In his account of daily life in Faridpur at the start of the 20th century, the British District Officer J.C. Jack observed that while many young boys were attending school, girls stayed at home, helping their mothers with household chores. He concluded that ‘the village school is not for them and it will be long before they are allowed into its precincts’.
His remarks could have easily been made of the story of Jaheda Khanum, the mother of my friend Shireen Huq. She grew up in a small village in Brahmanbaria in the 1920s when girls were not allowed into the premises of their village school. Jaheda’s own mother had not been allowed to go to school but she yearned to give her daughters the chance that had been denied to her. So she dressed Jaheda as a boy and sent her off to class. Mother and daughter kept up this pretence as long as they could but soon Jaheda had to drop out of school and finish her studies in private. Years later, married with four children, Jaheda went back to university to study Bengali literature. She became a poet and dedicated one of her books to her mother who had resorted to such ingenious means to evade society’s strictures. At the age of 79, Jaheda began to learn Sanskrit and two years later she translated Kalidas’s Meghdud into Bengali. Months before she died in 2008, Jaheda was honoured by the Government of West Bengal for her achievements.