The Activist: Wasfia Nazreen
A Bangladeshi aid worker hula-hoops on the Seven Summits to empower her country’s women and girls.
While exact numbers are difficult to pin down, approximately 350 people have climbed the Seven Summits. If activist Wasfia Nazreen summits Oceania's Carstensz Pyramid in late November, it won’t rank as a stunning mountaineering feat—ascending to the continents’ high points isn’t as revered as other more daunting mountaineering feats. Certainly, she may become the first to hula-hoop on all seven, but Nazreen’s goal reaches far beyond summits, routes, and firsts.
In 2010, Nazreen was working for international humanitarian aid group CARE in her native country of Bangladesh. One of CARE's projects pulled 3,000 women and children out of brothels and began educating and training them for careers outside the sex industry. Bangladesh is the eighth most populous country, with just under a third of its people living below the international poverty line. Then the funding for the project dried up. Unable to win a grant to continue the program, CARE left and Nazreen watched as the 3,000 women and children were left in social limbo, ostracized by Bangladeshi society and removed from what little social support the brothels had afforded them, according to Nazreen.
“Worse yet were the kids. They had almost escaped the cyclical nature of the brothel life,” says 32-year-old Nazreen, who has worked in the human rights field since her early 20s, after graduating from Agnes Scott College. “We were so dependent on these foreign organizations. If [an NGO] left, it was almost like a program just ended.”
Nazreen decided that while foreign support had its role in the developing nation, it was time for the Bangladeshi people to begin building aid organizations that were not headed by foreigners. She had begun mountaineering in 2006, while working in Tibet to stem human rights violations by the Chinese government. She decided to combine her two passions—activism and climbing.
Nazreen sold some family jewelry, took out tens of thousands of dollars in loans, and went to work. First, she created the Bangladesh on Seven Summits foundation to oversee the climbing portion of her mission and began ticking off the peaks with a Bangladeshi flag in hand. At that point no Bangladeshi had completed the Seven Summits. The 40th anniversary of Bangladeshi independence was in 2011, and the country was hungry to celebrate. Nazreen added her own unique flourish by packing a 2.5-pound, collapsible Hula-Hoop in the Bengali colors and breaking it out on top of each summit. Hula-hooping was something she had been forbidden to do as a child. When Nazreen summited Everest, international media began picking up her story, which she used to generate momentum into the second phase of her project.
“Eighty percent of the people haven’t seen a mountain,” says Nazreen of her country, which is known for its flat, fertile river deltas. “Going to every continent took the Bangladeshi people to every continent. It gave them a lot of pride.”
This fall, with six of the seven climbs behind her, Nazreen implemented the second stage of her project. She launched the Ösel Foundation, aimed at educating marginalized young women and getting them into the outdoors. Bangladesh is a deeply patriarchal society in which even educated girls are discouraged from participating in sports, and arranged marriages are commonplace. Women who have been born into the sex trade or victimized by rape enjoy a fraction of the rights that others do. This January, the Ösel Foundation begins its education and outdoor initiatives with a six-month pilot program for 50 teenage girls. The curriculum is influenced by Western outdoor education programs.
“We are trying to change our society,” says Nazreen. “This seemed like a good place to start.”
National Geographic Adventure: So first off, what’s with the Hula-Hoop?
Wasfia Nazreen: When I was a little girl, one of my first memories was of this foreign couple visiting my town. I’d never seen white people. Their daughter had this Hula-Hoop. I wanted to play with it. I was trying it, and one of the neighborhood women said something along the lines of “Girls shouldn’t be shaking their hips.” The way she said it had this very derogatory meaning. I thought, Good girls can’t play with Hula-Hoops.
This was taken from my life—the right to play as a little girl. I was told I couldn’t bike because it would take my virginity and other nonsense. I’m doing this for myself and for the little girls back at home. It’s my little way of saying, “No more.”
NGA: You are a star in your country for your climbs. Has the response been entirely good?
WN: For the most part. There was a celebration at the prime minister’s. And this man, this colonel in the Bangladeshi navy or army, came in and screamed, “This thing got up and our army couldn’t get up.” He was screaming at his people, his men. He couldn’t even call me “she.” He just said "thing.” In the long run, it’s flattering. The men in our country—it hit some of their egos. Now we are starting to get fathers coming to ask if their daughters can be a part of our foundation. I don’t want the fame, but the fact that some men are starting to see that they can get their daughters involved in sports and the outdoors, that’s a matter of pride. Seeing that shift is huge for me. There aren’t many positive stories in Bangladesh. This is one of them.
NGA: Which of the peaks has been the most difficult?
WN: Well, Denali and Everest are the most difficult, but the hardest thing is honestly the logistics. I haven’t used a commercial outfit for these climbs, so the logistics of getting permits and organizing was harder than the climbing. Raising the funds has been the hardest. In Bangladesh, I had to prove myself over and over again. I’ve had a lot of help from friends.
NGA: Bangladesh is coastal and pretty flat. How and where did you start climbing?
WN: I worked in Tibet on a four-year campaign to protest the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. The Chinese were using them as a way to validate their claim on Tibet. During that time we were traveling a lot in Tibet and Nepal. We were organizing these protests and events. We’d climb bridges or towers for these events, and so I got some [climbing] training. In 2006, I started doing small climbs. By 2007, I was starting to do six- and seven-thousand-meter peaks.
NGA: You’ve taken big financial risks to start your foundations and work constantly—what pushes you to do all that?
WN: I have a really deep calling. I have some big bank loans. I have no idea how I’m going to pay it off. If you think about it practically, I should be really worried about that, but my brain doesn’t function like that. In my adolescence and in my own life, this is like healing. Growing up, I was marginalized. I don’t want any other girl to go through that. That’s where the power comes from.