Self-imposed exile is simply a matter of degree

Australian Women’s Weekly, January 16, 1974

Leaving behind family and friends in Bangla Desh, a grandmother has come to Australia to satisfy her longing for higher education.

A very young grandmother, Hasna Begum, who was 36 last month, was married at 13, which is unusual even in Bangla Desh.

“Arranged marriages are really no longer the custom in my country now,” she said when I called to see her in the outer Melbourne suburb of Clayton, where she is staying.

“Mine was the last in my family as my younger sister did not marry until after she gained her Master of Arts degree.”

Hasna Begum (which means Beauty Queen) was married to a cousin, Selim, who is ten years older but, she said, “very considerate.”

Her first child, a daughter Shama, was born when she was 14. “I was a child with a child,” she said rather ruefully. “But we had no sex education and had to cope the best way we could.”

Shama now has a six-month-old son of her own.

Lots to see

Selim, a Dacca businessman, has taken four months’ leave from his office to visit Hasna Begum, who came here in April.

“It’s the first holiday I’ve had for years, and I’m enjoying it very much indeed,” he said. “It is also
first time I have been to this country and there is a great deal to see.”

He hopes to stay until next April, when he will return to his office and the children, who are with their grandparents in Dacca.

Hasna Begum’s trip to study for her Doctorate in Philosophy at Monash University is the result, she says, of a lifetime’s craving for learning.

She was in her second year of secondary school when she left to be married, but studied for her matriculation exam which she passed with honors just before the birth of her first child. Then schooling took a back seat for the next 13 years, while four more children were born.

“With such a large family, I simply did not have the time to study, and although I constantly yearned to exercise my mind the demands of small children made it impossible,” she said.

But at 26, and with the blessing of her understanding husband who has a Bachelor of Science degree, Hasna Begum went back to night school to satisfy her longing for study.

Made sacrifices

“It’s true that in my country we could afford one or two servants to help in the house,” she said, “but we were by no means well off.”

“I had to make considerable sacrifices to continue my studies, and while we had security and a very loving home, we lived very much from one meal to the next.”

She was supported strongly in her desire for higher learning by her mother, whom she describes as a very intelligent woman who did not have the opportunity to study.

“As Muslims, our society is very, very conservative, especially in its attitude toward the education and position of women,” she said.

“At 13 I wore a veil as well as a sari, and, for women, higher education was really only for the very privileged. This is changing, of course, but I still feel that my struggles could encourage other women to use their minds, too.”

By the time Hasna Begum reached university, her daughter Shama was also enrolled and specialising in the sciences. The year they graduated, both gained first class honors in their subjects, and topped their classes.

Hasna Begum’s second daughter Gul has completed her matriculation exams, third daughter Mahe is 16 and studying hard, only son Kamaluddin is 13 and already finding it hard to choose between philosophy or mathematics as his specialty, and youngest daughter Lala (nicknamed Tori) is at primary school in Melbourne.

The only child to accompany Hasna Begum, Tori is enrolled at a Nottinghill primary school, near Monash. Obviously very proud to be accompanying her mother, she is missing her brother and life in Dacca.

“It’s amazing actually, the way my children and my husband have supported my studying.” Hasna Begum said. “They have never resented it. I think I must be unusually lucky.”

Her eldest daughter seems to be following her academic lead. “Shama is arranging for someone to care for her son while she finishes her master’s degree in statistics at Magill University in Canada,” Hasna Begum said. “When she wrote and asked my advice what to do, I said that if I could do it with five children, then she had no problems!”

“I don’t tell my children what they should do or how they should lead their lives. I simply outline the choices for them to help them make up their own minds.”

“I did this when my second daughter wrote and said she was thinking of getting married. I thought she was a little young at 19, and wrote to tell her so. Our letters crossed, and I found Gul had reached the same conclusion, and had written to tell me.”

“I am very lucky in my relationships with my children because so far they have nearly always decided on what I would have hoped for them in the first place.”

Surprises here

Hasna Begum is astonished by the lack of women in public life in Australia. She finds it amazing that there are few women in either local, State, or Federal government and comparatively few in the professions.

“My country, the under developed country, has a very different attitude toward women,” she said. “About 50 percent of our doctors are women, there is no discrimination in any of the professions, and 25 percent of seats in our legislature is set aside for women.”

“In my field, if you are a scholar, then you are first and foremost a scholar and whether you are a man or a woman is unimportant. I have found anomalies in this regard in Australia, but I have been fortunate in that when I pointed them out, they have mostly been waived.”

Like millions of others, Hasna Begum and her family suffered during the civil war in Bangla Desh in 1971.

She is a fervent Bengali nationalist. “We have our own language and culture and it is wonderful to have it recognised by the outside world at last,” she said.

“It was sheer luck that none of my immediate family was killed during the war, for all around us friends, colleagues, and neighbors were executed or killed in the fighting.”

“My son-in-law was picked up by the military and questioned and my daughter went to plead for his release. The price of his freedom was her ‘friendship,’ but we managed to spirit them out of the country to Karachi, then on to Rome, and then Scotland, where they stayed until after the end of the war.”

“There was virtually no civil life in Dacca from March until about September. There were terrible food shortages and we had about 40 people living in our house for refuge.”

“We are in the centre of the diplomatic area, which was a haven of safety comparatively, but we still waited every night for the soldiers to come.”

“They came very close and we fled, all 40 of us, in a convoy to a village some distance from Dacca. But the Pakistan Army closed in with tanks and gunboats and we had to take to the fields for safety.”

“Then we sheltered in friends’ houses for a month, never spending two nights in the same place, before eventually feeling it was safe to return.”

In 1971 Hasna, then a research fellow at Dacca University, wanted to further her studies in the United Kingdom or the U.S.

“In Bangla Desh we know nothing about the academic life in Australia.” she said. “I had no idea of the standard I could expect here or the range of studies available.”

“But I read a book that interested me very much – ‘Empiricism and Ethics’ by Professor D. H. Monroe, of Monash University.”

“I wrote to him and told him that I admired his book and would like to complete my studies under his supervision.”

“He replied, sending application forms that unfortunately were waylaid in Karachi during the fighting. He wrote again when I was lecturing in the Philosophy Department at Dacca, advising me to reapply, which I did, and here I am, enjoying my studies and learning a great deal about your country.”

When she’s not studying, Hasna Begum finds time to go shopping in the city’s markets and has bought material to make more of the elegant saris she wears.

“They’re so much more flattering to the figure,” she said happily, “and I’ve really put on too much weight for trousers.”

“Maybe when the cold weather sets in next winter I shall take the plunge and get into trousers. I think they are more practical in this climate.”

Hasna Begum has her head down now and hopes to complete her thesis in less than the five years allowed. But then, she has a strong incentive. “Five years is a very long time to be separated from my family.”

This article was written by Anna Salt and published in Australian Women’s Weekly on January 16, 1974.