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Women's-education advocates rally behind UBC scholar blinded in Bangladesh

In this image taken from a Bangladesh newscast, Rumana Monzur speaks to reporters from her hospital bed.

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A savage attack in Bangladesh that blinded a University of British Columbia graduate student has bolstered support for efforts to open the doors to Canadian higher education wider in South Asia.

Academics and students are leading a large Canadian contingent rallying behind 33-year-old Rumana Monzur, who had her eyes gouged and a part of her nose bitten off while visiting her family in Bangladesh.

Her husband, Hassan Syeed, was arrested 10 days later and reportedly confessed to assaulting her.

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"He has made my world dark. I can't see my daughter," she told reporters in Dhaka, according to The Daily Star newspaper.

At UBC, Ms. Monzur is taking a master's degree in political science - specializing in climate change - and holds a post as assistant professor in Dhaka University's international relations department. Students describe her as happy, brilliant, studious and devout, but the shocking June 5 assault has shattered that life.

Ms. Monzur's father, Monzur Hussain, said she is in hospital in the Bangladeshi capital awaiting plastic surgery to rebuild her nose, with family members by her side.

It's "a difficult time," he told The Globe and Mail.

Living arrangements and financial considerations prevented Ms. Monzur's five-year-old daughter from following her to Vancouver. Despite long hours spent phoning home through Skype, she missed her family enough to return to Dhaka in May.

"She was more than excited to [go]meet her husband and her child," said Shahin Akter, a relative who lives in Vancouver, and who helped Ms. Monzur buy her ticket home from a local travel agent.

Ms. Monzur expected to return to defend her thesis in Vancouver, but close family members told Ms. Akter that Mr. Syeed vehemently opposed her leaving again.

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"This tragic occasion is a poignant marker of the need to work to protect the fundamental human right of all women to pursue education," UBC president Stephen Toope said in a statement.

Bangladeshi media coverage has focused on reports that her husband accused her of being unfaithful. Ms. Monzur denied the accusations in an emotional interview from her hospital bed, her eyes swollen and her nose bandaged. Ms. Akter dismissed the rumours as a red herring concocted by Mr. Syeed.

Ms. Akter also said Ms. Monzur had never spoken of any domestic unrest, but in an account of the June 5 incident Ms. Akter gleaned from close family members, Mr. Syeed allegedly carried out the brutal attack on Ms. Monzur in front of their daughter.

"He locked the door to the room, so that the little one couldn't get away," she said.

Ms. Monzur was rushed to India to find out whether her eyesight could be saved, but doctors concluded no further treatment was possible, and Mr. Hussain is prepared to fly her to North America if he can find expert help.

It is clear she will have non-medical assistance, however. Colleagues are collecting donations, and UBC graduate students close to Ms. Monzur are organizing a support rally outside the Vancouver Art Gallery on Sunday to "raise awareness of her case and, more generally, to protest domestic violence against women," said Marleen de Ruiter, who resided with the victim at St. John's College.

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For months, Canadian universities have been pushing for deeper partnerships in South Asia, trying to attract more students to study in Canada. In January, Amit Chakma, the Bangladeshi-born president of the University of Western Ontario, visited Dhaka's Asian University For Women to stress the importance of increasing women's access to education.

"I was thinking that maybe we [in Bangladesh]had turned the page. But when you hear of these sort of brutalities perpetrated against women, then you wonder," he said. "I think this should enhance our resolve to do more to try to be helpful to individual students who want to come here to study."

Ms. Akter said Ms. Monzur is deeply fearful for her future, but has kept her resolve.

"Definitely, she wants to finish her studies," Ms. Akter said. "But her main concern is she wants to see her daughter growing."

With a report from Rod Mickleburgh

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