A life Dedicated to Teaching

Professor Farzana Islam, the first female Vice-Chancellor of Jahangirnagar University, has proved resilience through her illustrious career. Nusrat Noshin converses with her to get a better understanding of what makes a person truly educated and of course to know her own story.

Professor Farzana Islam: A guardian angel for the JU students.
Photographer: Kazi Mukul.

Apparently an introvert, Dr. Farzana Islam has had a certain aversion to cameras. Now she deals with manifold entities, reporters, interviewers and colleagues. ‘I barely get any time for myself,’ she says. ‘I wake up at 6 am; I really can’t complain if I’m too tired for an early wake. My mornings are inundated with interviews, phone calls and meetings. Of course, a busy lifestyle has its consequences; my family almost always expects me to be home late. That includes my toddler granddaughter.’

Professor Farzana Islam is not unfamiliar to the phantom of separation. ‘I started my career as a lecturer at Chittagong University. I spent three years there. Finding the balance was tough. I had my family and my in-laws in Dhaka, along with my husband and my infant son. I must say though, my in-laws were a blessing. They thoroughly displayed compassion and understanding throughout my struggles of juggling between work in another city and raising a child. I’d leave my baby at the care of my mother-in-law and pray for a chance to meet him again. Telephones were not so prevalent back then, once I was in CU, I was completely out of touch.’

Truly the times have changed, but what triumphed the test of time was her friendship with her husband. ‘My husband was my friend first. He is a support system that helped me at every stage of my life. He and his parents truly fostered the woman in me. They enabled me to feel empowered in their own ways. My father-in-law made me a small workstation at home, on my request. My mother-in-law was extremely understanding of my goals and ambitions. I too enjoyed doing household chores.’

The19 90s came and Dr. Islam decided to pursue her Ph.D. at the University of Sussex, the UK. She won a scholarship and was set to leave. ‘But my mother-in-law was not too keen on me leaving my son. My subject was gender studies, yet I felt trapped in a labyrinth of irony. It would have been a shame if I hadn’t been able to complete my Ph.D. because of motherhood. Thankfully, however, I was able to append child support to my scholarship, and I was off.’ She then cuts off to how her perception of feminism had changed through real-life, de facto experiences. ‘I got an apartment with the bare minimum accommodation. Absolutely unsuitable for a mother and a child. What I realized then was that my feminist friends were all talk, less work. Nobody ever considered looking after my child while I attended class. You could say I had a feminist revision.’ The feminist blood runs deeply through her veins and so does in her son’s. ‘I raised him when I was in Sussex. He has seen my struggles. He has painful experiences himself. I wanted to raise my son as a feminist, but most importantly, as a humanist. I never wanted to settle in England and neither did my son. My son fell victim to bullying in more than one count, rendering him physically incapable of playing sports. The second time he was taken to the hospital from a bullying incident, he cried to me, asking to go home. I beseeched him to fight and be my source of courage.’

Feminism was a tenet preached by her husband too. ‘He would come as a visitor every now and then and stay over a prolonged period to look after our child and do the chores. I had to manage the bank, do the groceries, laundry, feed and bathe my child. I was a handful. But, I would say, staying away from my family empowered me.’
She continues. ‘My true gripe started when summer came, the school was on vacation, but I still had my classes. I could not always afford daycare. My Indian friends really helped me out. This, along with the indignance over having no facilities for lone mothers really fuelled me to bring up the situation to my student advisor, who then referred me to an immigration officer. They ran a survey all over England and concluded that the number of lone student fathers in the country amounted to a princely figure of zero!’

“I had to point out to them how flawed their system is. I was studying gender studies and was the victim of gender roles. This happened in 1993. The law was later reformed, where the scholarship stated ‘spouse’, instead of ‘husband’ or ‘wife’. That felt like a tremendous success to me. Every disparity in the system got me empowered. Every mistake on their part got me bitter. Bengali girls are expected to be sweet and soft-spoken. I am filled with bitterness that I harness for change. You’d see African mothers coming here to study with an infant on their bosom. Some are even impregnated here when their husbands visit. You need to prove your system to support these women; they are humans.’

Dr. Farzana Islam also had to fend off racism. ‘My son was in a play about King Henry VI. He wasn’t the king, unsurprisingly, due to his brown skin; he was made to be one of the king’s slaves. So, naturally, he was given dilapidated clothes. I was invited to watch the rehearsal, and thankfully so, I was utterly repulsed by the idea of my son as a slave just for his skin. Albeit it was a play, but you cannot deny the underlying colorism the teachers had exercised. They asked me to pardon their decision, but I was inexcusable to me. I demanded my son to be taken off the play. They are excellently educated people, they are accomplished and cultured. However, they left me to believe that colorism was still a very real issue in spite of our crippling colonial past. There are just some things education cannot teach.’

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