Early life

Lawyer father becomes sufi and leaves home

Sufia Kamal was born on Monday 20 June 1911 at Rahat Manzil, Shaestabad in Barisal, the southern district of what is now Bangladesh, then part of India under British rule. Barisal has a reputation for giving birth to accomplished Bengalis. Amongst the renowned and admired personalities are Sher-e-Bangla A. K. Fazlul Haque, poet Jibonanda Das, and Bir Srestho Shaheed Captain Mohiuddin Jahangir.

Sufia was the second child and only daughter of Syed Abdul Bari, an eminent lawyer, and Sabera Banu. Her family was a zamindar (landowning) family. But unlike other families in the aristocrat Muslim gentry, Sufia Kamal's family was quite well educated and many of its members were successful professional people in administration, legal affairs and bureaucracy. Sufia saw little of her father. When she was only 7 months old and her elder brother was aged 3-and-half years her dad left the family, never to come back again. He bacame a Sufi (a Muslim saint) and left home in search of Allah. Sufia's young mother had to go back to her parent's home in Shaistabad with two little children as she had no other alternative.

She was born in the aristocratic Muslim gentry, but not as someone with a golden spoon in her mouth. Fate played a cruel game with her and she had to struggle hard for every little achievement in her life. To understand the full extent and significance of her struggle, it is necessary to focus not only on her personal life but also on the social reality and upheavals that influenced her.



Lack of opportunities for female education

Sufia Kamal grew up in a time when education, schooling, and reading was seen as 'not a women's thing to do'. This privilege was mainly restricted to male. The battle for greater female education was taken up by forward-thinking Bengali female such as Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (popularly known as Begum Rokeya). However, women's education was still restricted and viewed as unimportant by society at large.

Thankfully for Sufia her maternal extended family lived at a palatial house with a very rich library. It was here in her mama (maternal uncle) Syed Mohammad Hossain's library that Sufia educated herself with her mother's encouragement.

The extended family lived at a palatial house with a very rich library. But education, schooling, and reading - all was carried out in the male's domain. Even learning anything other than religious texts was considered immoral for the girls. There, however, were winds of change blowing, especially after Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain embarked on a mission to open the doors of education for Muslim girls. But that opportunity was confined to the large urban areas; in greater part of rural Bengal female education especially for Muslims was like the forbidden fruit.


As a child Sufia attended a Maktab, a mosque-based religious learning center where one can learn to read the Arabic scripture without knowing its meaning. However, after a brief spell, she was forced to discontinue as she was considered to have grown up. Whilst the boys of the family went to the district town to get admitted to high schools, the girls remained within the confines of the palatial building till their marriage was settled.

Thus, in accordance with aristocratic social practice of the time, Begum Sufia Kamal was given education at home. With the house tutor, she had lessons in Urdu, Arabic and Persian.

Encouraged by her mother, who taught her how to read and write Bengali, and her mama, Sufia quickly developed a passion for literature and learning.

From my uncle, I used to get information about the world outside. At night after saying prayers, all the aunts used to sit around him and he would read aloud from Bengali novels. He also knew Sanskrit quite well. He used to render in Bengali translation the stories from Sanskrit classics like Agni Vamsa, Meghdut, Rajtarangini etc. I was a little child at that time, but I still carry in my heart the pleasant sound of his reading. He also used to recite English, Bengali, Arabic, Persian and Urdu poems. He used to subscribe to various journals and I remember the horror story of 'Bunip' that was published in Bombay Chronicle which scared me to death.

Sufia Kamal,

The culture was to keep the women at home, train them in household chores and make them perfect women: docile, ready to please everyone in the family. 'There was a strong anti-British movement, and my family also believed that women should stay out of it.

But I had an indomitable nature and I crossed my limits to get a taste of all there was. I was allowed to learn Arabic and a little Persian, but not Bengali. I made it a point to learn Bengali from people working in the house.

Sufia Kamal [That became the language she used for her writing],

Even within the four walls, denied of all opportunities, Sufia Kamal as a child could feel the resonance of a greater world of art and literature.

Sufia Kamal was taught to read and write Bengali by her mother. This opened a new world to her and the family library proved to be a treasure trove where she could spend considerable time. Whatever little learning all these highly disorganized, non-formal methods offered; Sufia Kamal took full advantage of those.

Mofidul Hoque,

The young Sufia was much interested in education, but had to be content with learning Urdu, and taking secret lessons in Bangla from her mother.

But she was so adamant about going to school, something which girls from her background were not allowed to back then, that at one point she was being dressed up as a boy to attend classes. By then, she had become proficient in Urdu, Bangla, Arabic and English.


Met Begum Rokeya aged 7

In 1918, when Sufia was only 7 years old, she went to Kolkata accompanied by her mother. There she met Begum Roquiah Sakhawat Hossain. This brief encounter would have profound effect on little Sufia and that inspiration would shape her future course.

Sufia Kamal was born on 20 June 1911 to Shayestabad's nawab family in Barisal. Although raised within strict purdah, that denied her of academic education, she was self-educated in Bengali, the ostracised language of the nawabs, with the encouragement of her mother, brother and a maternal uncle. While stealing into the literary works of Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, Begum Sara Taifur and Begum Motahera Banu, at the safe haven under the beds of the nawab palace, the young Sufia aspired to be a writer herself.



Marry maternal cousin at the age of 12

At the age of 12 Sufia Kamal married her maternal cousin Syed Nehal Hossain, a young law student and an aspiring writer associated with a literary journal.

After marriage, Sufia left her nana'r bari of Shaistabad and settled in Barisal town. The town offered young Sufia her first real opportunity to come out of home as long as she was wearing the proper purdah (veil) of course. Very soon Sufia got involved in social work along with progressive Brahma women.

Nehal Hossain was a liberal man, who encouraged his wife's social welfare work as well as literary activities.

Thus the young Sufia, clad in a burqah, was able to go out to do welfare work among disadvantaged women. She was also able to develop her literary talent in Bangla.

Banglapedia - Begum Sufia Kamal

Publication of first short-story angers extended family

Inspired by her husband Nehal and the vibrant literary atmosphere of Barisal, in 1923 Sufia wrote her first short-story 'Sainik Badhu' (The Soldier Bride) and a few poems which were published in Tarun (Youth), a literary journal. But upon seeing her writing in print, her mama became furious since it violated the norms of Muslim aristocracy and took Sufia back to Shaistabad. Such was the beginning of Sufia Kamal's literary career.


Sufia and Nehal had a daughter, Amena Kahnar in 1926. Sadly in 1932 Nehal passed away and five years later 26-year-old Sufia re-married. Her second husband was Kamaluddin Ahmed. The pair had a long relationship and are survived by two daughters, Sultana Kamal and Saeeda Kamal, two sons, Shahed Kamal and Sajid Kamal, and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

We hardly used to have ordinary or commonplace food, because mother had a keen interest in cooking. She liked to prepare special dishes. She used to cook different types of food everyday.

...One interesting thing was, those who came to her, they always felt that they were the most and best loved person by her. When she spoke to anyone, she would give her full attention to that person, irrespective of whether he was a hawker, or a high official or an ambassador.

Daughter Sultana Kamal

Often on Sundays she came and cooked at our house in Kolkata. She used to tell my mother 'Nuru's mother you do the cutting and preparing of the spices, I will do the cooking'. My mother tried but her dishes were never as delicious as Sufia Khala's.

Nurjahan Begum, daughter of Mohammad Nasiruddin and editor of Begum magazine, praises Sufia Kamal's cooking

My parents, Kamaluddin Ahmad Khan and Sufia Kamal, passed away some years ago. But the values they inspired in me through their own examples, and the encouragement they provided, have been sustaining elements in my commitment to renewable energy. The book embodies those values and is nourished by their encouragement. To them I offer my loving thanks.

Son Sajed Kamal in his acknowledgement section of book “The Renewable Revolution: How we can fight climate change, prevent energy wars. Revitalize the economy and transition to a sustainable future” (2011)