She can no longer read, cannot write, so Rumana Monzur has long and empty hours to lie in her hospital bed in Bangladesh and enumerate what she has lost.
“In Canada, I learned how to dream,” said Ms. Monzur, the University of British Columbia graduate student blinded in a savage attack she alleges her husband committed in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka two weeks ago. Now, “I don’t know how anything will be possible. I’m helpless.”
In a lengthy, often tearful interview, Ms. Monzur, 33, described the attack; her ongoing fears for her safety, and that of her daughter and parents; and her despair at what she feels is the irrevocable loss of her dreams for all of them.
Ms. Monzur enrolled last autumn as a visiting student in the master’s program in international relations at UBC. After nine months in Vancouver, she flew home in mid-May to see her family.
From the moment of her arrival, she said, relations with her husband, Hassan Sayeed, were rocky. He had often been physically and verbally abusive in the early years of their marriage, she said, but after their daughter Anoushe was born five years ago, the violence stopped. “I thought everything was normal again, that it would be okay.”
Ms. Monzur explained that Mr. Sayeed had told her before they married that he had a degree in electrical engineering – but somehow he never found a job. Frustrated by his lack of ambition, Ms. Monzur got a job of her own, teaching international relations at Dhaka University. In secret, though, she applied for graduate work in Canada – and when she was accepted, with a scholarship, she told her husband. “I didn’t ask his permission. He didn’t say no, but he didn’t say yes … he knew I would come back because my daughter was in Bangladesh.”
Anoushe stayed behind, in the care of Ms. Monzur’s parents.
She talked to her family almost every day from Vancouver, and nothing seemed amiss with her husband, she said. But a few days after she returned to Dhaka, she said, he physically attacked her once again. Afterward, Ms. Monzur said, she told him she would not live with him any longer: her time in Canada had hardened her resolve about the life she wanted. Mr. Sayeed left her parents’ house.
Two weeks later, on a quiet afternoon when her parents were out, she was in a bedroom working at her laptop while Anoushe was painting on the bed next to her. Her husband burst in, locked the door, and grabbed her from behind with the words, “You don’t want to live with me, so I will kill you,” she recalled, sobbing.
“First he attacked my neck and then he put his fingers in my eyes. He bit my nose. I tried to protect myself. He bit my hands – I have several injuries in hands and face. Then when I couldn’t see and my nose was bleeding, I was slipping in my own blood. I was almost unconscious.”
Anoushe, still next to her on the bed, was shrieking. “She was screaming, ‘Don’t do this to my mom, don’t do this.’ ”
She said the attack ended only when domestic staff used a second set of keys to open the door and then Mr. Sayeed ran out, with these parting words: “I will kill you wherever you are and when ever I find you. I will shoot you or I will throw acid at you. I won’t let you leave.”
Ms. Monzur, by then, was scrabbling on the floor – she could not see the people who came in, but felt them trying to lift her. “I screamed, ‘Save me, save her – don’t let him take my daughter.’ “ She remembers little after that until she was in hospital, with doctors saying the only hope to save her eyes was expert help in India.
The family arranged to fly to her to Chennai, but ophthalmologists there could not help either. Now, Ms. Monzur is awaiting plastic surgery to rebuild her nose, and hoping desperately for word from medical institutions in the United States and in British Columbia about a last-ditch medical procedure that might restore her eyesight.
Without it, she said, choked with tears, she does not know how she can ever again care for her daughter or resume her work.
Anoushe has been to visit her mother twice in hospital. “I’m trying to be normal in front of her, I’m laughing, I’m telling her stories, I’m singing rhymes,” Ms. Monzur said. “But whenever she tries to show me something and realizes that I can’t see, then she cries, and that’s very been painful to me. Every day she asks me, ‘Are your eyes okay yet?’ She doesn’t know.”
Ms. Monzur said she has been told by family that her daughter goes through their house now pointing at possessions left behind by her father and says, “Daddy was naughty.” Anoushe knows from media reports that he is in jail.
Ms. Monzur’s father, Monzur Hussain, reported the attack to police shortly after it happened; he and several of her cousins returned repeatedly to the station to try to push police to arrest Mr. Sayeed, she said, but only after the Dhaka University teacher’s union threatened labour action in solidarity with her did police pick him up.
He remains in jail, but Ms. Monzur said that does not make her feel safer. The Bangladeshi legal system is weak: it is not unusual for well-to-do defendants to bribe themselves out of custody. “He’s in jail now – but he has friends and he can do anything, because he has money.” Mr. Sayeed comes from a well-off family, she said.
“I feel totally threatened and insecure. I am not sure I can protect my daughter. If he can do this to me, he can do this to my parents and my daughter, too. I am not in a position to protect them – I’m the one they have to take care of now. I can’t feel secure any more because I can’t see.”
The greatest animation came into Ms. Monzur’s voice when she described her academic work. Momentarily distracted from her pain, she talked at length about her work in the emerging field of human security and climate change. She was exploring the negotiating power of developing countries in climate change talks for her master’s thesis, which she had planned to begin writing when she returned to UBC in the autumn. She hoped to continue those studies in a doctorate at the university. Bangladesh, most of which is at sea level, is one of the nations most severely affected by climate change and sea-level rise.
Ms. Monzur said she gave a news conference a few days ago to respond to the stories she says her husband and his relatives were spreading about her in Dhaka. The Bangladeshi media have focused on his allegations of infidelity, which she denies, as a sort of explanation for his assault. “I don’t care what he is saying – that doesn’t give him the right to do this to me,” she said. Rather, she had something else she wanted to make clear.
“Everyone is asking why I tolerated him for so long – why an educated person is tolerating him,” she said. “Because I really loved him. Every time [he was abusive] he convinced me, asked for forgiveness, that’s why I tolerated him. I had a daughter and my daughter needed a father. I didn’t want her to be deprived of her father’s love because of me.”
Ms. Monzur broke down again as she described her gratitude for the support she has received from fellow students and faculty at UBC. She spoke with longing about the idea of somehow returning to her work. “I want to finish my program – I want to do that so badly. I want to do my PhD – but I don’t know how it’s possible …
“Please pray for me so that I get my vision back. I don’t want to live like this. I want to finish my studies and be the person I wanted to be and take care of my daughter – take care of her future.”