By Zubeida Mustafa
HER entire life was a series of battles she fought for the disadvantaged, the empowerment of women, the right of people to land and the preservation of the environment. Many of these were battles that she won. Others were ongoing struggles, as she never gave up hope. That was Najma Sadeque described as the activist who wore several hats.
Her last battle was against death and this one she lost. “Najma has gone,” I was informed by a friend who was in the hospital with Najma when the end came shortly after midnight. With her the courage and inspiration she had instilled in many had also gone, so I thought. Then I knew they hadn’t for Najma has left behind a legacy of courage and integrity embodied so clearly in her daughter Deneb Sumbul. A picture of her mother, Deneb’s dignity in her hour of grief is something only Najma could instil.
Najma was also a journalist and for a few years we worked under the same roof of Haroon House which has provided me the opportunity to link with so many wonderful fellow professionals. With Najma, I also shared an interest in a number of causes. That created a natural affinity between us. Her major achievement was to translate into action what she advocated in words — written or spoken.
Thus she was a founder member of Shirkat Gah (1975) and the Women’s Action Forum (1981). Later, she broadened her horizons, and the scope of her writings stretched out to many areas that she investigated and delved into so thoroughly and insightfully. That is why Shirkat Gah where she created space for the Green Economics Initiative became synonymous with documentation and research.
Under its aegis, she published some of her best research pertaining to the harmful practices of multinationals and the dangerous aspects of the thrust of a neoliberal economy. Written in simple language and elegantly produced, these monographs became a source of knowledge for the lay person not initiated in economics, ecology and finance.
Activism doesn’t have to be all work and no play.
Another practical contribution that Najma, wearing the hat of compassion, made to promote social justice was to extend a helping hand to those in need. She learnt the art of giving gracefully from her mother, Syedah Fatima Sadeque, a professor of Islamic history at the Dhaka University.
In a piece Najma wrote in 2011 about her mother on her death anniversary, she recalled how Syedah Fatima would extend a helping hand to others, especially women, and yet make them cherish their dignity and independence.
When I read Najma’s piece on her mother I knew from where she got her humanism, her resilience and her strength to resist injustice and religious extremism. She did that boldly, mincing no words, as was her style. In our times this calls for courage and she had plenty of it.
She wrote about the baby reportedly stoned to death outside a mosque as it was supposedly born out of wedlock. The uproar from the self-appointed custodians of our faith, especially the establishment, could have been unnerving had Najma’s editor and the paper’s management not supported her fully. The incident, however, did not deter Najma from taking on irrational religious extremists when the occasion demanded.
What concerned her deeply were the health problems of the poor. She had a mammoth list that she used to circulate her messages and articles. There were numerous Marias (girl with a punctured lung), Sylvias (the baby born without a gullet), Gulshans (with cancer in both eyes) and their like who got help and support from people thanks to Najma’s organisational skills and email communications.
I would often discuss with her such issues on a one-to-one basis and her observations were most profound. Once she commented, “Bad health ruins not just an individual’s life if he or she is poor, but the entire family’s.”
Activism doesn’t have to be all work and no play. Najma proved that convincingly. There was a time when she organised monthly get-togethers for her journalist friends lending her office space for the purpose. Even these were occasions for her to demonstrate her anti-imperialist convictions. “No aerated drinks of any multinational company! It has to be our own green drink or Adam’s ale!” she would insist. Her email lists served another purpose. Some of the most hilarious jokes landed in our inbox.
But her circulars became sparse towards the end of 2014 until we received one from Deneb announcing the sad news. And when we all assembled on Friday for the final farewell, the host — the life of the get-togethers she organised to strengthen our links — was missing.
She had left in a hurry as Majrooh Sultanpuri had so aptly said, “Humsafar saath apna chhor chale/ rishte naate vo saare tor chale” (The co-traveller has departed breaking off all ties with us).