As Wasfia Nazreen formally declared her intent to climb all the seven mountains of the world, we all cheered. To many she represents that precious gift called hope. Here was a Bangladeshi girl, declaring her aspirations which so few of us have and certainly few would even dare. There is something special about this girl and if you look at the number of friends and admirers she has, one doesn’t have any doubt that she is our symbol for the future and the present. Feelings we all harbour but are felled by the nature of the state we have fashioned since we became independent. She’s intrepid and gifted but she is also a determined person, the one who has dared to and achieved something special.
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Wasfia is not just a mountaineer but plays many other roles. In fact this task of physical courage is probably less risky than her work in human rights. The first time I met her was on the pages of bdnews24.com, when she wrote defending the rights of the sex workers. Next, she stood up for the people of Chittagong Hill Tracts and in fact she has spoken out on their behalf in many international fora. A more difficult one has been her support for the rights of the Tibetan Buddhists for which she has had brushes with security agencies too.
But she is also a writer, a photographer, a historian and a few more. She can and does many things. She gave up her job to concentrate on this national task and that is why her passion positively overwhelms the safe vision of life so many of us hold. We need examples like her.
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Yet there are many Wasfias in Bangladesh and we know so very few of them. I believe their courage and dignity matches that of our Wasfia and it’s been an honour to have known the two women I write about here. I had met them some years ago. Both are from Bangladesh and in my eyes few are greater than them.
The one person I place above all people I know is Salma whom I met in Tangail. I met her at the sprawling brothel complex at Tangail. I was doing a series for the BBC on child labour and that included sex work. I contacted her through an agency which was working to raise children of sex workers away from the brothel as almost all followed their mother’s profession who lived inside the brothel area.
It was very embarrassing to stand in front of her hut with a noisy client inside but when we later met to talk she was composed putting me at ease.
She was 16 years old but looked older due to steroids pumped into her to make her look mature. We talked about her life and work, recorded her and then I left amidst laughing children of the women who lived there playing in the dirt.
Later, as we sat down to lunch at the agency office, my guide told me this story.
“Salma was 11 years old when she left the brothel and came to live with us away from it. But when she was 13 her mother came and said she could no longer work and was starving. And so out of obligation Salma returned to the brothel to do the only work she knew. She didn’t let her mother down.”
“She splits her income three-way. She gives one part to her mother, one part she lives on and one part she gives to us so that other girls don’t have to return to sex work. There is quite no one like her”.
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The courage, dignity and a sense of honour and responsibility she displayed while surviving amidst all odds probably takes a kind of awesomeness of the heart that most of us can never have. Few of us are in that situation and even fewer face such horrific choices to make. But Salma did make that choice and though she suffered she went on. She is the most significant person I have met in my life.
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Shefali was a sex worker of Tanbazar who became involved in the sex workers’ movement against eviction in 1984. It was a bit amusing how all-party committees were formed to rid the area of ‘sin’ which in effect was a land grabbing policy and of course there is nothing like greed to unite all hearts. Shefali gave up sex work to concentrate on the movement and therefore suffered from penury. Fellow sex workers would give her money when they could but it was a life of hardship that she chose to defend her rights. One day while coming home late, she was knifed to death. The movement dispersed and of course in the battle, they lost the fight. But till she was alive she didn’t give up. Herself a sex worker, she took up the battle on behalf of those who have no friends. She was an apolitical activist and of course no one remembers her and no dibosh is celebrated on her day of death but she is the spirit of struggle and selfishness, no less in stature than our national heroes.
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As Wasfia declared her intention in her bold and forthright manner dedicating her victory to the independence of the country and the achievement of women in the last four decades, our hearts too burst with pride. It always shall, it always will be. No matter how badly the identity of women have been tarnished by our increasing number of lady politicians, it’s the Wasfias who will make them look so shining, inspirational and full of hope. As we clapped and cheered Wasfia, I added the name of Salma and Shefali in my heart to that noble list.
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist, activist and writer.