The debate over the state language of Pakistan started even before the establishment of the country on 15 August 1947. The then vice chancellor of Aligarh University published an article recommending Urdu as the state language of Pakistan, but Muhammad Shahidullah protested it. Abul Kashem, Kazi Motahar Hossain, Abul Mansur Ahmad and Syed Mujtaba Ali also gave their opinion on the question of the state language.
The crux of their opinion was that Bangla and Urdu should be the national languages of Pakistan while Bangla would be the official language and the medium of education in East Bengal.
Even though the state language debate initially appeared to be a political consideration, public awareness about its far-reaching cultural and economic impact was gradually created in East Bengal.
The Rashtrabhasha Sangram Parishad (National Language Action Committee) was formed in late December in 1947. On 25 February 1948, Dhirendranath Dutta in the then Constituent Assembly of Pakistan spoke in favour of making Bangla one of the state languages of Pakistan. But his proposal was turned down, igniting protests at Dhaka University. The strike called on 11 March drew the attention of the people. Students also protested against Muhammad Ali Jinnah's speeches in favour of making Urdu the only state language, on 21 March at Racecourse ground and on 24 March at Curzon Hall in Dhaka.
There was, however, no female among the students' leaders who are found associated with those protests.
But a significant attendance of female students was seen in the gathering that took place on 21 February 1952 on the premises of Dhaka University and those who violated Section 144. Apart from those from Dhaka University and Eden College, students from several girls' schools in Dhaka gathered at Amtala on the morning of 21 February.
Female students were also seen taking care of the male students and other people who were injured in law enforcers' tear gas attacks on language fighters, they were seen rendering services in Dhaka Medical College Hospital and, above all, taking part in the construction of the first Shaheed Minar.
Many interviews, features, photographs and research papers today acknowledge that the participation of female students/women in the Language Movement was an expression of awareness.
But why does it need carrying out research to bring to the fore women's involvement and the important role they played in the Language Movement?
It has been observed that those who reminisced about the movement either ignored the issue of the active participation of women/ female students or did not consider it equally important as that of men. That is why the history of the Language Movement has become mostly male-centric. Similarly, the picture of women's participation in the Language Movement in Chattogram is rather grey.
On 11 March 1948, a strike was called by langue fighters in Chittagong, like that of Dhaka, in demand of making Bangla a state language of Pakistan. The district magistrate banned meetings and processions for a week in Chittagong after the agitation spread to educational institutions on 11 and 14 March.
At that time, politically conscious people were involved in the Language Movement but not much public support was behind them. During his stay in Chattogram from 25 March to 27 March 1948, Muhammad Ali Jinnah spoke in various places in favour of making Urdu as the only state language of the country but no remarkable protest was seen from students against his speeches. Students, however, played a crucial role in the movement afterwards. The involvement of female students also increased gradually.
The first cultural conference was organised by two organisations, named "Sangskritik Boithak" and "Prantik Naba Natya Sangha", at Harikhola ground in the port city on 16-19 March in 1951 defying obstructions.
Begum Sufia Kamal, among others from Dhaka and Kolkata, went to Chattogram to inaugurate the conference. At that time, musician Kalim Sharafi was staying in Chattogram. His and Mahbub Hasan's memoirs show that Saidul Hasan's wife Farida Hasan was involved in the cultural activities.
When the Language Movement reached its climax on 21 February 1952, several women/ female students were directly and indirectly playing a role to intensify the movement in Chattogram.
Some of those who played an indirect role in the movement were members of the banned Communist Party. Among them were Aarti Datta and her sister Pranati Dastidar.
Pratibha Mutsuddi was one of the direct women participants in the Language Movement in Chattogram.
She wrote in her memoirs: "In 1951, I got admitted in the IA class in Chittagong College. From then on, the preparation for the realisation of rights began. I organised the female students of the college after taking instructions from Purnendu Dastidar, Deben Sikder, Meera Dee, Pranati Dee, and Sheli Dee. Establishment of the right of language was then the main agenda of the movement. I was a second-year student of IA in 1952. The students of the college became vocal in the student protest on 21 February. After that, the Language Movement got momentum. Female students also took part in the struggle alongside their student brothers."
It was also reported in newspapers that women and female students staged a protest procession on 25 February 1952. Girl students of Dr Khastgir School participated in the procession coming out of their campus by climbing the boundary walls. On the day, female students of Chittagong College and a local girls' school marched on the streets in trucks and buses with the slogan "Rastrabhasha Bangla Chai" (We want Bangla as the state language). Female students also joined the public meeting on 28 February.
The female students who used to write posters were Meera Sen, Jahanara Rahman, Jawshan Ara Rahman, Hosne Ara Makki. Pratibha Mutsuddi secretly pasted posters on the walls. The procession, brought out by girl students of Khastagir School on 22 February, was led by Halima Khatun.
Mahbub Hasan in his memoirs also has mentioned about female students' participation in the Language Movement.
He wrote: "It was the morning of 21 February in 1952. A procession of students came out from Chittagong College in demand of making Bangla one of the state languages. The procession came in front of Dr Khastgir School. There was a police jeep in the school gate and the gate was locked from inside to prevent students from joining the procession. The female students were not being able to get out on the highway. Students' leaders tried to break through the gate but failed. They almost lost hope. Just then, a police officer gave the handle of their jeep to the students' leaders to help break the lock."
In Chattogram, female students did not just take part in processions and paste posters; they also raised funds whenever needed. Khaleda Khan, Jahanara Jubli, Geeta Datta (Kalpana Datta's younger sister), Kabita, Halima, Selina Akhtar Banu, Bijaylakkhi, Nurunnahar Kachhir, Maleka Azim Khan, Khurshid Azim Khan, Latifa Azim Khan, Dr Chemon Ara Begum, Faujia Samad are some other names, alongside some unknown ones, who directly or indirectly participated in the Language Movement in Chattogram.
The participation and role of women in the Language Movement in Chattogram may be further revealed in future research and thus the contribution of our sisters along with our brothers will be recognised.
Sharif Shamshir is a researcher and has authored the book entitled "Chattograme Bhasha Andolon"