Zohra Begum Kazi 1912-2007

Be sincere to your noble profession – Zohra Begum Kazi

Zohra Begum Kazi. Picture via
Wikimedia Commons [public domain]

Zohra Begum Kazi was the first Bengali Muslim woman to become a physician and surgeon. She established gynaecological and obstetric healthcare within the health system of Bangladesh at a time when many women were unable to access formal healthcare.

She was born in Rajnandgaon in British India, to the Kazi family of Madaripur, Bengal. Her father was a politician and a physician himself, and the family frequently relocated due to his professional responsibilities. Zohra’s father was a friend of Mahatma Gandhi and the families socialised together frequently. After a neighbour died in labour, he realised that it was important that women were able to practice medicine. Both of his daughters would become doctors; Zohra’s sister Shireen was also a physician specialising in paediatrics, as well as a poet and columnist. At the time, his decision to allow his daughters to seek out higher education was a controversial act, since it risked tarnishing the family ‘honour.’

In 1928, Zohra attended the Muslim Girls’ College in Aligarh, then took a qualification in Intermediate Science from Aligarh Muslim Univerisity and College. She was a diligent student, who focussed on understanding the course material rather than rote learning. She never settled for second place, always aiming to excel. In 1932, she gained a first-class Bachelor of Medicine degree from the Lady Hardinge Medical College for Women in Delhi. She was the first Bengali Muslim to achieve the top grade in this qualification. She was awarded the Viceroy’s Medal for her achievement. She followed this with a FCPS (Fellow of College of Physicians and Surgeons) degree.

She and her siblings all worked for a time at Gandhi’s Sevagram, a community health resource for the poor which was later to become the Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences. This was the first medical college to be built in rural India. Gandhi would later play the father’s role at her sister Zohra’s wedding, showing the close relationship between the families. It was here she began her specialisation in gynaecology. After gaining a scholarship from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in London, she developed a formal specialism in women’s health. At the time, women’s reproductive health was poorly understood, and health conditions could be attributed to malevolent spirits. Female doctors were able to break down the barriers around women’s health and provide care to women who could not access it otherwise. Zohra herself went from door to door to talk to women about issues around their health.

In 1947, she relocated permanently to Gopalpur, a small town to the south-west of Dhakar where her family had roots. She would remain here for the rest of her life, being uninterested in fame or prestige. Her priority was always the care of her patients. After Partition, there was a shortage of female doctors as many had relocated to India. Zohra took up a post at the Dhaka Medical College and Hospital as Resident Surgeon in Gynaecology. Her students described her as a firm but supportive teacher, who demanded the highest standards from them. She made efforts to ensure that women were able to attend the hospital, requesting a separate entrance for them to reduce the stigma of seeking treatments for gynaecological and reproductive conditions. Her example also increased the numbers of women seeking to study medicine.

In January 1952, Zohra provided medical care to students demonstrating in support of the Bengali language movement. At the time, she was in charge of the student residences for women besides her teaching duties. She also cared for fighters injured during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, risking her own life to get them to safety. She held the position of Honorary Colonel at the  Dhakar Combined Military College.

At the age of 32, Zohra married Rhazzudin Bhuyian, a politician. Together they opened a school and college in his area to provide education to local children. He died in 1963, when she was 51. She never remarried. Although the marriage was childless, Zohra adopted and educated many destitute children and raised them as her own. She also provided financial support to patients who needed it, and relatives of the diseased, as well as medical students who needed help with financing their studies. Into her old age, she was an avid campaigner for education, visiting local madrassas and encouraging the students to take up higher education – including recommending medicine as a career. After her retirement in 1973, she served as a consultant to the Holy Family Red Cross Hospital in Dhakar.

Her main focus was her career, so her social life was limited, and she rarely travelled. However, she had active hobbies, enjoying badminton, table-tennis and cycling. She was also proficient in the Hindi, Arabic, Urdu and English languages. She died at the age of 95, surrounded by her family.

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