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Contribution of women in the Language Movement

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21st-Feb-2017       
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Selina Hossain :
Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman wrote in connection with the language movement in his autobiography "The Unfinished Memoirs":
We were put up in a place in the jail. It was Ward 4. The building was three storied. Outside the walls of the jail was Muslim Girls' School. All the five days that we were in jail, the schoolgirls began their morning raising slogans from the school's roof-top and ended their day doing the same at four in the afternoon. They seemed indefatigable as they cried out, 'The state language must be Bangia', 'Our brothers in prison must be freed', 'Police brutality must end', and so on. I remember telling Mr. Shamsul Haque then, "See how even our sisters have come up for the cause. Surely Bangia will be the state language after such an event." Mr. Haque said, "I agree, Mujib."
Bangabandhu had evaluated the contribution of women in the language movement by his profound political wisdom. Undoubtedly he had held high esteem for the role of women in its greater perspective and from the point of equality of men and women in achieving success. But till today, it's a reality that the contribution of women do not get due acknowledgement in our society. Most of the times, the historians either by-pass the role of women or acknowledge it partially ignoring their right role and importance. As such, nominal mention of the facts makes history appear to be lineate from patriarchal point of view. The chronicles of the language movement of 1952 too did not portray women with due dignity. Nevertheless, the role of women in this movement was extended up to the member of the legislative assembly from the positions of ordinary housewives. They had played very active role in each and every move.
In a conservative state perspective of Pakistan, which was just separated on religious grounds, women accessibility in all spheres of life was not very easy in 1947. Despite the womenfolk did not remain inactive in the name of religious platitudes since the commencement of language movement in December 1947. They had participated in meetings and processions. Even the school girls walked down to the streets to join processions.
Female students of Dhaka University were assigned to raise funds for the movement when the State Language Action Committee was formed. Besides executing this responsibility, they had also rendered a very significant task out of their consciousness. Contributor of the language movement Rowshan Ara Bachhu mentioned in her memoirs, 'We went door to door that time. Majority of the womenfolk were not  jobs .but many of them had donated their gold ornaments, some had continued. In cash. We made them realize the dignity of the mother tongue; we also told them why it was important to have Bangla as state language for our self-esteem. This way we had created awareness in favour of the slogan "The state language must be Bangla". An important reason behind the spontaneous participation of the people to the cause was this. She also said, 'Many a time girls had joined in processions wearing yashmak because of their family prohibitions. One of the Banglabazar Schoolgirls had to sacrifice hair in the hands of her mother since she had desired to join processions, even in such a situation she did join in the procession covering her head with a scarf. Girls had contributed to that extent.' Two major points come up from the memoirs of Rawshan Ara Bachhu. One is donating ornaments and the other is joining in processions ignoring family resistance. In the first case - they were silent activists who had contributed to raise funds in favour of the movement. This act had added velocity to the struggle. The second one was their participation in person. Men face less prohibition from the family and it's not a big challenge for them to come out from the home. The role of women was very significant from social and political perspective and in spite of all these, they had to crack the shackles of social impediments. They had achieved it and got rid of the struggle for their existence by dint of their deep-roote aspirations and commitment to cultural values. This is how the history marks progress, accomplishes its splendor through collective involvement of men and women. None of any noble deed was possible leaving behind the womenfolk; rather they had always shared the sufferings caused for such achievements.
This is an issue of the participation of women in our language movement. Four and a half years had elapsed since the separation of the country. Students had kept agitations continued for the demand of the mother tongue. The rulers had roared pronouncing - "only Urdu will be the state language". Students had outburst into protests and contests. 'All-Party State Language Action Committee' was formed on 31 st January 1952 at the Library Hallin Dhaka. The Committee had called for meetings, strikes, demonstrations, processions on 21st of February all-over East Pakistan. East Pakistan Provincial Assembly was scheduled for session on that day at 3 pm. There had been arrangements too, to proceed towards the Provincial Assembly in order to hand over a memorandum claiming Bangla as the state language. The rulers had felt perturbed facing such agenda declared by the students. East Pakistan Chief Minister Nurul Amin's government had tried to restraint the agitation by enforcing the prohibitory order under Section 144 for one month with effect from 20th February.
Students had started assembling at the 'Aatntala' of Dhaka University from the morning of 21st February since they had decided to disregard the prohibitory order under section 144. Dr. Sufia Ahmed, an accomplice of the language movement had stated in a memoir that she was assigned to bring the girl students from Anandamoyee and Banglabazar Schools to Aamtala and she did it. Decision was that they will proceed crossing the police barricade in groups of 10 boys and 4 girls. She also mentioned that initially two groups of boys had opened a procession but police arrested them and loaded onto a truck. The third one consisted of a group of girls which had shortly faced thrashing by the police. Tear shells had been lobbed and she was hurt a little. Still then they were trying to proceed towards the Assembly building. Assault by the police was retaliated by throwing stones by the students. She also said that the situation had seemed to be a battle-field to her. After a while police opened fire to take control of the events. Salam, Rafique, Barkat, Jabber and many more embraced martyrdom in a peaceful procession. Dr. Ahmed and her companions had stayed back in the university campus till the evening and returned home after the situation settled down. It's evident from her reminiscence that, as women, they were not afraid of facing such consequences. Resolute commitments had inspired them to fight for the cause despite the threats of tear shell, battering and even firing. With this determination and devotion, women have occupied the forefront of our history.
Dr. Halima Khatun was one among the participants of the language movement. She narrated in her memoirs that they were thrilled in defiance of the order under Section 144. She had been entrusted with the task of bringing the students out from the Muslim
Girls' School and the Banglabazar Girls' School to the Aamtala of the university. Her troupe was the first to disobey the order under Section 144. They chanted slogans and marched forward pushing obstacles and police rifles aside. Then the police started thrashing and charged tear shells. Instead of being, restrained, they were gathered in the roads again just after receiving first aid from the emergency unit of the Dhaka Medical College and started proceeding towards the Assembly building. But police opened fire soon they advanced a little. Rafique's skull was blown away with the bullet. A bust resembling Rafique's photo was created in that night which was kept at former Finance Minister Late Shah Kibri room in the Salimullah Hall. Facing police raid on the hall, everybody decamped and the police took over the bust's possession. Dr. Halima is the person who was sent to the hall to get hold of Rafique's bust. She narrated that she had recovered the bust defying a death threat. The image of Rafique we see now had been created from that bust.
This is a different aspect of our women's participation in the language movement. They tried hard to push the agitation to a different dimension. They did not even C6ie for their lives. Rafique's photo is an important document of the history which was recovered and preserved by a woman.
Rawshan Ara Bachhu mentioned in the earlier memoir that she saw two groups of boys had hopped police barriers and marched forward. She, along with her troupe, had followed them and had faced police beating since she was in the front. She was hurt by unrestrained beating of police. She took shelter in roadside old Rickshaw garage in the cross fire. She had waited there for long and returned to the hostel in the evening."
It's remarkable from the memoirs of these three women that they were present at the battlefield in person in such a grave situation. They had been the victims of various assaults by the police. None was spared; neither had received courteous manners for being women. This is the fact that anyone of them could die that day. It's merely a miracle that such did not happen on that day though they were emphatically endangered.  Courageous lady Nadera Begum was then a university student. She had led the student front of Communist Party. She had motivated girl students for the cause of the language movement and was very active in demonstrations.
The Provincial Assembly was in session when there had been firing on the students. When the news reached there, Moulana Abdur Rashid Tarkabagishi was the first to raise the demand in the house for an enquiry against police firing. He said that the session would continue only after the enquiry. MLA Anwara Khatun had delivered speech with strong arguments. 35 MLAs along with Anwara Khatun had walked-out from the house. With these bold steps Anwara Khatun, it is proved that women did not commit any disrespectful act  keeping silence even in the Assembly.
The first martyrdom of the language movement was Rafiquddin His skull was blown away. Immediate after the tragic incident, Amanul Haque had taken; photo of Rafiq with the help of Halima Khatun, a student of Kazi Idris Medical College. Nurses of the Dhaka Medical College Hospital had burst into fury while they were treating the injured. The protest turned to be a blazing fire with such support and cooperation from the women.
Strike (Hartal), processions and demonstrations against this were held all over the, country including Dhaka on 22nd February. Women, who had failed to participate in the processions, had sprinkled flowers onto the processions from their rooffol. This endeavor cannot be treated as a meager one because it was an act, encouragement to the direct participants on behalf of the women. Many have mentioned in their memoirs that a number of girls including Nurunnnahar Kabir had written posters throughout the night. Names of those had not been record in the history. Black badges were prepared from one's black saree. None h remembered her even. Women did not wait for their names; they just wanted the success of the language movement - the dignity of our mother tongue.
Professor Anissuzzaman's mother Syeda Khatun kept her' gold necklace on the altar of the first memorial which was built in the premises of the Dhaka Medical College to commemorate the language martyrs. This was definitely a symbolic respect to the martyrs as well as a generous contribution to the cause symbolized by the support to fulfill the mission. This vision is always dormant with the women and is time tested in all major events. But men never rightly portrayed the contributions of women in the history. It's obvious that the history of any nation remain inGlccurnte if the position of, women is not judged and honoured from the perspective of equality. Unfortunately this mal treatment remains existent with women.
I would like to mention more two instances. One is the language movement in Assam when the Assam Official Language Act, 1960 was enacted. Through this Act, Assamese (Asamiya) was made the state language of Assam. Bengalis of the Barak Valley had raised their voices in protest of this act. 11 persons were martyred in police firing at the Shilchar Rail Station on 19 May 1961. Police had tried to cover up one's dead body in a nearby pond but the activists had got hold of it. After this upheaval, the Assam government had amended the official language act and reinstated Bangia as official language for the Barak Valley. 19 May is now being observed as the Martyrs' Day in the Barak Valley. One amongst the 11 martyred was a woman and her name was Kamala Bhattachariya.
The next one is the 'Internationa'l Mother Language Day'. Bangladesh expatriates in Canada Rafiqul Islam and Abdul Salam had taken initiative to declare the illustrious 21 February as international mother language day. They had formed an organization named 'International Mother Language Lovers of the World' consisting of 10 individuals from various dialect groups. Six out of these 10 were women.
UNESCO declared 21st February as the 'International Mother Language Day' on 17 November 1999. Prior to this historic declaration, one lady named Anna Maria Mailof was working as Programme Specialist in the Language Department of the UNESCO. She took it up with utmost sincerity and devotion. She had maintained close contacts with Rafiqul Islam and replied to all communications made by him. Anna's considerations, willingness and patience were very passionate to materialize the declaration of a mother language day. She did not even forget to inform Mr. Islam that the UNESCO National Commission of Hungary was the first commission to endorse the proposition. Anna had also informed Rafiqul Islam that the proposition would have to be routed through the government of his country. Accordingly, Rafiqul Islam had contacted with the UNESCO Commission of Bangladesh.
Sheikh Hasina was the then Prime Minister of Bangladesh. She took a decision very promptly and instructed the concerned to materialize it. On approval of the Education Minister and the Prime Minister, the Bangladesh-UNESCO National Commission had duly placed the proposition to the UNESCO Headquarters. While placed before the UNESCO Board Meeting, 28 member-states had supported the proposition of Bangladesh.
With her vigilant mind, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina could comprehend the importance of the issue and had taken a swift decision. The time was her childhood when the language movement had taken place. In his autobiography entitled 'The Unfinished Memoirs', Bangabandhu did mention about this as:
'My daughter Hasina embraced me and said, "Abba, we want Bangla to be the national lar1guage; we want all political prisoners to be freed." She had picked up these slogans when she was in Dhaka on 21 February.'
It is that toddler who had chanted the slogans of the language movement at the age of only five established the language martyrs' day in a glorified position worldwide in her matured age.     
I just want to mention that the homes, streets or even the assembly were the tales of triumph for women. Besides, Vancouver, Paris and the Office of the Head of Government of Bangladesh are also the other success stories. Women had kept their firm footings everywhere.
Translation : A.T.M. Monemul Haque

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