French author Simone de Beauvoir said, "Man is defined as a human being and woman as a female – whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male." The patriarchal society often encourages a male child to pursue his dream; but limits the sphere of a female child within the boundary of home/ kitchen. However, overcoming all the obstacles set by orthodox society, the strong-willed women chase their dreams. Here we are going to remember some of the most famous women in Bangladesh who have become inspirational icons in respected fields by virtue of long years of hard work, talent, perseverance and indomitable stamina.
Begum Rokeya, Feminist writer, educator, and political activist
Begum Rokeya was born on 9th December in 1880 at Pairabond village, Rangpur district under Bengal presidency of the then British India (Today Bangladesh). For her life-long contribution in female advocacy, Rokeya is honored as an icon of women's freedom in South Asia.
In 1902, Rokeya commenced as a feminist writer with a Bengali essay titled Pipasa. In the early years of her literary career, Rokeya used to write in Nabanoor in the name of Mrs R S Hossain. She had the talent in writing diverse of genres of literature including essays, short stories, satirical writings, poems, novels, etc.
Begum Rokeya invented a unique literary style, enriched with logic, witty sense of humor, and creativity. Her writings’ enlightened women about their rights and made them conscious against injustices, discrimination, and social barrier. Her famous published books include Matichur, Sultana's Dream, Padmarag and Abarodhbasini.
Besides these, Rokeya used to write for several magazines, such as Al-Eslam, Saogat, Nabaprabha, Bharatmahila, Nawroz, Mahe Nao, Mahila, The Mussalman, Mahammadi, Indian Ladies Magazine, Bangiya Musalman Sahitya Patrika, etc.
Rokeya claimed that men and women should be treated equally. From her viewpoint, lack of education opportunity for female triggered towards their substandard economic position. Rokeya emphasized over education as the prerequisite of women's liberation.
From this thought, she founded the Sakhawat Memorial Girls' High School, the first school primarily for Muslim girls. The school was initially inaugurated in Bhagalpur in 1911; but later moved to Kolkata. Rokeya visited door to door for collecting female students persuading their parents. Despite facing limitless criticism and obstacles from the society; she ran the school for 24 years until death.
In 1916, Begum Rokeya established the Muslim Women's Association, a benevolent organization that works for female education as well as employment. In 1926, Rokeya headed the Bengal Women's Education Conference organized in Kolkata.
Rokeya formed an Islamic Women's Association titled Anjuman-e-Khawateen-e-Islam. Until her death on 9 December 1932, Rokeya participated in diverse conferences and debates regarding the progress of women. Bangladesh observes 9 December as ‘Rokeya Day’ to honor her avant-garde works and legacy. In 2004, Begum Rokeya was ranked in the 6th position in BBC's poll titled the Greatest Bengali of all time.
Begum Sufia Kamal, Poet, Political Activist
Begum Sufia Kamal was born in Barishal, the then British India (Today Bangladesh) in 1911. As female education was prohibited in that period, Sufia was deprived of academic education. But though home education, she learned several languages including Bengali, Hindi, Urdu and Arabic.
In 1923, Sufia first published her short story titled ‘Shainik Bodhu’ in a local paper. In 1937, her first collection of short stories, titled ‘Keyar Kanta’ got published. Kamal’s literary career leaped when her first book of poems, Sanjher Maya released in 1938, with a preface from Kazi Nazrul Islam and commendation from Rabindranath Tagore. In 1947, Sufia Kamal started working as the first editor of Begum, a weekly magazine focused on women's issues. Among her memorable works, the most significant are Mrittikar Ghran, Ekatturer Diary, Benibinyas Samay To Ar Nei, Ekale Amader Kal, etc.
Begum Sufia Kamal actively participated in 1950s Bengali nationalist movement. In 1948, Kamal became the first chairman of Purbo Pakistan Mohila Committee. Her frontline activism continued in 1952’s Language Movement. In 1969, Kamal formed Mohila Sangram Parishad (Women's Struggle Group).
Begum Sufia Kamal secretively helped the freedom fighters through medicine supply and food delivery in the 1971’s Liberation War of Bangladesh. After independence of the country, Kamal continued her involvement in achieving women's rights. For decades, she headed Mahila Parishad, the largest women's organization of Bangladesh. She served as the first Chairperson of BRAC NGO for the period of 1972 to 1980.
The famous Bangladeshi female poet and author Begum Sufia Kamal got a bunch of prestigious awards including Bangla Academy Literary Award (Literature), Soviet Union’s Lenin Centenary Jubilee Medal, Ekushey Padak, Czechoslovakia Medal, Jatyo Kabita Parishad Award, Begum Rokeya Medal, Deshbandhu CR Das Gold Medal, Independence Day Award, etc.
Sufia Kamal fought for naming Dhaka University’s first women's dormitory as Rokeya Hall, after Begum Rokeya. In Sufia Kamal’s honor, Dhaka’s National Public Library is named as the Sufia Kamal National Public Library.
Begum Sufia Kamal breathed her last in 1999 and was the first Bangladeshi woman to get a state funeral. Google celebrated Sufia Kamal’s 108th birthday on June 20, 2019, with a Google Doodle.
Sheikh Hasina, Influential Political, Leader
The most influential Bangladeshi women leader, Sheikh Hasina – the current Prime Minister (PM) of Bangladesh – was born in 1947. She is the eldest child of Bangladesh's first President Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Since 1981, Hasina has been leading the Bangladesh Awami League (AL). In her long political career she served as the Opposition Leader of Bangladesh from 1986 to 1990, and 1991 to 1995.
She served her first term as PM of Bangladesh from 1996 to 2001. In 2009, Sheikh Hasina returned as PM with a groundbreaking victory. She became PM on third and fourth premiership in 2014 and 2019 respectively. Hasina is the longest serving Prime Minister of the country to date.
During the tenure of Hasina’s leadership as PM, the Government of Bangladesh has geared up the growth engine of Bangladesh with many revolutionary projects including, Payra Deep Sea Port, Padma Multi-Purpose Bridge, Dhaka Metro Rail, Karnafuli Underwater Tunnel, Rooppur Nuclear Plant, Dhaka-Chottogram Elevated Expressway, Rampal Power Plant, Matarbari Power Project and Deep sea Port, LNG Terminal, etc.
In the ruling period of Hasina, the country has reached many milestones. In 2015, Bangladesh achieved the status of lower middle-income country. In 2018, the country accomplished the three eligibility criteria required for graduation from the UN’s list of the Least Developed Countries (LDC) to a Developing Country. Now, Bangladesh is fully on track for graduation to a Developing Country in 2024.
In 2021, Commonwealth has named Sheikh Hasina among the top 5 inspiration women leaders in the world. In 2020, PM Hasina ranked 39th in the Forbes list of the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women. In 2019, Nigeria’s leading newspaper The Daily Leadership termed Hasina among the top 5 austere leaders in the world. She created her position in the list of "top 100 Global Thinkers" of the current decade. PM Sheikh Hasina was also ranked in Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People in the World of 2018.
Bibi Russell, Fashion Designer, Entrepreneur
Born in Chottogram in 1950, Bibi Russell acquired global reputation as a fashion designer. After completion of her primary and secondary education in Dhaka, Bibi graduated from London College of Fashion in 1975.
Bibi flourished her career as a model for several famous international magazines, including, Harper's Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, Vogue, etc. She also worked with the prominent fashion houses and participated as a fashion model in diverse international fashion shows.
After returning to Bangladesh in 1994, this talented woman stepped into the realm of entrepreneurship through founding ‘Bibi Productions,’ her own fashion house. This fashion house started working with the creative idea of merging the elements of indigenous Bengali cultural into fashion design. In the next ten years, Bibi’s company engaged about 35,000 weavers from the rural regions of Bangladesh.
In 1996, Bibi organized her first European fashion show in Paris in collaboration with UNESCO. Not to mention, this is a revolutionary endeavor as a South Asian Female fashion designer. In the next year, this gifted woman organized another fashion show in Spain, titled ‘The Colours of Bangladesh.’ In her successful career as a Bangladeshi Fashion Designer, Russell showcased her creative collections in various international fashion weeks and events, including ‘India Runway Week Season 7’.
In her pioneering journey, as a fashion designer, Bibi Russell got numerous awards and recognitions. She got the prestigious ‘Cross of Officer of the Order of Queen Isabella’ reward given by the King of Spain. She was highlighted by the Asiaweek magazine as "One of the 20 people to watch in the Millennium". London Institute awarded Russell with an Honorary Fellowship in 1999. In the same year, she was awarded the title ‘Designer for Development’ by UNESCO.
In 2001, UNESCO gave her the title of Artist for Peace. In 2004, Russell won the Peace Prize for her legendary contribution by the United Nations Associations of Spain. In 2009, she was honored with the Bangladesh National Film Award for Best Costume Design for the film ‘Moner Manush.’ To date, Bibi Russell is celebrated as the top Bangladeshi Female Fashion designer. Currently, she is a Fellow of Bangla Academy.
Wasfia Nazreen, Mountaineer, Social Activist
Born in 1982, Wasfia spent her childhood in several cities including Khulna, Chottogram and Dhaka. After the divorce of her parents at the age of 13, she experienced a traumatic childhood. Turning her trauma to stamina, Wasfia devoted herself to education. She flew to the Georgia state of United States after winning a scholarship.
While working against the human rights violations in Tibet by the Chinese government, Wasfia started mountaineering in 2006. By this courageous endeavor, Wasfia combined her inherent passions for activism and climbing. In 2011, Nazreen participated in UNPFII with the Indigenous Peoples delegates.
Nazreen launched a Campaign titled, "Bangladesh on Seven Summits" on 26 March 2011. Under this campaign she took the determination to climb each of the seven continental summits to mark women's progress in Bangladesh in the last 40 years since the independence. And, finally, on 18 November 2015, she won the crown of climbing the Seven Summits as the first Bangladeshi as well as the foremost Bengali.
Bangladeshi female mountaineer, Nazreen was recognized by National Geographic from 2014-2015 for her ground-breaking adventures. In 2016, she won the title of ‘National Geographic Explorer’ for her extraordinary contribution to women empowerment through the field of adventure. No other woman could achieve such honors for consecutive years.
The famous US magazine Outside ranked Nazreen among the top 40 women in the past 40 years and Men's Journal named her in the 25 most adventurous women in the last 25 years. Nazreen also got fame for her human rights awareness raising campaigns, such as, activisms in Tibet, global environmental impacts, sex workers and minority groups in Bangladesh, etc.
Besides her worldwide fame as a Bangladeshi mountaineer, Wasfia Nazreen is known for activism, social work and writings. Nazreen served as the first Goodwill Ambassador of BRAC (NGO), and as a Youth Ambassador for JAAGO Foundation Bangladesh. She also worked for CARE and Ösel Foundation.