Nurjahan Khatun was born in the small town of Kashipure, Bangladesh. At only nine years old, she was the unintended recipient of an acid attack. The target was meant to be her 13-year-old cousin who slept in the same room as her. While Khatun’s cousin, Bilikis, received minor burns, the majority of the thrown acid landed on Khatun’s face. The cousin had rebuffed a man’s marriage proposal.
Khatun said the purpose of such an attack was because the assailant was likely thinking, “If I can’t have you, then no one should.”
According to Khatun, a disfigured daughter reflects badly on the rest of the family in Bangladesh. The intent in throwing acid is to mar a woman’s face and make her less desirable for marriage. She says the assailants were around 15 to 16 years old. One of the perpetrators lives in the United States today, after a four year jail sentence for his role in the crime. The others, Khatun explained, paid her uncle off and then fled to India right after the incident. There were some girls involved, too, who told the boys where Nur and her cousin were sleeping.
It took her three days to reach a hospital in Bangladesh, and in this time the acid continued to burn through her skin. The severity of her case allowed her a special visa to travel to an American hospital in Florida where she would come to live with a host family. Prior to this she had never heard of the U.S.
Khatun struggled to stay in the U.S., though. Twice she was forced to return to Bangladesh where she reports that she was not happy. She was harassed by people in Bangladesh, not only for her appearance but for the stigma attached.
She was able to return to the U.S. most recently with the help of Alex Vernon, director of the University of Detroit Mercy Immigration Law Clinic, who was in attendance for Khatun’s presentation at Albion College. Vernon explained that he had a team of his students brainstorm how to get Khatun back into the U.S.
He explained that their strategy was to file for asylum. Asylum protects a person from being deported back to a country they are being persecuted in. It requires proof that the individual was persecuted on the grounds of race, religion, nationality, ethnic group or political opinion. The challenge for Vernon and his students was to figure out where Khatun fit. Since one of the perpetrators was arrested, they could not make the argument that the government was persecuting her.
“Her status as a woman who had survived an acid attack and was targeted because of her outspokenness against violence against women,” Vernon said, was how they successfully argued for asylum.
On Oct. 13, Khatun visited Albion College to share her story. She presented a slideshow of images from her hometown, her experience in healing and her time going to school, both in the U.S. and in Bangladesh.
Khatun hopes for a Bangladesh where 12-year-old girls are allowed to go to school and not be forced into marriage.
Acid attacks similar to this are not rare throughout the world. Rejected men will lash out at a woman, leaving permanent damage. It is not uncommon that victim blaming will occur, in which those familiar with the motivations behind acid attacks will question what the victim had done to deserve the attack, instead of placing the blame on the perpetrators. Khatun explains that some advancements have been made with this problem, such as requiring a license to acquire sulphuric or nitric acid, but more needs be done.
She extends her gratitude towards the Acid Survivors Foundation, which helped arrange and finance her surgeries. Khatun’s story is one of personal perseverance.
Khaldun recently graduated from Florida Gulf Coast with a bachelor’s degree in biology.