Kamal, Sufia (1911–1999)

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Kamal, Sufia (1911–1999)

Bangladeshi poet, political activist and feminist. Born in 1911 in Barisal, southern district of what is now Bangladesh; died on November 20, 1999; only daughter of eminent lawyer; self-educated; married cousin Syed Nehal Hossai, in 1922 (died 1932); married Kamaluddin Ahmed, in 1937; children: (first marriage) daughter, Amena Kahnar; (second marriage) two daughters, Sultana Kamal and Saida Kamal, and two sons, Shahed Kamal and Sazid Kamal.

Published first story at age 14; began activism and involvement in socio-economic issues (1952); during early 1970s, aided women hurt by war of independence between Pakistan and Bangladesh; denounced fundamentalists' treatment of women and Islamic fundamentalist group called for her execution (1993); was first Bangladeshi woman to be buried with full state honors (1999).

Sufia Kamal was born in 1911, in what is now Bangladesh, the only daughter of an eminent lawyer. Denied a formal education because of her gender, Kamal educated herself, with her mother's encouragement, in the library of an uncle. At age 11, she married a cousin, Syed Nehal Hossain, who was then a law student, and had a daughter, Amena Kahnar . Hossain died in 1932. Sufia remarried five years later. With her second husband, Kamaluddin Ahmed, she had two more daughters, Sultana Kamal and Saida Kamal , and two sons, Shahed Kamal and Sazid Kamal.

Kamal had her first poem published at the age of 14. Her prose and poetry were well received, and some of her works were translated into English and Russian. Her writings and activism promoted democracy and women's emancipation while decrying religious communalism, fundamentalism, and superstition. In an interview on her 88th birthday, she lamented the lack of "wise men" and "honest politicians" in her native land and was critical of the overwhelming corruption she felt existed in Bangladesh.

As a woman, Kamal was allowed to learn Arabic and some Persian, but not Bengali. Violating tradition, she mastered Bengali from people working in her household and used the language for her writing. Kamal's political activism began in 1952 and continued through the 1960s. During the Bangladeshi war of independence from Pakistan in 1971, she began working for war-affected women. She also tried to bring Pakistani officials, whom the Bangladeshis considered war criminals, to justice. In her last decades, she focused her energies on women's rights and headed Bangladesh's largest women's organization for many years. She felt that all women in her native country were discriminated against, and that it was not a class issue. A deeply religious woman, Kamal opposed religious extremism and, in 1993, was placed on a hit list by Harkatul Jihad, an Islamic extremist group.

Toward the end of her life, Kamal was hospitalized for age-related illnesses. She died, age 88, on November 20, 1999. Despite her request for a simple funeral, more than 10,000 paid their respects to Kamal, as she was accorded state honors at her interment, held in Dhaka, Bangladesh. She was the first woman in her country to receive that recognition.

Jo Anne Meginnes , freelance writer, Brookfield, Vermont