Her death was confirmed by Maleka Banu, general secretary of Mahila Parishad, to bdnews24.com on Saturday.
Ayesha Khanam, who had been ill for a long time, was admitted to BRB Hospital in Dhaka where doctors pronounced her dead, Maleka Banu said. She was also afflicted with cancer.
A former vice president of Chhatra Union, Ayesha played a prominent role as an organiser of some of the country’s most significant historical events, including the student movement of 1962, the mass uprising of 1969 and the Liberation War of 1971.
President Abdul Hamid and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina expressed deep shock and grief over her passing.
In a condolence message, Hamid said, “Ayesha Khanam has played a very admirable role in the empowerment of women in the country. Her contributions to the establishment of women’s rights will always be remembered.”
With her death, those fighting for women’s rights in society have lost a genuine friend and a brave comrade, said Hasina.
Her remains were taken to the central office of Mahila Parishad around 8:30 am on Saturday for people to pay their last respects.
She will later be laid to rest at her family graveyard in Netrokona.
“She has been fighting for women’s rights since her student days. With her death, the women’s rights movement in Bangladesh has lost a genuine guardian. Her loss is irreparable,” a grieving Maleka said.
Ayesha was born in the village of Gabragati in Netrokona on Oct 18, 1947.
Her first foray into political activism came during the student movement demanding the abolition of the education commission in the East Pakistan period in 1962.
While studying in Dhaka University, she was elected vice president and general secretary of Ruqayyah Hall’s student council.
In 1971, as the vice-president of Chhatra Union, she started campaigning among students in Dhaka to gather support for the Liberation War. Ayesha also featured in the famous photograph of a procession of female students carrying dummy rifles in Dhaka.
Ayesha went across the border to Agartala at the end of April, 1971 during the Liberation War, she said in an interview. There, she stayed in Crafts Hostel, a camp for refugees and freedom fighters run by the Communist Party.
Crafts Hostel was a temporary abode for some of those who came to India to take part in the war of independence. In the camp, Ayesha worked to raise the morale of the freedom fighters by invoking the spirit of the Liberation War among the refugees and freedom fighters.
In an interview with Deutsche Welle Bangla, she said, “In Agartala, I took an initial training on medical services. After that, I went to every camp in Agartala and committed myself to provide medical assistance to wounded freedom fighters. Besides, before sending the freedom fighters on various expeditions, a short orientation was arranged for them, which I used to work on.”
Ayesha Khanam also spoke in support of the Liberation War on Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra as a student representative.
After independence, she joined the movement for the establishment of women’s rights based on principles of secularism and democracy.
She also worked to rehabilitate women who were tortured by the invading Pakistani army and their collaborators during the War of Independence and helped the families of martyred freedom fighters.
Ayesha was associated with Bangladesh Mahila Parishad from the very beginning. She was its first co-general secretary, before being elected president a decade ago, a post she remained in until her death.