imagery so effortlessly that her poems were read and loved by a vast reader base, many of whom did not take interest in Bangla literature at all. She regularly wrote for Saogat magazine—and was, in fact, the first Bangali Muslim woman to have her photograph published in the magazine—before eventually becoming the first editor of the women’s weekly magazine, Begum.
Sufia’s activism was not only confined to the fight for women’s rights. She was politically aware through and through, understanding the political reality of her time well and standing against all kinds of state-imposed oppression. She realised that women could not be fully liberated when the nation itself was not. She was a leading activist when it came to Bangali nationalist movements, from leading the Martyrs Day march in February 1952 to the Sanskritik Swadhikar Andolon (Movement for Cultural Autonomy) in 1961.
Despite being recognized as a romantic poet, she actively opposed the authorities of Pakistan. Just years before the Liberation War of 1971, when the six- and 11-points were gaining more and more support from the masses, the female student leaders realised that this was the time to draw more focus on their fight for equal rights. They had already started a signature campaign demanding the bail of political leaders who were in jail. Because of Sufia Kamal’s wide acceptance in all spheres, female leaders from different political groups and professions came under her leadership and formed the Mahila Parishad. Because she was bold and fearless in her expression, even a notorious military dictator like Ayyub Khan couldn’t shake her conviction. When he referred to all the Bangalis as “haiwan” (beasts), it was Sufia, poet and feminist, who stood up to him and called him the “President of Haiwans”.
This spirit was well reflected in her writing. She wrote rigorously against the oppressions of the military regimes which subjected her to direct surveillance of the Pakistan army during the Liberation War. She kept assisting the freedom fighters in secret even while being under surveillance, sending her two daughters to join the fight as well. She realised her obligations to the cause of correcting the narrative of Bangali history and documented the events of the war in her memoir, Ekattorer Diary (1989). A writer through and through, even a war could not stop her pen from documenting the lived experiences of the time.
Even after Bangladesh’s independence, Sufia Kamal was vocal and critical of the government whenever her judgements told her to be. Her inclinations towards leftist ideologies were not unknown, and was reflected in her verse as well, when she wrote:
“Bipul bishshoy prithibir
Joy joy joygaan kaste-haturir!”
(The world is amazed/victory to the sickle and hammer)
Unsurprisingly, she expressed her support for the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War and assumed the role of chairperson for the Pak-Soviet Friendship Society in 1966. Having visited Russia both before and after its liberation, she was deeply impressed by the strength, self-awareness, and dignity displayed by Russian women. As a result, the establishment of Mahila Parishad in 1970 was influenced by a blend of these prevailing political ideologies.
During the final years of her life, she dedicated herself to improving the rights of women. She led the biggest women’s organization in Bangladesh (Mahila Parishad) for a long time. She strongly believed that women in her home country faced discrimination, which she saw as a problem affecting all women, regardless of social class. Kamal, a devoutly religious woman, also spoke out against religious extremism. Her outspoken views led to her being targeted by Harkatul Jihad, an extremist group, who put her name on a list of people to be harmed in 1993.
Sufia Kamal’s first marriage occurred at the age of 11 to her cousin Syed Nehal Hossain, who was studying law at the time. This was a common practice in early 20th-century South Asia. Together, they had a daughter named Amena Kahnar. However, just as Sufia was embarking on her career as a writer and social activist, her life took another dramatic turn. Her husband passed away from tuberculosis in 1932, and shortly thereafter, her grandparents’ magnificent estate was destroyed by a flood. At the young age of 21, widowed and with a six-year-old daughter, Sufia Kamal found herself compelled to relocate to Calcutta (now called Kolkata).
Despite lacking a formal education and facing dire circumstances, Sufia Kamal made a courageous choice. She became a school teacher at the Calcutta Corporation, earning a meager salary of 50 rupees. However, within a year, conservative society vehemently opposed her actions. Even her own family publicly disapproved of her close association with literary figures. Yet, instead of succumbing to these obstacles, she used them as motivation to fight against societal imbalances. Her poetry became a reflection of both her personal struggles and her staedy convictions.
After five years of the death of her first husband, she entered into matrimony with Kamaluddin Khan, a progressive and well-educated young gentleman who enthusiastically backed her endeavors in literature and social activities. It was during this period that she decided to alter her last name to Kamal. In her second marriage with Kamaluddin Khan, she gave birth to two additional daughters named Sultana Kamal and Saida Kamal, as well as two sons named Shahed Kamal and Sazid Kamal. Sufia Kamal’s husband Kamaluddin Ahmad Khan (1907-1977), was both a writer and a translator. He held a prominent position within the Bulbul literary group, which included notable members such as Habibullah Bahar Chowdhury, Shamsunnahar Mahmud, and M Wajed Ali.
In her later years, she dedicated herself primarily to addressing women’s issues and advocating for women’s rights in South Asia. She held the position of leader in Mahila Parishad for an extended period, the largest women’s organization in Bangladesh which was founded by her. She understood that the oppression faced by women in South Asia was not limited to a particular social class, which greatly influenced her activism. Sufia Kamal played a significant role as the inaugural Chairperson of BRAC and played a pivotal role in establishing the first women’s dormitory at Dhaka University, known as Rokeya Hall, named after Begum Rokeya.
During the Liberation War, Sufia Kamal displayed immense courage on multiple occasions. For instance, during a meeting with social elites of Dhaka, Ayub Khan made a derogatory remark, implying that ordinary people were akin to beasts and therefore unfit to have voting rights. In response, Sufia Kamal promptly stood up and retorted, “If the people are beasts, then as the President of the Republic, you are the king of the beasts.”
Furthermore, Zillur Rahman, the regional director of Radio East Pakistan at that time, presented a document to Sufia Kamal for her signature, falsely stating that no massacres occurred in Bangladesh in 1971. When she refused to sign, Rahman threatened her, saying that it could create problems for her and her son-in-law, Kahar Chowdhury. Sufia Kamal fearlessly declared that she valued her principles more than her life, stating, “I would rather die than put my signature on a false statement.”
These experiences demonstrated Sufia Kamal’s firm dedication to her country and her remarkable courage to speak up, even when it endangered her life.
In her final years, Kamal was admitted to the hospital due to illnesses associated with aging. Sufia Kamal, who lived until the age of 88, passed away on November 20th, 1999. Remarkably, she became the inaugural Bengali woman to be honored with a state funeral in Bangladesh. Although she had desired a modest funeral, over 10,000 people paid their tributes to Kamal, as she was granted state honors during her burial ceremony in Dhaka, Bangladesh. This distinction made her the first woman in her nation to be acknowledged in such a significant manner.
Legacy and Recognition
The renowned poet, writer, and activist Kamal dedicated her life to advocating for the rights of women, marginalized groups, and the underprivileged. Alongside her efforts to promote linguistic rights, she was a strong advocate for social justice, women’s rights, and gender equality. Through her poetry and books, she celebrated women’s lives while criticizing patriarchal norms.
As a founding member of the Bangladeshi feminist movement, Sufia Kamal’s departure marked the end of an era. The Sufia Kamal National Public Library, named in her honor, and the other feminist and cultural groups that emerged under her guidance serve as living testaments to her legacy. Her contributions to literature and the struggles of women have inspired generations of poets, writers, and activists in Bangladesh and beyond.
She fought for her country’s independence and played a significant role in establishing Bengali as an official language, even risking her own life in the process. She emerged as a prominent feminist icon in South Asia, fighting for women’s right to education in Bangladesh and achieving success in that endeavor. Without remarkable women like Sufia Kamal, women would not have had the opportunity to pursue education and engage in even the simplest of tasks. She broke barriers in the literary world, gaining widespread recognition and praise for her truly inspiring, beautiful, and meaningful writing. Sufia Kamal’s work and activism played a crucial role in the process of Bangladesh gaining its independence. She fought and advocated tirelessly until her last breath, and her efforts were ultimately rewarded.
On the occasion of Sufia Kamal’s 23rd death anniversary, President M Abdul Hamid and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina issued separate messages, expressing profound respect for the poet’s memory. They prayed for her departed soul to rest in eternal peace, acknowledging her as a pioneer in the democratic, socio-cultural, and women’s liberation movements.
The President emphasized that Sufia Kamal’s ideals and literary works would deeply inspire the new generation to build a society free from discrimination and communal divisions. He commended her as a pioneer of the women’s movement and a fearless fighter against sectarianism and bigotry, noting her lifelong struggle to liberate women from ignorance and superstition. The President also highlighted her involvement in various movements for democracy and human rights, including the language movement, the War of Independence, and the War of Liberation. He mentioned her contribution to the movement for the trial of crimes against humanity committed by the anti-Liberation forces during the War of Liberation.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina conveyed her profound respect for Begum Sufia Kamal, one of the pioneers of progressive, democratic, and women’s emancipation movements in Bangladesh. She described Sufia Kamal’s creativity as unforgettable, spanning a wide range of topics such as the country, nature, democracy, social reform, and women’s liberation. The Prime Minister emphasized Sufia Kamal’s active participation in education and cultural movements, including the Language Movement of 1952, the mass uprising of 1969, the non-cooperation movement, the Liberation War of 1971, and various democratic struggles in Independent Bangladesh. She referred to Sufia Kamal as a true representation of a Bengali woman and a loving mother, who actively and unwaveringly participated in every movement and struggle of the country. The Prime Minister stated that Sufia Kamal’s ideals and examples would continue to inspire Bengali women of all ages, and she highlighted Sufia Kamal’s role in inspiring the pro-liberation forces during a period of distorted history in the country. She expressed hope that the new generations would be imbued with patriotism by reading Sufia Kamal’s literary works and learning about her life.
Google commemorated her 108th birthday on June 20, 2019, by featuring a Google Doodle.
Sufia Kamal was honored with approximately fifty significant accolades, which included the Tamgha-i-Imtiaz (1961), a prominent national award granted by the Pakistani government. However, in 1969, she returned the award as a protest against the oppressive treatment of Bengalis by the government. Her other notable awards encompassed the Bangla Academy Award for Literature (1962), the Ekushey Padak (1976), the Nasiruddin Gold Medal (1977), the Muktadhara Puraskar (1982), the Jatyo Kabita Parishad Award (National Poetry Council Award, (1995), the Women’s Federation for World Peace Crest (1996), the Begum Rokeya Padak (1996), the Deshbandhu CR Das Gold Medal (1996), and the Independence Day Award (1997). Furthermore, she was also a recipient of several international accolades, including the Lenin Centenary Jubilee Medal from the Soviet Union in 1970 and the Czechoslovakia Medal in 1986.
- ☛ Mrittikar Ghran (The Fragrance of Earth)
- ☛ Ekatturer Diary (Diary of ’71)
- ☛ Benibinyas Samay To Ar Nei (No More Time for Braiding Your Hair)
- ☛ Ekale Amader Kal (In This Time, Our Time)
Even though Sufia Kamal strongly believed in certain social values, people viewed her as a modest and highly religious individual. As she grew older, she became physically weak and rarely appeared in anything other than a white sari, with her head covered. Her expression always reflected intelligence and a compassionate outlook. Despite her father’s absence from her life since she was young, she seemed to have embraced his Sufi traditions and stood against the spreading of hatred and intolerance. The name she was given, Sufia, suggests that she believed unwavering dedication and a genuine sense of purpose could be a powerful force for serving humanity.
All content on this website is provided in good faith and only for general information purposes. A Biography makes no guarantees regarding the information’s completeness, reliability, or correctness. Any action you take as a result of the material on this website is entirely at your own risk. A Biography is not responsible for any losses or damages incurred as a result of using our website.
এই ওয়েবসাইটের সমস্ত বিষয়বস্তু সরল বিশ্বাসে এবং শুধুমাত্র সাধারণ তথ্যের উদ্দেশ্যে প্রদান করা হয়েছে। একটি জীবনী তথ্যের সম্পূর্ণতা, নির্ভরযোগ্যতা বা সঠিকতা সম্পর্কে কোন গ্যারান্টি দেয় না। এই ওয়েবসাইটের উপাদানের ফলস্বরূপ আপনি যে কোনও পদক্ষেপ গ্রহণ করেন তা সম্পূর্ণরূপে আপনার নিজের ঝুঁকিতে। একটি জীবনী আমাদের ওয়েবসাইট ব্যবহার করার ফলে কোনো ক্ষতি বা ক্ষতির জন্য দায়ী নয়।