Rumana Monzur has faced challenges that no one should have to endure. The challenges began with partner violence.
“When I got married, my life turned upside down. My husband physically abused me on our wedding night and since then it was happily never‐after. I didn’t have the courage or strength to face the social stigma or challenges if I got a divorce at that time. I stayed in that brutal marriage accepting it as my fate.”
In 2011, when visiting her native home of Dhaka, Bangladesh to finalize her divorce from her abusive husband, Rumana was severely attacked at his hands to the point of needing to undergo facial reconstruction through plastic surgery. Also as a result of the domestic violence encounter, she was left completely blind.
In the aftermath, Rumana encountered profound obstacles, the first of these being immediate shock, which forced her to reconsider how she would move forward in her life. It was an immensely fraught period emotionally in which Rumana suffered from severe depression.
“I was shattered when I first heard the news because I didn’t know how to function and live as a blind person. I didn’t know if it was possible to continue living.”
While she was struggling with these thoughts, Rumana found strength in her daughter’s presence.
"I remembered I am a mother of a five year old. I knew I had to get back on my feet as a blind single mom. I felt that mother's instinct which told me, 'You have the responsibility of caring for this child. You have to give her everything she deserves and everything that you want to give her.' That motivation to become her mother again kept me going.”
With the encouragement of her master’s thesis supervisor at UBC along with the media attention and public support her story gained in Canada, Rumana was able to return to Vancouver. Just one month after that traumatic event, she started over again in a new country with her daughter and her elderly parents.
As the primary caregiver and financial supporter of her multi-generational family, Rumana faced the challenges of emigration to provide a better life for her loved ones, all while adapting to life with a severe disability. While adjusting to her new reality, she had to learn how to navigate a sighted world as a blind person, including relearning essential skills such as navigation, reading, and writing.
Being surrounded by a solid support system helped Rumana through the darkest days and hardest times.
"It was a very tough time but we got through it as a family. From my parents to my relatives, they never made me feel that I was a different person because I wasn't able to see. My friends never left me alone when I needed support and never treated me differently. All of those factors combined gave me the strength to see myself as the same person."
When it came to her studies, the attack threw Rumana’s Master’s thesis in Political Science into disarray. Without her eyesight, she could not continue her research work in the same way.
Encouraged to overcome this obstacle despite her disability, Rumana worked with the UBC Centre for Accessibility in order to complete her research through transcription.
“I had to change my research methodology. As I didn’t know computers at the time, a UBC student assistant helped me with preparing my presentations and typing out my entire thesis. For the first time in my life, I realized how limited I was and how hard it was to explain what is in my mind to someone else.”
While finishing her thesis, Rumana was inspired by a new ambition. After a formative interaction with a blind law student at UBC, Rumana became intrigued over the possibility of practicing law as a blind person.
“I decided to change my career path as I understood how empowering law is. Everyone thought it was an impossible idea to even attempt LSAT without knowing Braille, but I was determined to give it a shot. My friends at UBC would come and read practice exams to me while I was preparing for the LSAT.”
Rumana’s determination succeeded as she was accepted into law school right before completing her thesis.
Rumana Monzur. Photo: Avrinder Dhillon.
Learning how to navigate this new territory with a disability was tricky. Oftentimes, her classes would have vague and inconsistent accessibility policies, making it difficult to know how to effectively prepare for assignments and take exams as a blind person.
“It felt like I jumped into the ocean without knowing how to swim. I used a recorder to record lectures and my oral notes. Volunteer readers read my readings and UBC’s Centre for Accessibility transcribed all the readings into CDs. It was a trial and error process for both the school and for me because none of us knew what would work best.”
Nevertheless, Rumana persisted and graduated with a law degree from UBC.
Upon her remarkable achievement, Rumana was ready to conquer yet another challenge by finding a job in the legal field. It was at this point that Rumana prioritized learning the screen reading program, JAWS, which allows blind users to navigate graphical user interfaces using auditory cues. As with all of the other challenges she faced, Rumana overcame the steep learning curve and became proficient with JAWS as well.
“As an articled student, it wasn’t easy to gain the trust and confidence of the senior lawyers and my peers. It was a huge question for everyone how legal work was possible without sight. It felt like a path to never‐ending challenges and obstacles. Nevertheless, I finished in 2018 and wrote and passed the bar exam in the same year.”
Today, Rumana is a junior counsel with the Department of Justice’s National Litigation sector, and an activist for legal justice, global justice, women's rights, domestic violence survivors, and environmental sustainability.
Throughout her journey, Rumana has taken every opportunity available to her to give back to her community. Her focus has been using her lived experiences as a platform to help empower other people to push back against the adversity they experience in their lives. She is particularly passionate about speaking on the topic of domestic violence, especially after hearing the stories of women who have reached out to her with their own personal stories.
"I wondered what happens to those women who don't have a voice or don't have access to resources. Because I suffered all of those things firsthand as well, I know what women go through, and why it can be hard for them to make the decision to leave those situations. I thought I should share my story so that people don't wait until the last minute before something bad happens to them."
As a public speaker, she delivers motivational talks about her experience in an abusive relationship to help other women, proving herself to be a powerful advocate of social justice for women, racial minorities, and people with disabilities.
"As a racial minority, a person with a disability, and a woman, I am in a unique position. I speak about these issues that I face in my everyday life because people need to know in order to get over their unconscious biases and prejudices."
Rumana has spoken at TEDx Stanley Park and been a keynote speaker for the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers, the Canadian Bar Association’s leadership conference for women, and the Association of Civil Trial Lawyers, among many others. Everyone who attends one of Rumana's speaking engagements leaves inspired by her resiliency, strength, and fearlessness in recovering from her attack and embracing and cherishing her new life.
To further spread her message of empowerment, Rumana was featured in the 2019 award‐winning CBC documentary Untying the Knot, which tells Rumana’s story of surviving domestic abuse. Rumana has also been working on a book, set to be published in 2021.
During COVID-19, Rumana had to once again deal with adjusting to a new way of life after an abrupt change. From working from home to setting a new daily schedule, she found ways to find normalcy and regularity. Through it all, she is still hopeful for a better tomorrow.
“It's amazing how we humans are engineered to cope with any kind of situation. I'm so proud that Vancouver has done so well in doing their part during the pandemic. It's a huge contribution for each one of us. It's really amazing to see what people can do when they are united together in working towards a common goal. Without that, we wouldn't be able to flatten the curve or reach where we are now.”
With her fierce intelligence, courage when confronting challenges, and commitment to justice, Rumana continues to transform her difficult story into a source of empowerment and inspiration for others.
The Courage To Come Back Awards celebrate British Columbians who have overcome significant adversity, injury or illness and who inspire and give back to others.
For the past 20 years, the Courage To Come Back Awards have raised more than $18.5 million for Coast Mental Health to support people recovering from mental illness in the Lower Mainland, through housing, support services and employment.
The awards celebration is a major fundraiser for Coast Mental Health, which believes that, through compassionate care and support, everyone can recover. This year, instead of the in-person gala, Coast Mental Health is celebrating Courage To Come Back Month in July.
Find more inspirational stories and to find out how you can support, visit: couragetocomeback.ca.