‘During our time, we always kept in our mind that “sebai manab dharma”. There were few private practitioners. We used to treat patients attentively in the hospital. At present, I see that almost all the physicians are busy with private practice. They may have forgotten that to serve people is supreme’ - Doctor Zohra Begum Kazi
Doctor Zohra Begum Kazi entered history at a time when Muslim women in the Indian subcontinent did not have a voice in the public arena. They were guided by superstitions and expected to remain within the confines of their home. As the first Muslim female physician in the British ruled Indian subcontinent, Doctor Zohra ushered the way for modern medical treatment, particularly for these Muslim women. Through her teaching, she paved the way to progress for the subjugated women of the then British Raj. Doctor Zohra Begum Kazi, a Bengali woman, not only provided medical treatment but was also responsible for inspiring a social revolution.
Zohra Begum Kazi was born at Rajnangaon in Madhya Pradesh (now Chhattisgarh), India on October 15, 1912. Her father Doctor Kazi Abdus Sattar grew up Gopalpur, a village in Madaripur, Bangladesh. After a neighbour died during delivery, Zohra’s father was determined to make his daughters physicians. Zohra attended primary school in different areas of India as her father was a physician he was often appointed to different places. She finished secondary school in 1926 and was admitted to the Aligarh University where she completed her intermediate examination in science with a distinction. She was the first Muslim female who received a stipend from the university as a reward for her academic excellence. In 1935, she completed MBBS from the Lady Harding Medical Collage for Women. The first ever medical college for women in Asia was established by the then viceroy of India Lord Harding and named after his wife. As she obtained first class first in MBBS, the British government awarded her the prestigious ‘Viceroy’s’ medal. She also received a scholarship from the central government of the then India. Zohra’s only sister Shirin Kazi was also a physician.
Zohra started her profession as a voluntary gynaecologist at Sebashram, a charity organisation organised by Mahatma Gandhi that provided free medical care for the poor. Zohra’s father also worked at the organisation as a volunteer. Both father and daughter strongly believed in Gandhi’s philosophy and devoted themselves to the pursuit of social development. Zohra’s relatives, however, disapproved of her and her father actions as they thought that she was spoiling her family’s reputation by constantly relocating herself to provide medical treatment.
Apart from being a government doctor she worked voluntarily in different charity organisations in India before she immigrated to Dhaka. She worked as an honorary secretary of the Kastura Bai National Memorial Hospital and worked hard to improve the hospital.
After coming back in Dhaka in 1948, Zohra was offered a teaching job at the Mitford Medical College which she declined as she wished to pursue her education and do research. Later in 1949, she received another proposal to join Dhaka Medical Collage as their resident surgeon. She agreed and joined as the only Bengali Muslim doctor.
Doctor Akhtar Iqbal Begum, former additional director general of health services of the government, was a family friend of Zohra Begum Kazi. ‘I knew her since my childhood. On 14 August, 1948, Zohra came to our house in Raipur, India, and told my father that she was immigrating to East Pakistan. She urged my father to send me to Dhaka with her to attend Dhaka Medical College. My father consented, hoping a bright future lay ahead in Dhaka,’ she continued, ‘I came with her leaving my family behind in Raipur and lived with her. She admitted me to the Dhaka Medical College.’ ‘She took great care of me and showered me with motherly affection. As a person, she had superb human qualities.’
When Zohra was 32 years old, she married the former lawmaker Raziuddin Bhuiyan of Narsingdi. Her husband died in 1963. They had no children together. ‘She did not regret her childlessness. She considered her students and patients to be her children. She devoted her life to serve people,’ describes Doctor Lutfunnahar, Zohra’s former student.
In 1964 the Pakistan government conferred Zohra with the title ‘Taghma-e-Pakistan’ for her contribution in the healthcare field.
Being the first Bengali female doctor of the country she had many opportunities to work in different areas within the healthcare field. She became the head of the gynecology department of DMCH. Zohra also worked as an honorary colonel of Combined Military Hospital and taught as an honorary professor of Holy Family Hospital and Bangladesh Medical College.
Kazi Ashraf Mahmud, Zohra’s elder brother also studied at the medical college until he was expelled for his political involvement. He later became a distinguished politician and a poet in Hindi. He also taught botany at Dhaka University and closely associated with Comrade Mozaffar Ahmed, the legendary left politician, who took an active role in the anti-colonial movement. He was the secretary general of All India Student Federation when the president of the organisation was the national poet of Bangladesh Kazi Nazrul Islam.
A 1952 Language Movement veteran, Zohra directly extended her help to the freedom fighters during 1971 Liberation War. She was the only female recipient of the title The Bangladeshi government had awarded her with the ‘Begum Roquiah Padak’ while the Bangladesh Medical Association honoured her with a gold medal for outstanding contribution to humanity and medical services.
Doctor Zohra also shared her brother’s affection for the Kazi Nazrul Islam, Mozaffar Ahmed, Sher-e-Bangla AK Fazlul Haque and other distinguished personalities of her time. Famously, Kazi Nazrul Islam is said to have once asked young Zohra about her aim in life and she replied, ‘I will read, and will teach and serve people. You will pray for me.’
Doctor Zohra had a specially soft sport for the Gandhi family. ‘Gandhiji used to say to me “never be scared in life. You may lose your life. As you have born you must die”, the advice still resonates in my ear,’ Zohra Begum Kazi would tell her students, relatives and well-wishers. Gandhi and his wife Kasura Bai were very affectionate towards both Zohra and her sister Shirin. Both the sisters worked at the Sebagram, established by Mahatma near Nagpur of India. ‘I have sweet memories with Gandhiji. When we went there we had a lot of fun. Gandhiji requested us to have this and that when we were having meal together. His wife Kastura Bai was a very kind person. It was a one hour journey from Nagpur to Sebagram and yet she insisted on always giving us food when we were coming back,’ Zohra Kazi recalled her memories in an interview to the magazine ‘Saptahik 2000’ published on April 21 in 2003.
Zohra Begum Kazi, widely known as the ‘Lady Doctor’, had inspired her students to strive for the betterment of people. ‘It was very difficult for a female doctor to go from place to place to visit the patients’ houses, but she did not hesitate to do so even at night. She fought against illogical superstitions and convinced female patients on the need for modern medical treatment,’ she added. ‘“Duty first, duty last, and duty always” was her famous line to all her students,’ said Lutfunnahar.
Zohra Begum Kazi died on November 7 at the age of 97.