A Champion of Acid Survivors
The work on acid violence had the power to stir one's imagination…we did the work because it moved us. It was the work of creativity and imagination. In the beginning that is what mobilised us. We did not have resources, or support, but we had the imagination.
Dhaka, April 2003
Elora Halim Chowdhury
It is rare to know someone who has the kind of impact on you like Nasreen Apa does. In October 1996, I met Nasreen Huq at the Dhanmondi Office of Naripokkho. At the time, I used to write columns on gender issues in Bangladesh for the Star Weekend Magazine. My editor had assigned me to a story on acid attacks against young women and girls, and suggested an interview with Nasreen Huq. I soon learned that she, along with women activists of Naripokkho, was in the early stages of mounting the acid campaign that over the next decade turned into a transnational movement. While my relationship with Nasreen Apa revolved primarily around the acid campaign, I consider myself one of the many touched in innumerable ways by her leadership and ability to inspire. I wrote columns on various events she invited me to attend at Naripokkho. Under her guidance I researched services for victims of acid attacks during a consultancy with UNICEF before the Acid Survivors Foundation was established in 1999. I continued this research that eventually became the topic of my PhD dissertation. Every step of the way, I have admired Nasreen Apa's courage, knowledge, and devotion not only regarding the acid campaign but also numerous social justice struggles.
Nasreen Apa was a visionary. There exists now, no doubt as a result of the work she initiated that led to improved services and reporting, numerous documents about acid violence in Bangladesh. Nevertheless I want to highlight here the feminist principles that infused her work with the campaign. At the outset, she integrated the adolescent girls who had endured acid attacks into the campaign as active participants and leaders. The 1997 Acid Workshop organised by Naripokkho made public the specifics of this systematic and gendered violence against women. Aside from mobilising diverse social and political actors for this cause, the workshop included a visit to the Sangsad Bhaban where the survivors took over the public space, which had been denied them as a result of the social ostracisation and isolation that followed the acid attacks. Other sessions included "Esho Shopno Dekhi," where survivors and their mothers painted pictures of the kind of just futures they envisioned. Her goal was to create and maintain a space where the survivors would share their experiences with one another, and to nurture young women in an enabling environment so they would take on leadership roles in the campaign and other areas of their lives. One of the most important outcomes of the acid campaign indeed was the creation of a nationwide network of survivors, which they coordinated themselves.
Speaking about the workshop's goal to end social isolation of victims of violence, Nasreen Apa said in an interview in 1997, "The reason behind this public exposure was the collective strength of the workshop participants. We felt stronger and braver as a group." Despite the lack of systematic support and recognition, much of the preparatory work occurred during unofficial hours where Naripokkho activists stayed back in the office or Nasreen Apa's home - turned into a makeshift office - and worked till the early hours of the morning. True to the organisation's overall vision of building resistance to gender oppression, the Naripokkho activists' approach was survivor-centred in the sense that the objective was always to give primacy to the experiences and empowerment of the survivors in the evolving campaign. Looking back at the trajectory of the acid campaign, she said, "Many people joined in because they were moved by the stories. It was easy to get sympathy for this kind of work but I wanted to address other issues through our work too. I wanted the work on acid violence to serve as a model for other projects. I wanted to build a campaign with social acceptability." (Personal Interview, April 2003).
In an interview in 2003, Nasreen Apa emphasised the less discussed "emotional" aspect of the work that motivated her and other Naripokkho staff:
I think what often gets left out is the emotional impact that this work has on us. The workshop we put together for the survivors in 1997 was as much about an emotional release for Naripokkho staff as it was an opportunity to connect with one another for the survivors. To this day, I can't forget how moved Bristi [Bristi Chowdhury was an intern at Naripokkho in 1996-97 whose work was critical in the mobilising of the acid campaign] and I were when we went to visit Nahar [Nurun Nahar's story was instrumental in launching the acid campaign] in Baofol, Jessore, back in 1995 after hearing about her story from her relatives in the newspaper office: A teenage girl studying in Class X who rejected the sexual advances of a local boy. He started harassing her on the way to school. So one night he broke into her home with a bottle of acid. She saw the bottle and instinctively put up her arms over her face. She thought it was water. The man pushed her arms down and flung the contents of the bottle on her face. It's a calculative and symbolic act, one that needed a lot of planning in advance. It reminds me of a wedding ceremony where the groom removes the veil to put the garland on the bride. The same kind of gesture was used in pushing the protective barrier her hands aside and throwing the acid on her. The garland and the acid both are marks of ownership. At the hospital people said that she must have done something to deserve this! I thought something has to be done. That is how it all began.
The enabling space for the survivors morphed into weekly music sessions in her Dhanmondi flat. During a research trip in 2003, I spent many Saturday afternoons listening to popular Bangla tunes, drinking tea in her living room overlooking the Dhanmondi Lake. The verandah with its proximity to the lake, shaded by greenery and blossoming red krishnochura, was clearly a favourite spot of hers. It is there I remember her now most vividly, sipping tea and patiently answering my questions many an afternoon or lazy weekend morning. The memory of those meetings remains in my mind as remarkably tranquil and uninterrupted amidst her very busy schedule.
In the summer of 2005 during another research trip to Dhaka, I shared with Nasreen Apa several articles I intended to publish on the acid campaign. I went to see her in the Action Aid Office in Gulshan. She introduced me to Jamila, her daughter, and invited me to her home to discuss my writing. "I am glad you are writing about this, but I have some ideological differences with you that I would like to talk about," she said in her characteristic straight-forward way. We did meet once more at her home. Disapproving of some aspects of my analysis, she pointed out to me my own biases and blind spots particularly in relation to my position as an academic located in a Western institution of higher education. I understood that Nasreen Apa cared about my work and therefore she took time to help me see it from multiple angles. I too am one of the many women she nurtured, enabled, and inspired. I had hoped to share the revisions of my work with her in the summer of 2006. Her death has left so many of us with a stunning void. I cannot even begin to imagine the grief and loss her family is enduring. I know her work and vision will live in the hearts of so many she mentored, supported, and inspired.
Photo: Syed Zakir Hossain
(R) thedailystar.net 2006