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The History of Soroptimists in Bangladesh

Soroptimists in Bangladesh – The Beginning

It was way back in early 1981 when the notion of Soroptimism was first floated by Aroti Dutta, then Founder President of SI Calcutta Club, India to Zebunnessa Rahman, a lawyer from Bangladesh. They were among several professional ladies from the South Asia region attending an international conference at Karachi, Pakistan. Impressed with the objectives of Soroptimism, Zebunnessa, on her return to Dhaka, got in touch with a number of professional women to explore the possibility of forming an SI club in Bangladesh.

SI Club Dhaka (est.1983)

On 22nd December 1981, Zebunnessa invited 15 interested individuals (but only 9 turned up) to her place to meet President Aroti Dutta from SI Calcutta who was then visiting Dhaka with the aim of promoting the club formation. After a prolonged discussion on the objectives and activities of Soroptimism and a sumptuous tea provided by host, an ad hoc committee was formed to initiate the first SI club in the country.

During the fledgling period, Jean Wishart, Extension Officer, SIGBI visited Dhaka in February 1982 and mentored the interested ladies with guidance and encouragement. Meanwhile, the number of interested ladies doubled and an elected body for the first SI Club in Bangladesh was announced on November 27, 1982 for a two-year term (December 1982-December 1984).

Finally, the crowning event! After long planning and preparation, on January 5, 1983, the much awaited Charter Night was held. Thelma de Leeuw, then Federation President of SIGBI flew in to Dhaka, accompanied by Dr. Una Kathleen Goddard of SI Bradford. In addition, old friend and sponsor Aroti Dutta, President SI Calcutta along with fellow S I members from India Dr. Padma Lahiri and Dr Ila Ghosh joined the charter ceremony. Thelma de Leeuw handed over the Charter to Founder President Anjumanara Begum(social worker and writer). Professor Roshanara Rahman and Tahera Shafiq were the first two Vice Presidents while Zebunnessa Rahman was the first Secretary and Suraiya Siddiqui the First Treasurer. The First Executive Body consisted of 17 members – all professional women from various fields – education, medicine, law, media, business, science, agriculture, aviation, theatre, music, beauty therapy, banking, management and tea planting.

Charter Night: 5 January 1983

Since that charter night in 1983, SI Club Dhaka has navigated a long trail for 37 years upholding the Soroptimist spirit, mainly running two educational projects for deprived children (especially girls) of maginalised communities, with a special focus on literacy, nutrition and healthcare in its modest endeavour to “educate, empower, enable”. Our initial focus on education stemmed from the fact that during the post-independence period, NGOs were encouraged by the government to support primary education

One special mention can be made of the visit to Calcutta by a few enthusiastic SI Dhaka members, among them founder members Naz Karim, Rezia Salam, Zebunnessa Rahman, in February 1984 for the proposed South Asia Council formation. They travelled over land, experiencing adventures, forging friendships and were warmly entertained by SI Calcutta Club members. Other SI clubs members from Sri Lanka and Thailand also joined. The two-day meeting discussed modalities on forming a South Asia Council (under the aegis of SIGBI) to provide a platform and a stronger voice to SI clubs of the South Asia region. It was decided the next meeting would be held in Dhaka but the idea did not move further until another attempt was made during the Silver Jubilee celebration of SI Club Dhaka in 2008. However, this idea did not take root as it involved collaboration and coordination of clubs across borders.

Silver Jubilee Celebration in 2008:

SI Dhaka celebrated its 25thanniversary with a South Asian Soroptimist Conference and a South Asian Forum meeting on 15-16-17 August, 2008, participated not only by our local members but also by members from SI Clubs of India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The Conference theme was “Women’s Rights: South Asian Perspectives”.

Papers focused on rights and realities, discrimination and violence, education and empowerment, labour rights and the vulnerability of child labour, worker migration, women in decision making, vulnerability of the rural poor, women’s health issues. The proposed South Asian Forum was held on the third day with all the visiting SI members, chaired by SI Dhaka member Dr Dilara Chowdhury, a renowned political analyst. The Forum proposed the formation of the delayed South Asian Council but like the previous effort in 1984 in Calcutta, this too was not pursued, probably because volunteerism (especially among women with far too many commitments) is a difficult task despite the best of intentions.

Members in SI Club Dhaka:

As in any voluntary organization, with time some members have dropped out but a core group of founding members have remained loyal to the spirit of Soroptimism and have contributed significantly to carry the Sorop mission forward. Of them, some need special mention. We salute the late Professor Rowshanara Rahmanwith her endearing personality, her spirited commitment and her leadership skills. Zebunnessa Rahman, the founder and steadfast member has strongly steered the rudder of the club ship with her legal insight. She sends annual capitation fees to SIGBI and keeps track of transactions and records with SIGBI. She even has the first Minutes book opened in 1981 with the first recording made in her dainty convent-school handwriting. There is our ever-smiling Rezia Salam (currently Secretary), committed, reliable, diligent and ever ready to contribute to whatever is required. She was the first Federation Councillor (FCC) and the first Federation Programme Action Chair (FPAC) from Bangladesh. She liaises efficiently with other clubs and is crucial to membership extension. At the moment she is spearheading our effort to re-vive the defunct SI Rajshahi Club.

There are several other founding and senior members who deserve appreciation. They have been committed, have held various posts, have attended SIGBI conventions and have contributed extensively (along with their family members) to charitable support for club projects. Among them is Prof Naz Karim who has hosted club meetings and SI overseas visitors at her home while spearheading club activities; Prof Nilufar Sultana who has constantly been forthcoming with wise decision-making and action; and Suraiya Siddiqui who actively liaised with Friendship Link clubs of Bournemouth and Penrith and involved her organisation to partner with SI club activities in assisting the education of marginalized children. Nargis Mannan has been a stalwart Finance manager and a generous donor. Senior member Abida Khalil has donated generously to club activities. Dr Shamim Matin Chowdhury deserves kudos for her incredible support and generosity to the club and its programmes, by providing convenient meeting space either at her home or her family business site, home hospitality to SIGBI and other overseas visitors, offering transport facilities for SI programmes and hosting parties at her beautiful home. Not to say of the hard work and commitment to the two educational project Convenors Hasina Zaman and Jahane Gulshan who have shouldered the management of the running of the 91 children’s two literacy centres with dedication and zeal. Dr Dilara Chowdhury deserves special mention for being a champion of women’s rights and raising her strong voice in issues of advocacy. Again Dr Dilara successfully planned and procured funding and devised a pragmatic curriculum for the second pre-primary school, regulating the learning process in order to prepare children for entering mainstream education. Last but not least, Nasrin Fowzia needs to be appreciated for promoting fund-raising for the club from overseas.

This section would be incomplete without projecting a relatively younger membership. Yasmin Rahman (currently PAO), a poultry business entrepreneur, provides annual grants to support disadvantaged children and human development (women) and organizes interactive awareness-raising events at the two project schools. She donates boiled eggs twice a week for around 90 children to supplement their nutritional needs (daily snacks are also given by the club). Together with Tahsin Farzana and Aniqa Nowrin, she has partnered new initiatives to promote the Soroptimist concept in organising women/girl-centered programmes on health, nutrition, sanitation in the schools and in out-reach areas. There are also other committed members who have not been named for want of space.

SI Dhaka Projects

SI Club of Chittagong (est. 1986)

Located in the south in the major port city, the club was formed with much fanfare with members from professional women from elite circles. The club was chartered in April 1986 with Razia Hossain as Founder President. Among the influential members at the helm was Khaleda Awwal who served a term as FCC. The club’s project centered around the disabled and the paralysed in the countryside by providing therapy and exercise equipment and promoting income generating opportunities to marginalized women through traditional and sequined embroidery on clothing.

In 2008 at the SIGBI Convention at Barbados, the club was awarded the best practice award of the year for its micro-credit financing project for women. Dr Shamim Karim and Nilufar Sultana of SI Club Dhaka received the award from SIGBI president on behalf of SI Club Chittagong. With time, the club appeared to slow down its activities and despite liaison by SI club Dhaka, it decided to close down. In 2013, Secretary Borhana Kabir sent a formal letter to SIGBI for the dissolution of the club due to membership crisis. At the time of this writing, Khaleda Awwal was contacted and she was quite positive that no former members were interested in reviving the club. However as mentioned earlier, our Membership Extension Officer Rezia Salam and a young member Aniqa Naorin has been in touch with professional women in Chittagong and are hopeful that the club can be revived with a set of new professional women at the helm.

SI Metropolitan Dhaka (est.1988)

This was the second SI Club formed 6 years after SI Dhaka, in 1988. It was initiated by Prof Anjumanara Begum. Two/three members from SI Dhaka joined the new club. It was chartered but was short-lived and was dissolved shortly after, due to a fall in the requisite number of members. Very little information is available about this club

SI Club of Rajshahi (est.1990)

In May 1990, SI Club of Rajshahi was formed in the northwest of the country. Kate Fussel, President SIGBI handed over the charter to Founder President, Roushanara Khondkar. The club started organizing projects revolved around literacy for maids working in homes, support with eye care and cataract operations, supplying Orsaline to the poor, as well as an advocacy programme against early marriages of girls. Ridda Khondkarwas FCC in 2006. However, the Rajshahi Club Charter was dissolved due to a fall in requisite membership numbers. Again, steps are afoot to revive this club.

SI Club Dhanmondi (est. 2010)

This club (currently one of the two that are operational in Bangladesh, was initiated through the efforts of Razia Salam in her role as Membership Extension Officer. On 30th July 2010, the first meeting of the club was held with 13 founding members. On 23rd February, 2013, three years later, Soroptimist International Club of Dhanmondi was chartered by Jesmine Sultana Paru, FCC of SI Club Chittagong. The charter was handed over to the late Dilruba Anguri as the founding President. Runa Noman became the Secretary of this new club and is the current President. Among the chartered members there were educationists, doctors, NGO executives, a landscape designer, a beautician, an educational consultant, a journalist, a writer, a business woman and a senior banker

During the course of the last 9 years, several new members have joined while others have left.  Among the current membership, there are only 3 founding members – Dr. Zakia Shahid (currently FPAC), Sultana Sadeque Polly and Runa Noman. The club has gone through many memorable moments. Currently members who believe in women empowerment, are working together with a strong belief that “united we stand, divided we fall.

Project Five-O

Through the initiative of Thelma de Leeuw, Past President of SIGBI (1982-83) and of Soroptimist International (1989-9), Project Five-O was launched in Bangladesh in 1992 with Rowshanara Rahman of SI Club Dhaka as Founder President. It was duly registered with Bangladesh’s NGO Bureau to allow it to carry out project activities in the village of Gacha in Gazipur district.  The purchase of the land in Gachha was made possible with a one-time grant from Five-O International.

Its focus was the empowerment of poor rural women and its main objectives were income generation, functional literacy, health, sanitation, nutrition and legal rights awareness. To facilitate income generation, training on poultry farming and tailoring was among the early activities. A health centre with free medical services for women and children has been set up.


As is usual with most volunteering organisations, Soroptimist clubs in Bangladesh have had their share of member dropouts. Since its inception in 1981, five SI clubs were established but unfortunately three have been dissolved, mostly due to fall in requisite membership numbers. The remaining two clubs are operational and are functioning with a lively Soroptimist zeal. As mentioned earlier, SI club Dhaka is taking steps by contacting interested and active professional ladies in each region to revive the two defunct clubs of Chittagong and Rajshahi.

This snapshot of the Soroptimists in Bangladesh would be incomplete without mentioning the names of members who have left this world while being actively involved in their respective clubs. Among them, we fondly remember late Anjumanara Begum, Rowshanara Rahman, Najma Siddiqui, Dilruba Anguri, Farida Binte Lutfar, Syeda Qudsia Akhtar. May the souls of our Sorop sisters rest in heavenly peace!

Written by Arifa Rahman, President, SI Club Dhaka

Jointly researched by Zebunnessa Rahman, Rezia Salam, Nilufar Sultana, Naseem Choudhury and Arifa Rahman from archives and records (sometimes misplaced or lost), and through constant discussions with founding and senior members.