The daughter of a retired Bangladeshi Army officer, Rumana Monzur, 33, was the image of a beautiful intellectual: wide eyes, angelic smile, and gentle disposition. While most of her aunts and uncles settled in the U.S. and Europe, landing in towns as far-flung as Bridgewater, N.J., she grew up in Bangladesh, marrying a childhood sweetheart in a “love marriage.” She became an assistant professor at Dhaka University in the country’s capital, and a year ago set out to earn a master's degree in political science as a Fulbright scholar at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. This past May, missing her husband and 5-year-old daughter, she returned to Dhaka to write her dissertation. Little did she know her world would soon turn dark, quite literally.
A Muslim, she completed her asr, or late-afternoon prayer, on Sunday, June 5, and returned to the computer in her parents' bedroom, her daughter drawing on the bed nearby. The door clicked, and in the next 10 harrowing minutes, Monzur’s husband, Syeed Hasan Sumon, brutally attacked her, she says. She had shown him photos on her Facebook page, and he flew into a rage, accusing her of an affair with an Iranian student in Canada.
Sumon, who is nearly blind from a degenerative disease, pulled his wife’s hair, throwing her to the bed and pinning her arms down with his legs, she says. Then, in an account that is bone-chilling, she says her husband pressed his fingers into her eyes, gouging them out. According to Monzur, he gnawed at her cheek, lips, and nose, biting off bits of flesh, blood spilling throughout the room as Monzur flailed. Her daughter, Anusheh, stood in a corner of the room, screaming, as two household servants struggled to open the locked door. A neighbor took her to the hospital, where her parents soon arrived. The diagnosis: blindness. “I lost my eyes,” says Monzur. “I don’t want anyone to suffer like I am suffering. It is horrible.”
In that part of the world, where shame so often defines the moral conscience of society and a family’s honor lies so often in the image of a woman’s chastity and fidelity, this could have been yet another tragic but untold story at the altar of sharam, or shame, as it’s said in Urdu. For seven days, the story was mostly just a family secret, reported to the police but nowhere else. As Monzur marked her 33rd birthday blinded in the hospital, her father, Monzur Hossain, focused on her medical treatment, and her husband was free.
It seemed, at first, that Monzur’s story would be a typical case of shame used as a strategy to silence a victim. But through social media, it has provided a window into a new phenomenon among Muslims and others around the world: addressing shame with shame. Nancy Snow, a professor of cross-cultural communications at California State University, Fullerton, calls it “shame jujitsu.”
That Sunday, June 12, Monzur’s former professor at Dhaka University, Amena Mohsin, 50, leaned over Monzur’s bed on the sixth floor of a local hospital and talked to her gently about the importance of telling her story to the media. “I am speaking to you as a woman, as a human being,” she said. “Rumana, please speak up.” Monzur and her father understood the importance of what Mohsin was urging, but, the professor recalled, her father was afraid his daughter’s character would be assassinated.
That night, Monzur’s older first cousin, Rashed Maqsood, 43, returned to town from a business trip. He was 10 when Monzur was born and remembered her as a newborn. Now a bank executive in Bangladesh, he wasn’t captive to tradition to keep silent. He urged Monzur’s father to go to the media, as did an uncle of Monzur’s living in the Netherlands. “Unless you go to the press, the police will not act quickly,” the cousin told the father. Monzur’s father was worried that “a lot of bad names” would be hurled at his daughter when the case became public, the cousin says. The husband would surely “do some nasty things” to defend himself. But the professor, uncle, and cousin prevailed.
That day, a Facebook page went up, fueled by colleagues and students of Monzur’s at Dhaka University. The University of British Columbia, meanwhile, started collecting online donations for Monzur’s recovery.
The following day, local TV crews arrived at Monzur’s hospital and, bandaged, she gave a bedside interview, understandable only in Bangla, the language of Bangladesh, but eerie in any language. The first headlines began to circulate on Canadian and Bangladeshi websites. The next day, her story was on various broadcasts and YouTube. A drumbeat of outrage started, reaching folks across the globe.
Two days later, Bangladeshi police arrested Monzur’s husband, presenting him to the media handcuffed in jeans and a striped T shirt outside the police detectives' headquarters. According to a Bangladesh online news story, headlined “Hassan Alleges Betrayal By Rumana,” the husband launched the type of smear campaign Monzur’s father had feared: “She had an affair with an Iranian male during her stay in Canada for her studies since August last year,” he told the press. He had deleted the Iranian man’s name from her Facebook friends, he said. “Finding the Iranian guy's name deleted, she attacked me, and we had a scuffle,” he said. “I lost my glasses and since I don't see well, she might have been hurt in the fight.” Hassan remains in police custody. His attorney couldn’t be reached for comment.
But, in the way that this story was handled differently than many, this wasn’t just another headline about an attempted “honor killing” by a disgraced Muslim man. This time, the local and diaspora Bangladeshi community challenged the justification of violence. When a reporter asked Monzur at a second press conference about the allegations of an affair, Bangladeshi colleagues of Monzur, including her former professor, Mohsin, shouted, “Shame! Shame!” to quiet the spurious claims. “We have to change the very concept of what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’ in our societies,” says Mohsin. “We have to shame the perpetrators.”
“Shame against shame is one of the most important tools,” says Sushanta Das Gupta, 33, the editor of eBangladesh.com. “It is the time to raise the voice with the help of social media.” Indeed, on one of the many Facebook pages supporting Monzur, a Bangladeshi man wrote only, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” against her husband.
The day after the husband’s allegations, a young male Bangladeshi blogger, Asif Saleh, asked, “Whose face are we saving?”
“It took a monster to bite the nose off his wife to wake us up to the reality that we have a very serious problem in our society. But in all likelihood this culture of silence and maniye chola will continue—sometimes for the children, sometimes for the society,” he wrote, invoking a concept of societal shame that maniye chola describes in Bengali.
In Dhaka, Monzur’s cousin was talking to her friends in Vancouver. There was something they could do, he advised: collect affidavits of testimony, attesting to Monzur’s fidelity. A few days later, Sarah Meli, a student at the University of British Columbia and a friend of Monzur’s, emailed a 22-page scan to the cousin with testimonials of how Monzur stood in the cold rain to talk long-distance to her daughter and how she regularly had dinner with two girlfriends. A Muslim Ph.D. student from India wrote that she was like “an elder sister.” He called it “deplorable” that she was first allegedly “brutally tortured by her husband” and then “accused of infidelity to add to her agony.”
The next day, two Bangladeshi men at the University of British Columbia sent an “Open Letter From Bangladeshi Families of Vancouver and University of British Columbia About Rumana Monzur” to the eBangladesh editor:
"We are deeply shocked and mourning the brutal attack on our sister Rumana Monzur. We are writing this letter out of grave concern observing the attempts made to establish a baseless extramarital story by Rumana’s husband."
Another first cousin of Monzur’s, Emaan Mahmood, 29, a New York University M.B.A. graduate who was childhood pen pals with Monzur, said, “It’s phenomenal that the Bangladeshi community has made this a global cause.” Mahmood took to Twitter to send updates worldwide.
On June 22, Aparna Roy, a blogger and ethnographer in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), India, penned a blog, “Bangladesh—Rumana Monzur—A Grim Reminder of Domestic Violence," linking to Bangla-language blogs that had hit the Internet over the last week. On Choturmatrik, a Bangla blog, Taef Ahmad had written: “Even wild animals living in the jungle are more humane than this.”
When the “code of silence” is broken around abuse, says Roy, “It no longer remains a personal shame that needs denial or silence. Moreover, with others getting involved, the abusers themselves then have to deal with shame and public censure, which, one hopes, will act as a deterrent at least for some.” Across the world, other activists are harnessing the power of social media to try to counter the culture of shame and silence associated with all sorts of crimes.
A month after the attack, in her hospital room in Dhaka, Monzur’s voice trembled as she related details from her marriage. She says he started beating her a few days after they were married in 2001, with a respite for a few years when he was “good,” causing her to overlook his alleged abuse. “I was blind,” she says. Upon her return from Canada, she showed her husband photos from her life in Canada, doing yoga and ice skating with friends. He flew into a rage, family members say, and beat her that night. Her father supported her leaving her husband. Her in-laws urged her to stay with him, until they returned from the U.S., family members say. The night of the attack, she said, “he pulled my hair and pressed me against the bed and grabbed my neck. He put his fingers into my eyes. He threatened me when he left that he would not let me live. He will kill me no matter where I go.”
With the community breaking its typical silence, a more nuanced universal story is emerging of a young wife struggling privately in a difficult marriage with a man who may have been suffering himself from a mental illness, family members say.
“I want prayers right now. I want that no one else suffers like me … I don’t know how I am handling it,” she said. “I don’t want anyone to keep secrets, things like this. They should talk about it ... I don’t know what will happen to my daughter. She is so small. I want to see her grow.”
She continued: “I really hope that my story changes lives of some. If it changes the lives of some of the women around the world, then it will be my success, I guess.” Her wish for others is that they not live in shame. “Don’t think about anything else. Don’t think about the society. Think about what is best for you.” she said.
Speaking for herself and other victims of violence, she asked, “Why will we be ashamed?...They should be ashamed.” Monzur got on a flight to Canada that night with her father. The government of Canada just said it will give her mother and daughter permits to live in Canada with her. Meanwhile, the road to recovery is just beginning. In Dhaka, her daughter just lost a tooth and cried hysterically at the sight of the small trickle of blood, remembering her mother’s attack. And, on Friday, after four surgeries, the doctors in Canada gave Monzur the grim news: her eyes are blind forever.
Asra Nomani will be teaching a course to the U.S. military in August, “Wound Collectors: Negotiating Honor, Shame, Grievances and Denial in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Samir A. Nomani, the author’s nephew and a rising college freshman, contributed to this article.