Bangladeshi philosopher, feminist author, and social activist Hasna Begum dead at 85

Hasna Begum, former professor of philosophy at the University of Dhaka in Bangladesh, has died. She was known for her work in feminist, social, and moral philosophy, her poetry, and her love and kindness toward others.

Hasna was born on February 24, 1935 in Dhaka in what was then the British Raj. She went to school in Kolkata and Dhaka until her family arranged for her to get married at the age of only thirteen. For the next thirteen years, during which she gave birth to six children, she dedicated all of her time to her family. She then resumed her education and earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Dhaka in 1968, followed by a master’s degree from the same university in 1969. In 1978, she was awarded a PhD in Philosophy by Monash University in Australia, where she was the first doctoral advisee of Peter Singer, now the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. For her dissertation, which was later published as a book, she investigated the moral philosophy of British philosopher G. E. Moore.

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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.

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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.

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