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Shamsunnahar was a teacher who had to struggle all her life to be educated and independent. She was born in the village of Guthuma into a comparatively liberal family; her father could count among his relations Fazlul Karim, one of the first Muslim graduates of Bengal, and her mother’s side also had reformers and educationists. Nevertheless, she grew up in strict purdah.

At first she attended Dr Khastagir’s Girls’ School in Chittagong, and mingled with the Hindu Bengali girls there who were to grow up to be revolutionaries; she remembered this in her memoir Ami Jokhon Chhatri Chhilam (When I Was a Student) as an exciting time of discovery. Then, at the age of nine when she was in Class 6, she was taken out of school to observe purdah.

Her studies continued at home, with a thick curtain separating her from a male Hindu tutor. Somewhat to everyone’s surprise, she passed her matriculation examination with brilliant marks. The following year she married Dr Wahiduddin Mahmud, who encouraged her to fight for her education. Then came the next phase of the struggle, about which the poet Nazrul Islam wrote to her in comradeship and commiseration, ‘I do not know what is to become of you … I suspect that whoever your guardian may be, the light of the twentieth century cannot touch him. Perhaps that is why you have to plead and weep to procure permission to go to college.’ She did eventually get permission, but not before she had been married off. She also began publishing poetry, her first poem ‘Angur’ appeared in a juvenile magazine. To the young city girls of the 1920s she was an amusing figure in her all-enveloping burqa, but she turned the ridicule once again to astonishment when she came twentieth in the whole University in the Intermediate Arts examination of Calcutta University. While a student she edited the women’s’ sections of the magazines Naoroz and Atmashakti. She wrote Punyamayi (1925), while Nazrul dedicated his book Sindhu Hindol (1927) to ‘Bahar and Nahar’, ie Shamsunnahar and her brother.

She graduated with distinction in 1928, and was felicitated by Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain (q.v.) on the occasion. When in 1939 the Lady Brabourne College was set up, Shamsunnahar accepted a teaching post there. In 1942, at the height of World War II, she appeared for her Master’s degree as a private candidate. She has written of her association with Nazrul Islam in Nazrulke Jemon Dekhechhi (Nazrul as I Saw Him). She was secretary of the Nikhil Banga Muslim Mahila Samiti (all Bengal Muslim Women’s Society) and established the Centre for Rehabilitation of Disabled Children in 1961. She was elected to the National Assembly in 1962. From 1933 with her brother Habibullah Bahar, she edited Bulbul in Kolkata. She wrote in Bengali Phulbagicha (1935) Begum Mahal (1937) a life of Roqeya in 1937, a number of travelogues and Shishur Shiksha (Lessons for Children, 1939)
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