On Campus

U.B.C. student blinded in Bangladesh finishes master's

Rumana Monzur was attacked by husband

Monzur defends her Master’s thesis on June 28, 2013 (Martin Dee/UBC Public Affairs)

Rumana Monzur can picture a towering mountain or the blue sky on a sunny day. She remembers what the ocean looks like and can still conjure an image of water stretching out to the horizon.

But she hasn’t seen her daughter in more than two years — when, during a trip home to visit her family in Bangladesh, she was the victim of a vicious domestic assault that left her blind and her husband charged with attempted murder.

“Each moment, I miss seeing her (my daughter) — and not only her, I miss seeing people,” Monzur, 35, said in an interview Wednesday.

“With nature, I have seen mountains, I have seen skies, so those things I can still visualize if anyone describes them to me. But for people, I really miss seeing my daughter and my parents, how they smile. That is really hard for me to accept. It still doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Monzur has spent the past two years on a remarkable recovery that saw her finish a master’s degree at the University of British Columbia, where she now lives with her six-year-old daughter and her parents. She is now preparing to attend law school.

Monzur was attacked in June 2011 during a trip home to Dhaka, Bangladesh. A year earlier, she left her daughter, her husband and her parents behind in Dhaka to study political science in Vancouver.

The attack was widely reported in local media in Bangladesh, and the details of what happened, including photos of her badly injured face taken in her hospital room, quickly filtered back to her friends and colleagues in Canada.

Students and faculty at the university raised nearly $100,000 to cover Monzur’s medical and living costs once she returned to B.C., and the case fuelled a debate about violence against women in her native Bangladesh.

The fundraising efforts were already well under way when Monzur returned to Canada a month after the attack. She was met by reporters and television cameras as she was wheeled through Vancouver’s airport with dark glasses over her eyes and the cuts on her face still visible.

Doctors in Vancouver were hopeful they might be able to save her vision, but within days, it was clear she would never see again.

Two years later, Monzur has learned to read braille and uses adaptive technology to read and write. She uses a cane to navigate when she walks, and she no longer covers her eyes with shaded glasses. The scars on her face have faded.

She successfully presented her master’s thesis, which examined the impact of climate change and rising ocean levels in Bangladesh, this past spring, and she was recently accepted to a number of law schools. She decided to stay at the University of British Columbia and will enter the school’s law program this fall.

Monzur said she tries not to think about the attack that robbed her of her vision, which she refers to only as “the incident.”

Dwelling on what happened only leads to questions without any answers.

“If I think about it, it just leads me nowhere,” she said.

“I can’t think positively, and I just end up asking, ‘Why did it happen? Why did it happen to me?'”

Monzur’s case prompted rallies and petitions both in Canada and in her home country of Bangladesh, where a high proportion of women face violence. A study released by the United Nations Population Fund in 2000 indicated half of women in Bangladesh experience domestic violence at least once in their lives.

A report posted to Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board website cites 2003 data that suggested 65 per cent of Bangladeshi men believed “it is justifiable to beat up their wives,” while 38 per cent didn’t know what constitutes physical violence.

Monzur has accepted her role in that conversation, and she hopes other women and girls — including her own daughter — can learn from the horrors she experienced at the hands of her spouse.

“First of all, I don’t want people to see me as a victim — I want people to see me as a survivor,” said Monzur, who added that violence against women must be brought out into the open.

“I wasn’t sharing my problems, my marriage issues or issues of domestic violence when I was experiencing it. I felt it was a shame for me, but I didn’t realize at that time that it is not a shame for me, it is a shame for the people who are doing it. That is the most important message I want to tell women who are experiencing it and keeping silent.”

Monzur’s former husband, Hasan Sayeed Sumon, was arrested and charged with attempted murder soon after the attack, but he died under mysterious circumstances in December 2011.

Monzur is not yet sure what she will do after she finishes law school, which she plans to pay for with a combination of scholarships and student loans.

She said she decided to change disciplines, rather than continuing onto a PhD in political science, in part because of her experience with domestic violence and the Bangladesh justice system.

“After this happened, I went through the legal systems in Bangladesh. The challenges I was facing and especially the social challenges, I was thinking that I felt the need to have a legal background, which will be helpful for me to lead a meaningful life,” she said.

“I want to learn first and then decide where I want to go.”

—James Keller