Brutal Assault on UBC Student Just One of Thousands in South Asia

Media Appearances, Immigration, Frontier Centre

It is no easy matter to say what cold-blooded grievance or raging fury would cause a man to throw himself upon his wife, disfiguring her face with his bare hands and teeth and leaving her blind.

But that is what Hasan Sayeed Sumon, 38, is alleged to have done three weeks ago in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.

His victim is Rumana Monzur, 33, a University of British Columbia graduate student who was home for the summer, visiting her husband and 5-year-old daughter, Anusheh.

Her once-lovely features are now a riddle of bandages and sutures, and Monzur lies on a hospital bed in the land of her birth, a land she will never set eyes upon again, unless she recovers a portion of her sight.

That would be something of a miracle considering the ferocity of her husband's attack.

“This whole case has really shocked us,” says Gitiara Nasrin, head of mass communications and journalism at the University of Dhaka and an authority on domestic abuse.

And she's right — the brutal assault on Monzur has transfixed Bangladesh, not to mention other parts of the world, generating newspaper headlines, TV footage and outraged chatter on the web.

But much of the coverage seems to be triggered more by the rare savagery of this particular attack than by the vastly more familiar circumstances of the case — another South Asian man battering his wife.

That, sad to say, is not news.

Granted, South Asia does not have a monopoly on spousal abuse.

“In my consideration, domestic violence is present all over the world,” says Nasrin.

But still, this region seems to stand out. In Bangladesh, for example, roughly 60 per cent of women suffer physical abuse in their homes, according to We Can, an international alliance aimed at ending violence against women.

Other South Asian countries produce similarly grim statistics.

This month, the Thomson Reuters Foundation issued a report on what it calls the planet's five most dangerous countries for women. Two of the countries are in South Asia — Pakistan, at No. 3, and India, at No. 4.

(The world's most dangerous country for women, according to the report, is Afghanistan. The Democratic Republic of Congo is No. 2; Somalia, No. 5.)

In Pakistan, the report says, nine out of every 10 women suffer domestic violence. In India, nearly half of all girls marry before the age of 18, and an estimated 50 million others exist only as phantoms, the victims of female foeticide or infanticide carried out during the past 100 years in a country that glorifies manhood and merely tolerates — or fails to tolerate — its women.

“Our society is a male-dominated society,” says Gita Das, vice-president of the Indo-Canadian Women's Association, based in Edmonton.

She regards much of the domestic violence inflicted upon South Asian women as strategic rather than spontaneous, part of a social framework bent on subjugating women collectively, rather than the arbitrary outbursts of masculine rage.

“It's the attitude of a slave owner to a slave,” she says. “The violence is done to instill fear. ‘I'm the boss who is going to keep you subservient.'“

Such behaviour is far from pervasive, however, and varies by region and socio-economic class.

“Women with low skills and low education suffer much more,” says Das. But the culture as a whole tends to revere manhood.

“Socially, in Bangladesh, it really matters whether a woman is having a son or a daughter,” says Saif Islam, a doctoral candidate in Vancouver and an expert on domestic violence in Bangladesh. “They'll get more attention from the in-laws if a boy is coming into the family.”

By contrast, girls are regarded as a burden, to be housed, fed and kept chaste before being married off to some other family, at the cost of an expensive dowry.

Or as South Asians are wont to say, according to Aruna Papp, who produced a report last year on domestic violence in Canada's South Asian diaspora: “Raising a daughter is like watering someone else's garden.”

A woman's already difficult lot is further clouded by a dark tradition of honour killings — men taking revenge on women whose behaviour is deemed to have shamed their families.

By one estimate, more than 1,000 such killings are carried out each year in Pakistan — and not only in Pakistan. Twelve such murders have been committed in Canada since 2002, according to Papp's report, produced for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

It isn't certain what corrosive blend of cultural and personal factors propelled Hasan Sayeed Sumon to attack his wife in Dhaka this month. What is clear is that police waited 10 days before arresting the man — troubling evidence of the institutional hurdles that confront those seeking to improve the treatment of the region's women.

“In India,” says Das, “the law is very advanced, like in Canada. But the law is not enforced.”