An embodiment of political resilience and an advocate of life seen in all its practical and creative manifestations, Sufia Kamal, had an aura about her which was genuine. All her life she presided over movements and struggles fought to establish basic human rights. A poet who worked in the capacity of an activist to advance the cause of women in this region, was also the torch-bearer of hope.
Born into a wealthy but extremely conservative family, she was breaking glass ceilings as a Muslim woman from the very beginning of her life.
Her family had reservation about woman's education, but that did not deter Sufia Kamal from being highly educated. Eventually she became one of the most iconic personalities in our history.
Heavily influenced by Begum Rokeya and her idea of emancipation, Sufia Kamal never thought of herself as a mere woman. To her, everyone was a human being, as was she, and everyone had the right to express themselves since in our effort to remake the society the idea of freedom works as a catalyst as does the way the future is framed collectively. Her role of as mentor bespoke her deep understanding of the idea of freedom in relation to our collective aspiration.
The poet first stepped into the male-dominated literary circle when the editor of Saogat Mohammed Nasiruddin started publishing her works. As her early forays captivated the imagination of the literati of her time, it also paved the way for her future course. As Nasiruddin decided to publish a weekly magazine dedicated solely to women, he asked Sufia Kamal take over – thus she became its first editor. Around 1949, she also published a magazine called Sultana, the name was inspired by Begum Rokeya's book Sultana's Dream.
Following partition, in Dhaka, she found herself in a greater role as a mentor, working among people and ensuring that they grew in awareness of woman rights as well as the rights of the people. Her home became the epicentre of many a new debate and discourse and as a poet and activists she lent momentum to major movements in the country – be it political, social or cultural.
Her daughter, advocate and human rights activist Sultana Kamal, spoke with The Business Standard about her mother who still lives through her work and her principles.
"My mother was the epitome of cultural sophistication. She taught us not to hesitate with tasks in hand and used say 'kaajer naam koro', so that we accomplished things at the right moment. She strongly believed that without working, one cannot expect results. She always engaged us in household chores but they were not just chores, in between she would ask us to recite something, to sing a line or two, or maybe read from the newspaper," she said.
She added, "Maa never worked for herself, everything she did was an act of selflessness. She cooked for us and looked after the household yet always reserved a time in the day for her writing."
Sultana Kamal recalled an incident, "When my mother was the president of Bangladesh Soviet Moitry Samity (Bangladesh-Soviet Alliance), she had once gone to Moscow. The same time I was studying at Holland. The organisers wanted to send her to meet me or at least arrange for me to come to Moscow but she flatly refused."
"When I jokingly told her, Maa I wish I could visit Moscow, she told me that the way I had come to Holland on a scholarship, I should visit Moscow the same way, without anyone's help."
This was the kind of person Sufia Kamal was, a woman of strong principles who never even made her own children members of her organisations and it had always remained so.
A large part of her life was dedicated to women's causes and establishing equality for women in the society. The Begum Club, which was formed in the 50's under her wings, was a platform for women to mingle, share their thoughts and views, and enjoy good times in each other's company.
Sultana Kamal reminisced, "The Begum Club was an initiative which we cannot imagine even in 21st century. In our childhood, we attended the club's lively events where women would sing, dance, recite, read out their stories, give speeches etc."
Sufia Kamal was known as a gentle and humble person among everyone who knew her. She was soft-spoken yet exceptionally strong, and knew how to raise her voice without being loud. She never stepped away from her values and always rightly expressed her opinions.
After the genocide on March 25, when rumours of Sufia Kamal's death spread, the government was pressurised by citizens to make a radio announcement to prove that she was alive.
Sultana Kamal spoke of her mother as any proud daughter would. "She had utmost clarity in her character and never knew how to hide anything, something she taught all of her children. Her door was always open for all. Her verandah, lovingly known as Sufia khalammar baranda, was a place of gathering for anyone who believed in Bangladesh's liberation."
On November 20 every year, the nation remembers this stalwart with respect.