In remembrance of Nasreen Huq (1958-2006), a courageous activist and visionary development practitioner writes Tasmiah Sadika
ON THE evening of April 24, on her 13th death anniversary, Nasreen Huq was remembered with songs from Rabindranath Tagore, DL Roy, Salil Choudhury and Rudra Mohammad Shahidullah, performative recitations of Begum Rokeya’s Sultana’s Dream, Tagore’s Chitrangada and an excerpt from the first play by visually impaired persons which she had helped stage in 1997. She was remembered with such love, respect and admiration that it left me with the longing to know more about her. I was not present at the event. A friend has forwarded the facebook link in which Naripokkho has uploaded video clips from the event. I was touched by the way orgnaisers have contextualised their grief drawing courage from Nasreen Huq’s activism to incite hope for today’s Bangladesh — সুদিনের প্রত্যাশায় তোমাকে (For a better tomorrow, mourning you).
Nasreen Huq was a youthful, inspiring and indomitable change maker. Glorious academic life and decorated professional career is not what defines her. It is her lifelong commitment to women’s rights and social justice that kept her ember burning. Much has been written about her work in the development sector and her volunteer work with Naripokkho (a women’s rights organisation). Since I did not have the fortune to meet her, only knew her through her feminist writings and analysis, I focus this piece on her words of conviction.
Since the independence of Bangladesh, the presence of firearms has plagued our universities. The weapons once legitimised for fighting Pakistani army, are being used for balance of power at our universities. Our boys today are embroiled in armed battles involving the students’ wings of political parties. The keepers of the university, the faculty, the vice chancellor, instead of pursuing academic excellence and engaging in scholarly debates, dabble in power games where the students are pawns. And in this battlefield, there is exchange of fire, there is suffering and not surprisingly women are raped.
— Nasreen Huq, ‘Rape at Jahangirnagar University’, The Independent, October 9, 1998.
I read this paragraph again and again. This piece was written in support of the Anti-rape movement at Jahangirnagar University when students took to the street demanding punishment of members of Bangladesh Chatra League JU Unit for their involvement in rape and sexual assault on campus. In her analysis, she did not simply blame patriarchy but tried to understand how the larger power structure, more specifically, history of weaponisation of student politics in independent Bangladesh worked as catalyst of male violence on campus — something that many did not say in her time and a large majority of feminists today are still hesitant to say.
Safe motherhood implies the right of the women to decide when to take a child. It is the right to receive cooperation from family and society. The doctors and the government have an obligation to provide services for safe motherhood. Safe motherhood is a woman’s right to live. Safe motherhood is a woman’s right to decision making.
— Nasreen Huq with Nazneen Akhter and Rebecca Milton, ‘In Quest of Safe Motherhood’, The Independent, May 28, 1999.
As a feminist thinker and activist, Nasreen did not carry any myopic view of women’s world and their struggle. She refused to compartmentalise women’s issues to any particular concern. As a volunteer of Naripokkho, she organised awareness campaign on breast cancer with survivors. She led a research team to document the negative effects of Norplant (an invasive controversial contraceptive technology). She was passionate about safe motherhood, but never conceived it as a purely medical or public health concern and she wrote, ‘For us maternal mortality is not merely an abstract statistic…Although, the immediate cause of maternal mortality is the medical complication of pregnancy, the social background in which the problem occurs needs to be addressed.’ Hence, as development practitioner structural inequality and state responsibility never escaped her attention. She passionately argued, ‘A woman has a right to safe contraception, if she chooses not to have a child. She has the right to the best possible services for a safe pregnancy and delivery when she chooses to have a child.’
We took a bus and ferry and travelled overnight to Baofal. It was a moonlit night as Bristi and I walked the lonely tree lined stretch to Nahar’s house. She was surprised and moved by our visit to the extent that it inspired her for the first time since her accident to step outside of the four walls of her home to accompany us back to the ferry when we left. We gave each other the strength to embark on this work. We may not have had resources, but we had the imagination.
—Nasreen Huq in an interview with Elora Halim Chowdhury published in
Andoloner Nasreen, Nasreener Andolon, Naripokkho, 2007
Today, when she is remembered, her campaign against acid violence in Bangladesh is the first thing people talk about. It is because of her dedicated and persistent advocacy that acid attacks against women saw a sharp decline in the country. Locally and globally,
Nasreen’s role in the establishment of the Acid Survivors Foundation is readily acknowledged. When I read accounts of her friends and colleagues, I could visualise her dancing with survivors of acid attack. It is in Nasreen’s friendship and sisterhood cultivated at Naripokkho that many women who survived violent acid attack drew strength from to sidestep social stigma and rebuild life. She organised workshops that included a visit to the Sangshad Bhaban when survivors took over public spaces that were otherwise inaccessible to them. From a distance, when we think of campaign against acid attack, we think of protest rallies and meetings with government to regulate the acid market, but never have I thought of moments that feminist scholar Elora Halim Chowdhury described, ‘The enabling space for the survivors morphed into weekly music sessions in her [Nasreen Huq’s] 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.’ In Nasreen’s experience, wounds that survivors of acid violence endured were not individual, but had scarred the collective existence of women. Therefore, to a large extent, Naripokho’s campaign against acid violence was not just about victims, it was also a matter of mutual healing.
Happy cycling through the streets of Dhaka…Happy marching with acid survivors…Happy starting a pig farm to force the ministry of fisheries and livestock to vaccinate pigs, the most condemned of animals consumed by the most condemned of people in our society…Happy speaking to women at Naripokkho…
— Lamia Karim, ‘A woman of courage’, Andoloner Nasreen, Nasreener Andolon, Naripokkho, 2007
Nasreen’s close friends and family fondly called her Happy. Lamia Karim, an anthropologist and friend remembered her through fleeting memories of her encounter with Nasreen Huq. These fleeting images are a testament to her life — ‘She spoke out against what she saw as injustice.’ Reading her own writings and flipping through pages written on her, I could feel why her friends in mourning say, Nasreen Huq’s smile is infectious and her courage remains contagious.
Tasmiah Sadika is an artivist advocating for LGBTQ rights.
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