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     Volume 7 Issue 31 | August 1, 2008 |

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A Dedicated Educationist

Elita Karim

Nawab Faizunnessa Chowdhurani was the first female Nawab in South Asia. Born in 1834 in Pachimgaon, Lakhsham in Comilla, Faizunnessa was the daughter of the famous Zamindar parents in Comilla back in the day, Zamindar Ahmed Ali Chowdhury and Arafanessa Chowdhurani. A descendent of the Mughal emperors, she had two brothers, Yakub Ali Chowdhury and Yusuf Ali Chowdhury and two sisters Latifunessa Chowdhurani and Amirunessa Chowdhury.

Like all her brothers and sisters, Faizunnessa was raised in a conservative Muslim family, where the women would maintain a strict purdah system. However, this did not stop her from observing the world around her and ask questions. Unlike the others, Faizunnessa was quite liberal in her thoughts and was not at all superstitious. As was the trend in those days, female children were never sent to schools outside the four walls of their homes. Seeing her keen interest to learn, Faizunnessa's father finally engaged a home tutor for her. In spite of no formal education whatsoever, Faizunnessa had soon become fluent in Bangla, Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit. Her marriage to Syed Mohammad Ghazi in the year 1860 did not stop her from educating herself. After mothering two daughters, Arshadunnessa and Badrunnessa, Faizunnessa became the first female poet in British India and had her first book, Rupjalal, published in 1876, which was dedicated to her husband. Soon after, in 1889, Faizunnessa was given the title 'Nawab' by Queen Victoria, the first and the last female to be ever bestowed such a title in the subcontinent.

A pioneer in women's education and emancipation in this part of the world, she established the Faizunnessa English High School in Comilla in 1873, a good seven years before the birth of Begum Rokeya. Having constructed at least 14 primary schools, several hospitals, roads, bridges and ponds, Faizunnessa was widely known for her humanitarian and charitable work. In 1894, when she had performed her hajj, Faizunnessa established a Rest House for the Hajees in Makkah and a madrasa in Madinah.

At the time when sporadic efforts were taking place to develop the condition of education in this part of the world, “a Musilm woman came forward with a daring plan to set up a school for purdanasin girls in Comilla,” writes Sonia Nishat Amin, professor of History at University of Dhaka, in her book The World of Muslim Women in Colonial Bengal, 1876-1939. In the chapter dedicated to Nawab Faizunnessa, From Andarmahal to High School: Faizunnesa's Pioneering Work, Amin writes about how at a time when “the scions of the Muslim Awakening, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan in North India and Abdul Lateef in Bengal hardly gave the matter much thought, Faizun felt that women must be by the side of men in the path to modernity.” She had also built a 10-tombed mosque and a madrasa for secondary school students in Pachimgaon, which is now known as the Nawab Faizunnessa Government College. She had also donated ten thousand takas, a huge amount back in those days, for the establishment of the Victoria College in Comilla.

Nawab Faizunnessa Chowdhurani's family home in Comilla

Faizunnisa had set up three categories of education - religious schools, schools for boys and schools for girls. She had established a free madrasa at her residence, which later on, in 1943, was converted into the Higher Secondary Islamia College and the Gazi Atia Madrasa. While establishing primary schools for boys, Faizunnisa was aided by her daughter, the famous Badrunnessa, in setting up the Nawab Faizunnessa and Badrunnessa High School for boys. The English Middle School was raised to the status of a high school under Calcutta University in 1909.

In spite of hailing from a strict Muslim background, Faizunnessa was known to have been equally supportive of the non-Muslim people living around her, especially the women. According to Sonia Amin's research, Kalicharan De, a noted Brahmo of Comilla, aided Faizun in her efforts. Even though Faizun was renowned for her philanthropic works, her single greatest achievement was the founding of the girls' school at Kandir Par, several decades before Begum Rokeya set up hers in Calcutta, yet another personality who had worked to establish a strong platform for female education in Bengal. “However, most of the pupils were from Brahmo or Hindu families,” writes Sonia Amin, “and it is doubtful whether any Muslim girl studied in the school till the early Twentieth century.”

SA Zarina Mohsin, one of the descendents of Nawab Faizunnesa Chodhurani, is working on a private documentary on Faizun. “I started working and researching on my great-great-great grandmother on 19th July and have been fascinated with her life,” she says. According to Zarina, no one seems to be interested in exploring the history anymore. “It was important for me to know my background,” she says. “I was eager to know about what happened 105 years ago, which was eventually buried away.” The documentary that Zarina is working on will feature Faizun's activities and the significant role that she has played in developing the education sector in Bengal. “This has been a huge challenge but I feel honoured to have taken it up.”

Nawab Faizunnessa's work in the establishment and development of education for girls exists even today, in the form of the several educational institutions which have been running successfully to date in different parts of Bangladesh and West Bengal. It is because of the likes of her that thousands of women in this part of the world have been able to taste a little bit of the freedom that they still crave for even today.

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