International Women’s Day: Cuttack reformist who revolutionised women’s education
By Samiran Mishra
On the occasion of International Women’s Day, let us embark on a journey back in time to shed light on a lady called Begum Badar whose pioneering work in Cuttack, Odisha has been largely forgotten.
Begum Badar un nissa Akhtar was born into the Suhrawardy family of Midnapore in West Bengal. No contemporary Muslim family has ever produced such outstanding scholars, social reformers, writers, poets, diplomats and even ministers as the Suhrawardys.
For example, Sir Abdullah Al-Mamun Suhrawardy was a noted academic and scholar.
Khujista Akhtar Banu Suhrawardy, a social reformer, was the first Indian woman to pass the Senior Cambridge Examinations.
Huseyn Saheed Suhrawardy was the former prime minister of Pakistan while Princess Sarvath al-Hassan, a Suhrawardy, was once the Crown Princess of the ruling Hashemite royal family of Jordan.
Born in 1894, Begum Badar un nissa Akhtar was the only daughter of the then judge of Calcutta High Court, Aminuddin Al Amin Suhrawardy and the granddaughter of noted Bengali educationist Ubaidullah Al Ubaidi Suhrawardy.
After her father’s death, she married Sayeed Mohammed. Sayeed was the eldest son of Atharuddin Mohammed, the Dewan of the princely state of Dhenkanal. A freedom fighter, Atharuddin was part of the Utkal Sabha, founded by Madhusudan Das in 1882.
Sayeed followed his father’s footsteps and was instrumental in leading Odia Muslims to participate in India’s freedom struggle. He along with Ekram Rasul founded the All Odisha Khilafat Committee during the Non Cooperation Movement.
In 1913, he established the Indian nationalist Muslim Seminary in Cuttack. It’s now known as Sayeed Seminary School, a historic educational institution of the city.
Begum Badar un nissa Akhtar was a big help to her husband in educating young minds. In an era when girls’ education was unheard of in these parts, Begum Badar broke societal norms and fought fearlessly for gender equality and the right to education.
As she herself had received formal education, Begum Badar took it upon herself to go out of her way and educate young Muslim girls. Tragedy struck in 1922 when Sayeed passed away. She was then shunned by Sayeed’s family but that did not deter her from pursuing her dream.
She became a teacher at the Ravenshaw Girls High School. Young Muslim girls were not allowed to attend schools but Begum Badar went door-to-door to explain to parents the importance of education and breaking the patriarchal shackles that gripped the community.
Slowly but surely, young Muslim girls, inspired by Begum Badar, braved the harsh realities of their community and began attending school. Begum Badar even arranged two horse carriages to take the girls to Ravenshaw Girls High School and drop them home after the end of classes.
What began in her own community, spread across the city. Begum Badar reached out to the most marginalised communities and poorest localities in Cuttack and propagated the importance of education.
Besides the auditorium at Sayeed Seminary School being called the Begum Badar un nissa Assembly Hall, her contribution in the field of education between the early 20th century and India’s freedom is unfortunately lost and largely forgotten.
Begum Badar had many children with Sayeed Mohammed but the most noted among them was freedom fighter Mohammed Afzal-ul-Amin, former Congress leader and social worker.