The powerful story of a Bangladeshi-Canadian woman who was blinded by her abusive husband

The violence was shocking, but millions of women are abused every year all over the world — including in Canada

By: Katy Swailes and Lalita Krishna, producers of Untying the Knot

The disturbing images flashed across our television and computer screens in 2011: a young woman, eyes bruised and swollen shut, nose bandaged where part of it had been savagely bitten off; an anguished voice addressing reporters in an unfamiliar language. 

Rumana Monzur had been attacked, maimed and blinded by her abusive husband, just days after asking for a divorce. Her powerful story of strength and resilience is the focus of our documentary Untying the Knot, airing on the documentary Channel.

Violence against women in Bangladesh

Monzur was born into a progressive, middle-class family in Bangladesh. She was encouraged to study and be ambitious. But when she rejected marriage proposals from her male peers in university, they threatened to throw acid on her. So at the age of 23, Monzur got married to the son of a distant acquaintance for her own protection — at least, that was the intention.

For nearly a decade, she suffered mental, emotional and physical abuse in her marriage. But with a young daughter to think of, the shame and stigma associated with divorce prevented her from speaking out.

MORE: Survivor Rumana Monzur talks about why she stayed in an abusive marriage

Watching the news from our Canadian living rooms, it was easy to see Monzur’s attack as another case of violence against women happening “somewhere else” — a woman brutalized by her husband, victim of an oppressive and unequal society.

To be sure, the “where” in the context of Monzur’s assault is important.

Bangladesh has one of the world’s highest reported incidences of acid attacks, mostly against women. In a United Nations study from 2013, more than 10 per cent of urban-dwelling Bangladeshi men admitted to perpetrating rape against female intimate partners. And in 2015, approximately 73 per cent of married (or previously married) Bangladeshi women reported at least one instance of abuse by their husband.

But while many may sit back and think of Canada as a safe haven, it’s not.

Violence against women is a global problem

In Canada, domestic violence and violence against women is happening with shocking regularity. There are an estimated 1,200 missing and murdered Indigenous women (at minimum). More than 6,000 women and children sleep in shelters on a typical night because home is not a safe place for them. A woman dies at the hands of her partner approximately every six days in this country. The majority of perpetrators of these crimes will not face justice in our system.

Violence against women is a scourge that plagues communities around the world, regardless of race, religion or economic status.

Over the past two years, the #MeToo movement has underscored its pervasiveness. It’s clear that even developed nations have failed to eradicate the culture of misogyny.

Despite progress, women are still vulnerable

Progress on women’s rights is being made in Bangladesh. In 2010, a bill was passed that aims to protect victims of domestic violence. The Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act provides a definition of abuse and outlines, among other things, the duties of law enforcement, the rights of victims and the penalties for offences.

But implementation has been sporadic, and domestic violence is still a major concern in Bangladesh. Corruption, patriarchal attitudes and a discriminatory legal system leave many women vulnerable.

As we dug deeper into Monzur’s heartbreaking story while making this documentary, many more women came forward to tell their stories. We realized just how insidious and deep-rooted domestic violence is, especially in male-dominated Bangladesh.   

Yet Monzur’s incredible strength in the face of brutality is inspiring. Confronted with overwhelming adversity, she has persevered and triumphed. Within one year of losing her eyesight, Monzur applied to law school. Last year, she was called to the bar of British Columbia. Today, she is practising law in Vancouver.

November 25 is the annual International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. The United Nations campaign draws attention to this widespread, persistent and devastating problem.  

As an ambassador of human rights on the world stage, Canada must work to empower women at all levels of our society.

While the impact could be global, the work must start at home.

Watch Untying the Knot on the documentary Channel.

Available on CBC Gem

Untying the Knot

documentary Channel