Housewife to Professor, by Hasna Begum

Almost everything about my birth as a girl from a middle class family in the subcontinent presaged my life as a dutiful daughter, a good wife and mother. I was the elder of two daughters of Abdul Hafiz, a man of extraordinary scholarly achievement, and his wife Rabeya Khatun, modestly educated but an independent thinker. She saw no reason why her children’s gender should hold them back. My life began in 1935 in Dhaka, East Bengal, at the home of my mother’s elder brother, Dr. Momtazuddin Ahmed, House Tutor of Salimullah Muslim Hall. Dr. Shahanara Husain is my only sister.

As a young girl, I was enrolled in school in Kolkata. These were years of extreme political upheaval and communal strife among Hindus and Muslims at the conclusion of British colonial subjugation. Thus my early education was mostly home tutoring. When my family moved to East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, I actually completed an entire school year. My schooling was once again interrupted when my 39 year old cousin requested my hand in marriage when I was barely fourteen. My mother did not wish this for me and with her brother’s help, hastily arranged my marriage to the eldest son of Professor Kazemuddin Ahmed, Nuruddin Md. Selim. I became a young wife in 1949 and a mother to my first daughter within a year.

My mother had kept me enrolled in school to make it possible for me to take my Matriculation exams. I received a First Division despite very little preparation and while three months pregnant! I spent the next thirteen years of my life giving birth to six children and looking after my family. This kept me totally occupied. I did not keep up with current affairs and, amazingly, was not even aware of the Language Movement.

I took a job as a teacher in a local kindergarten to help with household expenses. But I soon quit, stung by a remark made by the headmistress because I was not a graduate. Thus began my journey to remedy this shortcoming. I enrolled in a night college as one of the few women. I continued on to get an Honors degree in Philosophy at Dhaka University followed by a Masters. I was awarded a First Class on both occasions and was also first in class. In 1972, I became a Lecturer in Philosophy at Dhaka University. I applied abroad and was eventually accepted as a Doctoral Candidate at Monash University in Melbourne. It was challenging to convince my family, particularly my father. My husband was encouraging. He took on the responsibility of looking after our remaining family.

I arrived in Melbourne with my youngest daughter. My supervisor, Prof. D. H. Monro, was known to be very difficult to please. I chose G. E. Moore’s philosophy as the topic of my dissertation. Prof. Monro asked me to write an essay on this. The next six months, I worked on the essay. My supervisor was very pleased with it and asked me to start to write the chapters. My husband came to visit and my daughter left with him in January 1974 as she missed her siblings.

My work was progressing smoothly but I became home-sick. I had a pleasant month-long visit home in February 1975. The next one year, I worked very hard and almost finished the write up. I fell in love with Melbourne. Despite that, I started missing my family and left for Dhaka in February 1976 to return in March. This time my family looked tired and mismanaged. My husband was not well. My parents had become older and less capable.

In June 1976, one night I dreamt that my only son was behaving like a mad person. I left for Dhaka on 26th June and reached Dhaka on 28th morning to find that my son was sick and my husband in hospital. This trip lasted for one full year. When they became better I decided to leave for Melbourne again. But almost everyone discouraged me and I became confused. I went to my friend, philosopher and guide, Begum Sufia Kamal. She advised me to go and finish my work as soon as possible and return. She asked, if I died today, would all my family members also die, and as a beautiful woman if I returned without the degree my colleagues and relatives would say that I had gone to enjoy myself. She exhorted me to go and finish what I had begun.

After talking to Sufia Kamal, I decided to go back to Melbourne and reached in the 1st week of July. But Prof. Monro had retired and was therefore ineligible to supervise me anymore. My new supervisor was Prof. Peter Singer. I had some difficulties adjusting to my new supervisor with a very different disposition. However, I finished my thesis with Peter (who is now a renowned Professor at the Princeton University) and returned to Dhaka with the PhD Degree and joined the Philosophy Department of the Dhaka University on 28th April 1978. Prof. Singer (in 1991) involved me with the International Association of Bioethics, giving me the opportunity to learn more and attend conferences and seminars on Bioethics around the world.

In 1980, I became an Associate Professor and a Professor in 1988. I was the Chair of the Department from 1991 to 1993. I also translated some classic philosophical texts into Bengali; my thesis was published by the Dhaka University. I wrote articles and collections of my articles were published. I retired in 2000 and was appointed Honorary Professor of Dhaka University in 2009. The greatest honor I received was the ‘Rokeya Chair’ awarded by the UGC for two years. The young girl who had never even dreamt of setting foot past the gate of the Dhaka University finally became a professor despite the loss of 13 years. Me, Hasna Begum, the housewife was able to wander the wide horizon of education with labor, perseverance and sacrifice to expand and fulfill my life. I am satisfied and my heart is at peace. This is all I had yearned and endeavored for.

This article was written by Hasna Begum and first published in the Dhaka Courier on February 2, 2018.