Sufia Kamal’s is a name revered in nearly every household in the country, and not just because of the spontaneous literary genius that she possessed. She was simultaneously a poet, a feminist activist, and a cultural icon; all of these identities were in some way or other reflected in her literary works—comprising short stories, plays, novels, travelogues, and autobiography—which took her closer to touching the lives of a broader spectrum of people across the country.
Sufia Kamal (1911-1999) led the feminist movements that were shaped under her direct leadership at the beginning of the Pakistan era. Born in the Nawab family in Shaistabaad, Barisal, on June 20—110 years ago from this day—Sufia broke countless barriers for women belonging to Muslim families by educating herself on her own, under the guidance of her mother, brother, and uncle. This very background shaped her as a feminist and literary icon in the subcontinent, an identity that became even more evident when she came in direct contact with Begum Rokeya Shakawat Hossain.
Her 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, which were praised by legends like Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam. 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.
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)
This is the legacy of Sufia Kamal. This legacy shows that activism and ideologies can intertwine in works of literature, without taking away the authenticity and spontaneity that a work of art should possess. Sufia Kamal, an icon, an example, and a witness of the many cataclysms of her time, became timeless, with her literature and her activism, which effortlessly merged into one.
Nahaly Nafisa Khan is sub editor at Toggle, The Daily Star.