25 Nov - 1 Dec 2016 #834

“Freedom is not free”

The first Bangladeshi to climb Seven Summits wants to empower girls to scale life’s mountains 
Smriti Basnet

Looking down from the top of the world at sunrise in 2012, Wasfia Nazreen (pic, above) was overcome with emotion. On the summit of Mount Everest with other Himalayan peaks piercing a sea of clouds below her, the Bangladeshi mountaineer suddenly understood life.

Back in Nepal, and sitting across a table at a cafe in Bouddha, Nazreen admitted that at one point during the climb, she thought she was not going to make it. What kept her going was the promise she had made to the people of her country on the 40th anniversary of Bangladesh: to highlight how far women have come. 

“I hope I never forget this moment in my entire life, it made me realise the value of my time on the Earth,” said the 34-year-old who became the first Bangladeshi to scale the highest points in the seven continents. 

“Symbolically the struggle to climb the mountains was parallel to the struggle women face in society,” explained Nazreen, for whom it was an uphill struggle even before she started climbing. 

With no sponsorship, she sold off her ancestral jewellery to fund her expeditions. But soon, the media caught up, and she had people offering to help her. “One of them was a divorcée who came up to me with her alimony and said ‘free me on the mountain’,” she recalled.

Nazreen is all too familiar with the everyday battles women face, with minimal family and financial support she remembers the burden of paying her way through college. She strongly believes in empowering women to be independent, and hopes that her climbs inspire other women in Bangladesh and elsewhere. 

Pics: Sebastian Grau
PEAK PERFORMANCE: Bangladeshi mountaineer Wasfia Nazreen on the summit of Denali, the highest mountain in North America. two years ago.

“For any South Asian woman freedom is not free. No one is going to make this possible for us, we have got to do it ourselves,” said Nazreen. In Bangladesh, men now come up to her with requests to take their daughters under her wings, but she knows that Bangladesh and South Asia still have a long way to go when it comes to gender equality. 

Which is why Nazreen has set up Ösel Foundation, named after her Tibetan name that means ‘clarity of the human mind’, which aims to inculcate self confidence through sports and outdoor activities. The Foundation plans to establish an alternate school for adolescent girls first in Bangladesh and Nepal and then in Sri Lanka and India.  “We want to tell girls that each one of them has the light in them, and it is possible to reach that potential,” said Nazreen.

The climber’s four years of climbing was made into a short film by Apple Inc, shot entirely on an iPhone. She was also awarded National Geographic Adventurer of the Year in 2014, and National Geographic Emerging Explorer in 2016. 

Nazareen also co-founded RESET, an organisation which designs trek and retreats around the world for leaders and works with World Bank and Facebook. Said Nazreen: “We need to start changing the minds of those who actually change policies.”

Watch video of Wasfia Nazreen

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