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Leading Women To Change


nurjahan_begumAn icon, a visionary, a trailblazer for women of this country, is no more. Nurjahan Begum, the editor of Begum, the first weekly exclusively devoted to women’s issues, breathed her last on May 23, 2016, after days of being on life support. To honour this extraordinary woman, The Daily Star pays tribute to her by reprinting excerpts of a story based on an interview with her in 2005, published in The Star Weekend Magazine.

Nurjahan Begum, editor of Begum magazine, began her career in the 1940s. Journalism, activism, social work — she has done it all, and at a time when people would have trouble imagining women doing anything of the sort. To this day, she continues to help women in towns and villages find a foothold in society through her efforts to provide them with knowledge, a sense of awareness and even identities as women writers.

She goes to work every morning at 8 and returns home every afternoon to her sprawling house in Puran Dhaka — her home since 1950 — and continues the work she and her father started decades ago. It is not an empire she manages now, but it has served, for well over half a century, the purpose with which it was begun — to bring Bangalis, especially Bangali Muslim women, out from behind the closed walls of their homes and into the wider, changing society of which they are part.

Nurjahan Begum was born on June 4, 1925, as Nurun Nahar. Her father, renowned journalist and editor of the monthly Saogat, Mohammad Nasiruddin, lived in Kolkata, while she, “Nuri”, lived with her mother, Fatema Begum, in Chalitatoli. After an accident in which Nuri fell into a pond in the village at the age of four, her father quickly had her move to Kolkata with her mother, thinking his daughter would be far safer there.

“When I came to Kolkata,” reminisces Nurjahan Begum, “my father, to the utter dismay of my mother, had my nose-pin cut off and my hair sheared into a ‘China bob’ cut!”

Mohammad Nasiruddin was a progressive man and he wanted his daughter to be the same, easily fitting into Kolkata society and making something of herself with a good, well-rounded education. Little Nuri was taught nursery rhymes, poems and surahs by her mother, and the Bangla, Arabic and English alphabet by both her parents. Her father would bring home books and magazines for Nuri to go through and look at pictures. Slowly, she grew an interest in books. Even before she had learnt to read properly, Nuri began to file her father’s collection of local and foreign publications just by looking at the pictures. Delighted by her keen intelligence, Nuri’s grandmother, Nurjahan, decided to name her granddaughter after herself, and, from then on, she became Nurjahan Begum.
Nurjahan Begum got admitted into Baby Class at Begum Rokeya’s Sakhawat Memorial School. She loved it there — the playing, drawing, arts and crafts. But when the workload got to be a little too much after Class 2, her father shifted her to a school near their home, Beltola Girl’s School. In Class 5, however, she went back to Sakhawat Memorial School, from where she passed her Matriculation in 1942. Nurjahan Begum remembers the school fondly as the basis of her success later on in life. She had the opportunity to learn to do a bit of everything there, from singing, dancing and acting to cooking, sewing, drawing and sports. In 1944, she passed her Intermediate examinations in philosophy, history and geography, and, in 1946, her Bachelors in ethics, philosophy and history from Lady Brabourne College.

Nurjahan Begum was highly active throughout her school and college life. “I had a wonderful childhood,” she says. “We did everything, from singing and dancing to acting.” She even wrote, directed and acted in college plays. “But it was all within the walls of the school and college,” she recalls.

Most Bangali, and especially Muslim, women of the time hardly stepped out of the house, let alone sing and dance in public places. The volatile days of 1947 had made it even more dangerous for people living in this region.

“It was under these circumstances,” says Nurjahan Begum, “that Begum was first published.”

Nurjahan Begum’s father, Mohammad Nasiruddin, had wanted to bring women into journalism. He therefore started an annual women’s issue of Saogat in 1927. Every year, one issue of the monthly would be dedicated exclusively to women, with writings by women around the country that Mohammad Nasiruddin had to put in much effort to collect. In 1945, the last issue of Janana Mahal came out. It seemed to Mohammad Nasiruddin that one women’s issue per year was not really doing much to improve the situation of women in journalism and, in turn, society. Thus, in 1947, a month before India’s Partition, weekly Begum was first published in Kolkata. Its first editor was Begum Sufia Kamal, and acting editor, Nurjahan Begum, who had already been working for Saogat, took over a few months later.

“It was very difficult to bring out the publication at that time,” recalls Nurjahan Begum. There was the problem of block and type, of collecting ink and paper, and of transporting the staff to and from the office during the communal riots. There were not too many women writers and hardly any women photographers. “But we still managed to bring out an issue every week,” says Nurjahan Begum proudly.

After three years in Kolkata, Begum moved to Dhaka, along with Mohammad Nasiruddin, Nurjahan Begum and the rest of the family.

The response to Begum was enormous. Not only were women from across the country writing letters and giving feedback on the various writings published in the magazine, but so were many men. Nurjahan Begum also reminisces about her father and her husband, the two men who had the greatest influence on her life and success in her career. Her father was the one to lead her down the path of journalism, though Nurjahan Begum believes that passion for journalism — or any profession for that matter — is inborn. “It cannot be forced upon you,” she says. All her life, she has simply done what she always wanted to and what she felt she was meant to do.

Her husband, Rokonuzzaman Khan — whom she married initially against the will of her father — later became a renowned journalist in his own right. Popularly known as “Dadabhai” later on, Khan had worked for Saogat, and was later editor of the literature and feature pages of the daily Ittefaq as well as of Kochikanchar Ashor for children.

After her, says Nurjahan Begum, her daughters will take charge of Begum. “Great changes will take place in their hands,” she says. “They won’t accept bad writing. They want good paper and colour in the magazine.”

Her eldest daughter, Flora Nasrin Khan Shakhi, did her Honours and Master’s in English Literature from Dhaka University. Her younger daughter, Rina Yasmin Miti, did her Honours and Master’s in Sociology from the same institution. They are both married and work for Begum from time to time. Nurjahan Begum has five grandchildren.

Begum magazine is currently a monthly costing Tk. 10 (as opposed to the 25 paisa it used to be sold at in the beginning), but its editor has hopes of bringing it out as a weekly again.

Despite the various problems she has faced over the years in bringing out the magazine, from communal riots to postage problems, Nurjahan Begum has not lost her zeal for her work or the profession as a whole. She does not sit around simply praising the women journalists today but rather worries about what still holds them back.

“Transport problems and lack of security are the main problems facing women journalists today,” she says. “In the old days, my friends and I used to go watch the 9 o’clock show at the movies, which would end at midnight (albeit with her father),” she recalls. “It can hardly be thought of in our country today.”

Women are much more insecure and much less free today, believes Nurjahan Begum. “Sometimes I wonder whether it’s a conspiracy to hold women back,” she says.

Besides her journalistic career, Nurjahan Begum was also a dedicated social worker. From volunteering at refugee camps during the communal riots to working for the Muslim Orphanage and Women’s Home of which she was secretary, she became involved in social work soon after finishing college. Later, she became member and president of various women’s organisations, including the Wari Mohila Samity and the Narinda Mohila Samity. Through these, she worked for primary education and structural activities for children, first aid and adult education. She campaigned and raised funds to help victims of natural disasters.

Nurjahan Begum did many things at a time when it was much less easy than it is today, and what many women would not have the courage or determination to do even today. With the help of her father, she also established the Begum Club in 1954. Though now defunct, in its time, the Club was a thriving organisation of women from home and abroad getting together to discuss literature and music, culture and society. Nurjahan Begum still has hopes of reviving the Club.

The goal of Begum as a publication and of Nurjahan Begum — an institution in herself — has always been to take women forward, by informing and involving them in the society they dwell in and contribute to. “There will always be problems we will have to face,” says Nurjahan Begum. “There will always be religious conflict, social bindings and people trying to hold us back. We can lie low for a while, but ultimately, we have to move forward,” she says. “It’s the only way to go.”

The writer is Assistant Professor of Dhaka University and a doctoral student at SOAS, University of London.

Source: The Daily Star

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