HIGHLIGHTS

  • At the age of 23, she began organizing a crippled children’s center.
  • Abdullah became an instructor at the now Bangladesh Academy for Rural Development in Comilla, working with women on adult literacy, nutrition and creation of cooperatives to promote income generating programs based on women’s subsistence level agricultural activities.
  • She and associates gathered the facts and gained the understanding essential to designing a sound program, and identified farmers’ wives who were potential leaders and enlisted them in training classes.
  • The RMAF Board of Trustees recognizes her “leading rural Bangladeshi Muslim women from the constraints of purdah toward more equal citizenship and fuller family responsibility.”

 CITATION

Women in Bangladesh have benefited little from the modernizing influences that during the past three decades have changed the lives of millions of Muslim women elsewhere. Instead, during this same period the veiling, ankle-length burkha has become increasingly a mark of status among village women in Bangladesh.

This cumbersome, cloth-shielding of women symbolizes their restricted role and denial of opportunities in the society. In the villages, where about 90 percent of Bangladesh’s more than 80 million people live in one of the world’s most densely populated lands, women are segregated from work in the rice fields and markets and confined to tasks within the home compound. As a result of their “invisibility” and the difficulty researchers had in penetrating the seclusion of purdah, the agricultural work women were doing?seed preservation and storage, rice and other food processing, vegetable and fruit growing, poultry raising and livestock care?remained obscure. Consequently national planning for development has focused primarily upon men, even to the point of giving men those aspects of women’s work that is seen as productive of extra income. Family planning is likewise handicapped by the seclusion of rural women and their limited participation in family decision-making.

TAHRUNNESA ABDULLAH, born in 1937 in Jessore, in the portion of India that became Bangladesh, studied social work. At the age of 23 she began organizing a crippled children’s center. Later, after two years as a district health education officer, she became an instructor at the now Bangladesh Academy for Rural Development in Comilla, working with women on adult literacy, nutrition and creation of cooperatives to promote income generating programs based on women’s subsistence level agricultural activities. In 1974 she was appointed Joint Director of the government’s Integrated Rural Development Program where her special concern has been creation of women’s cooperatives and family planning.

By her modesty and sincerity Mrs. ABDULLAH won the confidence of rural women so long semi-isolated. She and associates gathered the facts and gained the understanding essential to designing a sound program, and identified farmers’ wives who were potential leaders and enlisted them in training classes. Necessarily, these were courageous women, ready to endure public, usually male, scorn in their villages in order to take the first small steps toward improving their families’ livelihood.

From such modest beginnings, 180 rural women’s cooperative societies now are functioning in 19 thanas, one in every district, with nearly 5,000 shareholding members. Their small industries are all based on work customarily done by women and geared to utilizing local resources. The objective is to expand their activities so as to produce marketable surpluses.

In leading the rural women of Bangladesh to a new and more effective role in their society, Mrs. ABDULLAH is challenging entrenched traditional customs. Through her dedication, patience and creativity she is mobilizing these Muslim women, themselves, to sever the bonds that must be removed for national village progress, and has herself become a respected voice in national councils.

In electing TAHRUNNESA AHMED ABDULLAH to receive the 1978 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, the Board of Trustees recognizes her leading rural Bangladeshi Muslim women from the constraints of purdah toward more equal citizenship and fuller family responsibility.

 RESPONSE

No language can describe the gratitude that I want to express for honoring me with such a great Award. I want to thank the Board of Trustees and the people of the Philippines on behalf of myself, my family, my people, especially the women and the Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, for this unique honor.

On this important evening in my life, I recall the late President Ramon Magsaysay, who endeared himself to thc people of the Philippines and the world by his devoted and sincere service to the cause of his fellowmen. I also remember Mr. Akhter Hameed Khan, under whose able guidance I started working with the most underprivileged of people anywhere?the rural women of Bangladesh; he was a Magsaysay Awardee in 1963. I also remember my colleagues and friends in and outside the government in my country, who always actively supported my program. Last but not least, I remember my sisters in rural Bangladesh who, with their scanty resources, are determined to bridge the gap of centuries in years in bringing a change in their lives.

I believe development cannot have its full impact unless the cause of women is woven into the overall cause of community progress. Development is total or it is ineffective. Women’s participation in development is a goal in its own right. I think by giving me the Award you have really honored the simple, hardworking and underprivileged women, who live and die unnoticed, unheard of in the countless villages of my country and in many other Asian, Latin American and African states. Though almost half the population of any country, they are trampled on, pushed around and looked down upon as a result of centuries of neglect, superstition and segregation.

Most of the rural women in Bangladesh feel bound by village standards of purdah. In effect women are physically confined to their households. They perform much of their work, which tends to be sex-specific, within the shelter of their courtyards. The result is that women have access to the world outside purdah only through intermediaries – young children, fathers, brothers and grown sons.

We, the few privileged people living in the cities, have no concept of their hardship and limitations. Obedience, self-sacrifice and submission are the social strategies women use to provide themselves some guarantee of security and survival.

It has been my privilege to get to know them through rural women’s cooperatives which are based on the recognition that rural women are integrated in the household and rural economy of Bangladesh. Because they are sexually segregated in their work and in social functions, separate cooperatives for women are considered necessary at this point to enable them to have direct access to supervised credit, inputs, modern knowledge and leadership training. Women must be enabled to make their own creative contribution. The integration of rural women in the social, economic and political life of the community will enhance women’s personal dignity and lead them toward more equal citizenship and fuller family responsibility.

Through my humble work I have just touched the fringe of the immense problem that lies ahead in ameliorating the condition of rural women in Bangladesh.

I am sure your recognition of this work will encourage the dedicated sincere people who have been and will be working to bring about improvement in the condition of underprivileged women all over the world, to enable them to stand beside their fathers, brothers and sons with dignity, honor and in equal usefulness.

I conclude with my grateful thanks once again to the members of the Board of Trustees and the people of the Philippines.

 BIOGRAPHY

TAHRUNNESA AHMED ABDULLAH was born on April 21, 1937 in the village of Ghoragachha, Jhenida subdivision of Jessore district, East Bengal, India (to become East Pakistan in 1947 and Bangladesh in 1971). Had she come from an average Bengali Muslim family she would have expected to remain illiterate, to be married soon after puberty and to have spent the rest of her life confined to her home, barring occasional excursions under the head-to-toe covering of a burkha (veil). Instead, her father, Rafiuddin Ahmed, a lawyer at the Dacca High Court and son of a prominent Bengali Muslim family, and her mother, Anwari Ahmed, followed his family’s custom and gave their eight daughters as fine an education as, and some of the freedoms of, their five sons.

Educated in Calcutta, Rafiuddin Ahmed had begun practicing law in the Calcutta High Court and in 1950, after partition, had moved his family to Dacca, capital of the portion of Bengal that became East Pakistan. The Ahmeds, one reporter wrote of the greater family, was one “where dozens of educated women go to form a galaxy of achievers.” TAHRUNNESA, the fourth child, suspects that her father, whom she describes as her friend and guide, “liked his daughters more than his sons.” He gave preference to their education, she says, and “when we achieved something he was very proud of it.”

Her first four years of primary school were taken at Shishu Bidda Pithh (1943 through 1946), followed by fifth through eighth grades at Sakhawat Memorial Girls High School, both in Calcutta. She next attended the Kamrunnesa Government Girls High School (1950-1953) in Dacca and received a Bachelor of Arts from Eden Girls’ College, University of Dacca, in 1958. Encouraged to study social work by her eldest sister, Dr. Kamrunnesa Islam, she then attended the College of Social Welfare and Research Center (also affiliated with Dacca University and now a department called the Institute of Social Welfare and Research), receiving her Master of Arts in the school’s first graduating class in 1960.

(For the complete biography, please email biographies@rmaf.org.ph)