(This week we bring the life and struggles of Ms. Sulema Khatun, Mahendraganj, Meghalaya and how she found pride and solace through education in her own words . Admin. )
I am going to be a septuagenarian soon. I am a retired school teacher from Mahendraganj located in the state of Meghalaya bordering Bangladesh, where I worked in a small village. I grew up in a big family with five brothers and one sister. In our family, except my mother, nobody was educated. My mother, Amrul Nessa, passed Class III approximately in 1935 during the British rule. She was offered a scholarship because of her extra-ordinary performance. British government had offered her a job. But she had to decline that as women going out and working was considered a matter of dishonor in the society in those days. My father and his brothers were engaged in agriculture and agro business. Except the horse-drawn carriages, there was no other means of transportation in those days. Women were married off at an early age. The only journey they could take was to travel to their maternal house in a fully covered bullock cart. There was only one Girls’ Primary School (Majherchar Govt. Girls School established in 1929) situated near my mother’s house where education up to class III was offered through the medium of Bangla. A Middle School offering education up to Class V was situated at about 20 km away. One Boy’s school was situated at about 8 km away from our village. Only one teacher was there. It was near impossible to commute in those days due to lack of transportation and roads. Majority of the people were illiterate and worked as farmers, rest were small traders.
My mother was 20 years old when she completed her education up to class III. She couldn’t study further since the schools were far away from her house. She was married off with her cousin who was illiterate. After her marriage in 1941, she bought books and taught the basic reading skill to my father. Later, my father read a lot of books and became a knowledgeable person in the community. My mother also ensured that my adolescent uncles were admitted in the nearby schools. One of my uncles later completed education up to class VI and another till class X, and both of them got jobs. My mother’s contribution in educating the whole family was significant in this way. Along with my uncles, my elder brothers were also sent to the school. We were a big group with all the siblings together and enjoyed going to school together in 1960s. In those days, schooling for children started only after 8-10 years of age. Going to school at the age of 3 or 4 was beyond imagination. We were regular in the school and that helped us a lot in gaining knowledge. My elder sister was married off after she completed Class VIII. For being a girl-child, her education was not a priority at all. She was offered a job. But she too had to decline it due to the social patriarchal norms.
I studied in a co-education school in our village. By the time I completed Class III, a new school offering education up to Class V was established with only one male teacher. I was fortunate that soon after completing Class V, another school offering education up to Class X was established with only one male teacher from West Bengal. However, all my female classmates were married off once they reached Class VI. Some were stopped from attending the school even before that as marriage proposals started coming for them. Women with higher education were not considered worthy enough to get married. I was the sole woman attending Class VIII and because of that my father stopped my schooling. A lone girl in the class among the boys and a male teacher around was considered a matter of disgrace in the society. My father started looking for a groom for me.
In those days, I was a book-worm and enjoyed reading the famous Bengali writers like Rabindranath Tagore, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, Swami Vivekananda etc. I was obsessed about reading books. I couldn’t sleep without reading at least a few pages. Writings of the great writers, religious book, fictions etc. used to inspire me a lot. I was deeply shocked and upset when my father stopped my schooling. Depression was killing me inside and the memories of the school were constantly haunting me. I started thinking of a way to go back to the school. One day, when my father was away, I went to meet the Head-master of the High school secretly. I touched his feet and explained my situation and the hurdles for my schooling to him. With tears, I expressed my strong desire to continue with my studies. The head-master was shocked. He assured me that he would speak to my father and do something for me. Next day, he visited our house and asked my father to let me go to school. He said that it would be an honour for the school if I could complete education up to Matriculation as the first female student of the school. Somehow, my father was convinced and he allowed me to go to the school again. My father never knew what I did to make this happen. I started going to school from the next day and there was no more problem in my education till I reached Class IX.
Once I reached Class X, bad days started again. My elder brother was studying in the Agricultural University at Jorhat in Assam. It was difficult for the family to meet his expenses. I was forced to stop my education. I had to take up a job of teaching at the age of fifteen. It was around the year of 1968. More schools started to be opened by then. I had to walk 3-4 kilometres everyday to reach the school where I was posted. I couldn’t stop my tears when I met my classmates sometimes on the way. My job was in a primary school and the sessions were from 7 am to 11 am. After my work, I used to go to the High school and attended a few classes. The teachers were very supportive and used to give me private tuitions for free so that I could continue with my education.
My earning was of rupees 85 per month and it was a standard salary in those days. I could pay all the debts we had and also supported my brother’s education. My other brothers also could continue with their education with that money. My brothers’ fees were high. And I had to sacrifice my own education for them. I couldn’t pay the examination fees for appearing in the Class X examination- which was the school-final examination. Whenever the time to apply for appearing in the examination came, my brother in the Agriculture University asked for additional money for his examination fees. Money from my salary was sent to him and I was told to wait for the next term. In the next three years, the same thing continued and I couldn’t appear in the examination due to shortage of money -- though I was the one earning.
My brother graduated from the Agriculture University in 1970 -- a rare honour in those days; and I was married off in January, 1971. It was only after my marriage that my husband gave me money to pay the examination fees and I could appear in the examination. I passed successfully and became the first woman to complete matriculation in Mahendraganj. But my dream to study in a college remained unfulfilled ever since. If I could continue with further studies then I could have a better career prospect.
My brother became a big officer after completing his B. Sc. in agriculture while I remained a school teacher. A sense of inequality and ill-treatment in the family grew for me in comparison to my brother. That used to hurt me a lot. My parents were very happy and proud with the success of my brother. I was almost forgotten, and everyone in the family soon forgot to recognize or acknowledge my contribution. Within a few years and after getting further promotions, my brother snapped all ties with me and other siblings as his standard became higher as an officer than ours; and we hardly meet after that.
My enthusiasm for reading kept me alive. I have 5 children -- three daughters and two sons. My children became my sole dream and I decided to fulfill my unfulfilled dreams through their education. I was determined to do everything for their higher education. All my children completed Post-Graduation. Two of my daughters completed Ph.D. All of them are now well-established and doing well in life. This is my happiness and pride.
Later I became the Head-mistress of the primary girls’ school where my mother studied. I supported education of five girls till they completed matriculation, and one of the completed BA. I retired in 2011, and since then I write poems and publish them in various magazines. I have four books of my poems till now. I am also involved in social work related to gender-equality in my village.
At this age when I look back to my life, I thank my mother and her vision. Without her education and empowerment, it would have been impossible to be where I am today. It’s rightly said that “When you educate a woman, you educate generations”.