The year was 1977, a 26-year-old Nasim Firdaus appeared for the first regular civil service exams called "superior post examination 1976" administered by the Public Service Commission in independent Bangladesh.
By then, Firdaus already held a master's degree (1975) and had been desperately looking for a job either in the capital Dhaka or in Chattogram where her husband was based at the time. Little did she know that her illustrious career was about to take off, starting from the 1977 exam results.
Fast forward 45 years. Nasim Firdaus does not quite look her age. If I didn't know better, I wouldn't have guessed that she is one of the country's pioneering women with more than four decades of professional experience.
Her smile was radiant on the quiet Saturday noon. With a deep red wall in her background, donning a deep blue saree, she patiently revisited memory lanes of her professional and personal life.
"At that time, jobs for women were very hard to get by," recalled Firdaus, sitting in her Banani living room. "Nobody would give me a job. Despite having first class first position…those things did not matter. Results did not matter for women," she added.
So, when the advertisement for "superior post examination" - this later became Bangladesh Civil Service (BCS) exams - came up in 1976, Firdaus decided to compete.
On 1 March 1979, Firdaus was one of the three women who were among the 140 job vacancies that were filled up in the civil service. Approximately 10,000 people from across the country applied to sit for the exams, she remembered.
While one woman joined the customs service and the other joined the information service, Nasim Firdaus joined the foreign ministry.
Hailing from a large family of nine siblings and an extended family connected to journalism, Firdaus' father wanted at least one of his three sons to work in civil service. "For several reasons, [at the time] my brothers were unable to pursue this career path," said Firdaus. So, her start in the foreign ministry was not only a professional milestone but a personal one too.
"Unfortunately, my father fell silent after the [Liberation] War," Firdaus recalled, "the Pakistani army raided our house and held a bayonet at my father's chest." Over the years, her father grew quieter, she said.
Firdaus' father MA HannanChaudhuri, the first Muslim auditor and chartered accountant in the Singaporean Straits in 1929 passed away in late 1977 during her exams. "Actually, he did not live to see me contest," said Firdaus.
Before independence of Bangladesh, Pakistan did not allow women to enter the foreign service. In 1979, Nasim Firdaus became the first female career diplomat recruited in the foreign ministry.
Did that mean added pressure? "The pressure was there of course," she replied, "to become the first [female] career diplomat, there was huge pressure. There was a director in the ministry who even told me, "Go away. This is not your place; this profession is meant for men."
According to Firdaus, her batch mates – nine men in total – accepted Firdaus as their equal colleague. There was no problem at the top level either, they were welcoming and accepting of Firdaus as a member of the group despite "their apprehension that was never relayed or conveyed" to her, the pressure mainly stemmed from elsewhere.
"Some officials in the ministry did not think I had the pre-requisite qualifications for the job," she said, "you see, I did my masters in home economics, I qualified from the College of Home Economics. Even now, it is not considered as 'regular' education."'
But Nasim Firdaus persevered.
Firdaus stressed the point that it is not right to write off someone for their educational qualification, simply because it does not align with the rest. "At that point in time, everyone else had degrees in different disciplines from Dhaka University, Chittagong University, etc," she said, "but the point is you have to re-educate yourself for the service you are getting into regardless of the degrees you have in possession," she said.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs today has many engineers, architects, and doctors working as diplomats and posted as Ambassadors in different countries.
Desires before the foreign ministry
Earlier on in life, Nasim Firdaus wanted to become either a teacher or a journalist. She felt passionate about both careers. "I tried really hard for a teaching job," she recalled, "but I could not get a job in an educational institution. I wanted to teach what I had learned, but it didn't happen."
Options were limited for women at the time. Firdaus did not find a job at her own college either.
"And there are two reasons that journalism did not take off [for me]. Back then journalists were expected to work night shifts which was not possible for a married woman like me. The other one was the language barrier. She could not write or understand Bangla as well as others did. "My mother tongue is Sylheti, a dialect," she explained.
Ambassadorships and milestones during the foreign ministry employment
Nasim Firdaus was promoted to the rank of ambassador in 2000.
"I served as Ambassador to Indonesia from 2002-2006," added Firdaus, "and then I went to Egypt.
I was the high commissioner to Papua Guinea and also the first Bangladesh ambassador to the newly independent East Timor."
These were concurrent accreditations, which means a diplomat is based in one country and covers a few places during a given time frame, explained Firdaus.
"From Egypt, I was ambassador to the Republic of Cyprus," recalled Firdaus.
What has been one of your proudest moments on the job?
Firdaus remembers a time at the end of the Gulf War on a multilateral mission in Geneva. There was talk of a UN Compensation Commission in the making, at the behest of a group of developed countries. The purpose of the commission was to compensate developed countries that had incurred business losses in the region because of the Gulf War.
The Philippines ambassador countered and led the initiative to include selected developing countries of G77 - into the Commission - having expatriate workers in the Gulf who were forced to flee the war. They needed to be compensated as well.
"It was her credit, really," recalled Firdaus, a Counsellor in the Permanent Mission to the UN in Geneva at the time. She was tasked to represent Bangladesh in the Commission.
"One of the most rewarding experiences had been to include Bangladesh in the UN Compensation Commission," said Firdaus. It meant compensation for more than 70,000 repatriated Bangladeshis from the Gulf region.
The second most rewarding experience has been the success of her ambassadorship in Indonesia.
Firdaus genuinely connected with the first democratically elected President of Indonesia, Megawati Sukarnoputri. A photograph of the two women greeting each other and signed by the president is one of Firdaus' prized possessions that hangs in her living room.
It was a moment of joy when president Megawati Sukarnoputri accepted the invitation for a state visit to Bangladesh, recalled Firdaus. "It was on PahelaBaishak 2003 when the Chief of Protocol called me with the news. I was elated," she said.
It was the first state visit to Bangladesh by an Indonesian President in 30 years. During Firdaus' ambassadorship in Indonesia, Bangladesh export earnings from Indonesia rose by five folds. The Indonesian trade minister visited Bangladesh with large trade delegations at least three times during this period.
But this was not without hurdles. Sheer perseverance led the way.
Being the first female career diplomat of the country meant being the first woman in many roles and positions over the decades. Firdaus was also the first diplomat to be officially designated Deputy Chief of Mission in any Bangladesh Embassy until then.
"I was the first DCM appointed in the Bangladesh Embassy in Washington DC," recalled Firdaus, where she networked with Harvard Kennedy School alums. "It was a rewarding experience," she said.
Nasim Firdaus graduated from Harvard with a master's degree in public administration when she was posted as Director SAARC in the Ministry in the early 1990s. She also obtained an LLM in International and Comparative Law in 1983 from the VrijeUniversiteit of Brussels.
Firdaus' journey with SAARC started at the time of the organisation's birth in 1985.
"When it was formed, there was euphoria, like we have achieved something great," she recalled. And over the years, she grew closer to the purpose of the organisation.
"The idea was to get together and create a peaceful region of South Asia," she said. Firdaus acknowledges that the organisation came with its flaws, sure, but it also achieved a lot.
"There has been no war amongst member states in the region since 1985. Kargil [war] was an exception," she said.
"Sharing vision, knowledge, camaraderie across professions across Member States," is the best outcome of SAARC, she said.
At the time there were no flights connecting the capitals of the member states. Today Bangladesh has flights to every SAARC capital, except Pakistan, connecting the region in a way Bangladesh envisioned
Over the years and after the foreign ministry
Firdaus retired from the service in 2008.
During her years on the job, when Firdaus suggested new ideas or propositions, it was common to hear "this is not possible" or some other discouraging response to shut her off. It took many years, but once Firdaus rose in rank, "I did not give it any thought anymore," she said, "I spoke and people listened."
Firdaus spoke of turf wars and how some male counterparts tend to tarnish the image of women when they see them as 'threats.' Firdaus is no stranger to threats to her life. She even received death threats during her tenure in Indonesia.
Firdaus is the founder and President of Bangladesh Alliance for Women Leadership (BDAWL), with the purpose to raise the number of women in leadership positions across all disciplines and professions, with particular emphasis on political leadership.
Under BDAWL, a leadership academy started where women and school children were trained to take up leadership roles in different professions and activities.
The curriculum includes, among other unconventional subjects, "voice training."
"I realised very early in my career that to be heard it is important for women to speak with clarity in a room dominated by men.
That is why I gave voice training courses to hundreds of women who came to the academy over the years so that they know how to control the pitch and tenor of their voice," said Ferdous, "instead of breaking down in tears," said Firdaus. Men too have these same problems – they can show their anger through raising their voice and screaming.
She is also the founder President of Home Economics Association of Bangladesh which was formed 60 years after the subject was introduced in this country and the first College of Home Economics was established in Dhaka. She has remained engaged in social work, and is member of multiple boards in several educational and research organisations.
Firdaus has, over the last three years, scaled back her activities due to Chikinguniya fever and then Covid-19 infection. "I have to rest now," she said.
Firdaus has an autobiographical book out in BoiMela this year named "BoshontoHawarDingulo'' published by Annanya publishers available at Rokmari.com.
In the book, she speaks of her life and the challenges of being a young woman at very uncertain times in the history of Bangladesh, and being the first career female diplomat of Bangladesh.
"Things have improved a lot over the years," she said. "There is increased participation of women in the government including the foreign ministry at very high levels," but she strongly reiterated on that quiet Saturday noon, there is still much more to be done.