Jahanara Imam

Jahanara Imam (3 May 1929 – 26 June 1994) was a Bangladeshi writer and political activist. She is widely remembered for her efforts to bring those accused of committing war crimes in the Bangladesh Liberation War to trial. She was known as “Shaheed Janani” (Mother of Martyrs).



Jahanara Imam was born to a Muslim family in Murshidabad, West Bengal, India in May 3, 1929. She was the eldest daughter in a family of three brothers and four sisters. Her father Syed Abdul Ali was a Civil Servant in the Bengal Civil Service. She lived in many different parts of Bengal – wherever her father was posted. Her mother Hamida Ali, was a housewife. At that time there was a lot of social pressure against Muslim women pursuing further studies, but Hamida was determined that Jahanara’s education would not be constrained.

After finishing her studies in 1945 in Carmichael College in Rangpur, Jahanara Imam went to Lady Brabourne College of Calcutta University and in 1947 obtained her bachelor’s degree. She was an activist in Lady Brabourne College. After the partition of India, she joined her family in Mymensingh in what became East Pakistan and started teaching at Vidyamoyee Govt. Girls High School.

In 1948 she married Shariful Alam Imam Ahmed, a Civil Engineer, whom she met in Rangpur while studying at Carmichael College. They settled in Dhaka and she joined Siddheswari Girls School as Head Mistress. She was instrumental in transforming the school one of the top girls’ schools in Dhaka.

She was the first editor of the monthly women’s magazine called “Khawateen”. It started its publication in 1952 and she ran it successfully for several years.

In 1960 she gave up her job as Head Mistress to concentrate on bringing up her two sons Rumi and Jami born in 1952 and 1954 respectively. She said to herself “I have given education to thousands of school children, now I should spend some time to bring up my own children”.

During this time Jahanara Imam finished her master’s degree in Bengali Language and Literature and a bachelor’s degree in Education from Dhaka University in 1962 and 1963 respectively. After that she went back to full-time teaching. From 1966 to 1968 she worked as a lecturer in the Teacher’s Training College in Dhaka. From 1970 she also taught for several years on a part-time basis in the Institute of Modern Language in Dhaka University.

She spent a significant part of her life in education. She visited the USA in 1964–65 as a Fulbright Scholar to San Diego University and again in 1977 under the International Visitor Program at the invitation of US Government.

War of Liberation

In 1971, following the Pakistan army crackdown on 25 March, the Bangladesh Liberation War broke out. Many joined the liberation struggle, including Jahanara’s elder son Shafi Imam Rumi, who joined the Mukti Bahini to become a Mukti Joddha (Freedom Fighter). During the war, she wrote a diary on her feelings about the struggle. This later became one of the most important publications about the War of Liberation.

Rumi took part in many actions against Pakistan army. Unfortunately, he was to be picked up by the Pakistani army, never to be seen again. Jahanara’s husband and her younger son Jami along with other male members of the family were also picked up for interrogation and were tortured. Her husband Sharif Imam returned home a broken man only to die three days before Bangladesh became free on 16 December 1971.

Literary career

Family Photograph
 After Bangladesh achieved independence, Jahanara Imam started her literary career. During this time she also travelled extensively to Europe, USA and Canada. In 1986 she published her wartime diary “Ekatturer Dinguli” (The days of Seventy One). Jahanara Imam’s diary, in some respect like that of Anne Frank, was a very personal account of tragedy. Her simple style of writing touched many hearts, particularly those of the families who had lost members during the war.

In 1981 she was diagnosed with mouth cancer, and operations caused her to have difficulty speaking, she continued to write and continued her involvement with the Freedom Fighters. Jahanara Imam died in Michigan, USA on 26 June 1994. She was buried in Dhaka as she had wished. To show respect to Shaheed Janani, nearly quarter of a million people attended her funeral.


Jahanara Imam was a prolific writer and made huge contribution to Bengali literature. She was honoured and awarded several times. In 1988 she received an award from Bangladesh Writer’s Association. In 1991 in recognition of her literary works she received the “Bangla Academy Literary Award” from Bangla Academy. Prestigious daily newspaper “Ajker Kagoj” hailed her as the Greatest Freedom Fighter of 14th century in Bengali Calendar. In 1997 and 1998 she received posthumously Independence Award and Rokeya Award respectively.

Effort to try war criminals

As the ruler of Bangladesh, President Ziaur Rahman (1975–1981) enacted several controversial measures, ostensibly to win the support of Islamic political parties and opponents of the Awami League. In 1978, he revoked the ban on the Jamaat-e-Islami, which collaborated with the Pakistani army. The formed the paramilitary Al-Badr, Al-sham, and Rajakar; and members of which had committed war crimes against civilians.

Ghulam Azam, the exiled chief of the Jamaat-e-Islami, was allowed to come back to Bangladesh in July 1978. In 1991 December Ghulam Azam, was elected the Amir of Jamaat-e-Islami. Subsequently, Jahanara Imam organised the Ghatak-Dalal Nirmul Committee (Committee for Eradicating the Killers and Collaborators of ’71), and became its public face. The committee called for the trial of people who committed crimes against humanity in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War in collaboration with the Pakistani forces. The Ghatak-Dalal Nirmul Committee set up mock trials in Dhaka on 26 March 1992 known as Gono Adalat (People’s Court) and ‘sentenced’ persons they accused of being war criminals. Imam and others were charged with treason during the government of Bangladesh Nationalist party. This charge was, however, dropped in 1996 after her death by the Chief Advisor Mohammed Habibur Rahman of the Caretaker government.

Literary works

  • Anya Jiban (1985) (Other life)
  • Ekattorer Dingulee (1986) (The days of 1971)
  • Birshrestha (1985) (The Bravest)
  • Jiban Mrityu (1988) (Life and death)
  • Chirayata Sahitya (1989)
  • Buker Bhitare Agun (1990) (Fire in my heart)
  • Nataker Abasan (1990) (End of drama)
  • Dui Meru (1990) (Two poles)
  • Nihsabga Pine (1990)
  • Nay E Madhur Khela (1990)
  • Cancer-er Sange Bosobas (1991) (Living with cancer)
  • Prabaser Dinalipi (1992) (Life abroad)
  • Early in her career, Jahanara Imam also translated several books from English into Bengali, including some of the popular “Little House” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Source & Courtesy