Friday, 31 March, 2023

Unsung Heroes: Role of Women in Language Movement

Prasun Goswami

Unsung Heroes: Role of Women in Language Movement
Prasun Goswami

Oh, a tale of valorous women I shall unfold, who played a pivotal role in the Language Movement of 1952, a landmark event in the annals of Bangladesh. In those days, the government of Pakistan sought to impose Urdu as the sole state language of the land, a decision that the people of East Bengal could not abide by. On February 21, 1952, a procession was organised by students and activists in Dhaka to voice their dissent. Alas, their peaceful demonstration was met with brutal violence from the police, leading to the tragic demise of several protestors. This abominable act kindled a fierce flame in the hearts of many, and protests and strikes erupted across the land, with women leading the charge.

Amidst the turmoil, the women of East Bengal stood tall, defying the prevailing conservative social norms of their time. They actively participated in protests, rallies and other activities to demand the recognition of Bangla as a state language and to resist the imposition of Urdu. According to sagacious historian Rounaq Jahan, ‘women's participation was remarkable’ in the face of such adversity. Not only did they join the protests as participants but they also assumed the roles of organisers, writers and speakers.

Women's groups like Nari Sangbadik Kendra (Women's Journalist Centre) and Mahila Atmaraksha Samiti (Women's Defence Committee) played a vital role in mobilising women for the cause. They rallied women from all walks of life to stand up for their language and culture. Women also penned poignant articles and poems in Bangla to express their support for the movement and to demand recognition of their mother tongue. As noted by historian Tazeen M. Murshid, “Women played a significant role in the Language Movement.”

Thus, in the annals of Bangladesh's history, the women of East Bengal carved a stirring tale of bravery, resilience and unwavering determination. They showed the world that the power of the human spirit is mightier than the sword and that the might of the pen can indeed move mountains.

In the Language Movement, fair maidens of the rural persuasion did not shy away from taking a stand. They fearlessly defied the constraints of society and culture to add their voices to the protests. As historian Afsan Chowdhury attests, women from all walks of life, including tillers, labourers and housewives, were united in their devotion to their language and culture.

But their contributions were not merely confined to the throngs that marched in the streets. They also played a vital role in the organisation and support of the movement. Women's organisations like the Muslim Women's Association and the Women's Voluntary Service selflessly provided sustenance, shelter and medical care to protesters. They also took on the task of disseminating information about the movement through the distribution of pamphlets, posters and other materials.

The Language Movement left an indelible mark on the political and social landscape of Bangladesh. It ignited a passion within the people of Bangladesh, who demanded that their language and culture be recognised. The Movement served as a precursor to the Bengali nationalist movement, which culminated in the independence of Bangladesh in 1971. Women played a critical role in this struggle for freedom and democracy, and their sacrifices will always be remembered.

Verily, the Language Movement of 1952 proved to be a momentous occasion in the annals of Bangladeshi history, for it saw the dawn of a new era wherein women emerged as active agents of social and political change. The Movement, by challenging traditional gender roles and expectations, provided a platform for women to assert their rights and demand equality.

As esteemed feminist historian Naila Kabeer affirms, “The Language Movement marked a watershed moment in the history of women's struggle for empowerment and emancipation in Bangladesh.” Indeed, it imbued women with a sense of agency and self-worth, kindling in their fervour to take up leadership roles in various spheres of life.

Regrettably, the contribution of women to the Language Movement has been relegated to the margins of mainstream narratives of the Movement. However, recent scholarship has sought to rectify this by casting a spotlight on the role of women in the struggle for linguistic and cultural rights.

As historian Niaz Zaman elucidates, “Women's contribution to the Language Movement was not merely symbolic, but substantive. It helped to galvanise a broader base of support for the Movement and subverted the patriarchal structures of society.”

The legacy of the Language Movement continues to be a source of inspiration for women in Bangladesh and beyond, instilling in them the spirit to challenge gender inequality and fight for their rights. Women's participation in the Movement paved the way for the feminist movement in Bangladesh, which has since made great strides in advancing the cause of gender equality.

In the final analysis, fair maidens played a momentous role in the Language Movement of 1952, contributing to the cause of linguistic and cultural rights while challenging traditional gender roles and expectations. Their participation was not merely a symbolic gesture, but a substantive one, as they played a critical role in organising and mobilising support for the movement.

The influence of the Language Movement and the contribution of women to it remains a source of inspiration and empowerment for the women of Bangladesh and beyond. It has given rise to a feminist movement in Bangladesh that has made noteworthy advancements in recent times, advocating for women's rights and gender equality.

As feminist historian Mahua Sarkar rightly observes, “The Language Movement of 1952 was not merely about language, but about asserting one's identity and culture, which are fundamental to any struggle for freedom and democracy.” Women were pivotal to this cause, and their significant contribution warrants recognition and gratitude.

It is crucial to acknowledge and celebrate the contribution of women to the Language Movement and other social and political struggles, ensuring that their voices are heard and their rights are protected. This is fundamental to building a fair and equitable society, where women can thrive and contribute to the nation's progress.


The writer is an Assistant Professor, Department of English, Dhaka Residential Model College