This article contains too many or overly lengthy quotations for an encyclopedic entry. (February 2022)
|Born||27 October 1982|
|Alma mater||Agnes Scott College |
Edinburgh Napier University
|Occupation||Explorer, mountaineer, environmentalist, social worker, educator, adventurer|
|Awards||National Geographic Adventurer(2014), Anannya Top Ten Awards 2015, National Geographic Explorer(2016)|
Wasfia Nazreen is a Bangladeshi mountaineer, activist, environmentalist, social worker and writer. She is the first Bangladeshi and first Bengali to complete the Seven Summits on 18 November 2015. National Geographic recognized Nazreen as one of their Adventurers of the Year 2014/2015. She was selected in honor of her activism and commitment to empowering women through her work in the field of adventure. She was again selected as one of their Explorers in 2016. becoming the only woman to hold the simultaneous titles of National Geographic Explorer and Adventurer. She is the first Bangladeshi to scale the world's second highest and most dangerous peak K2.
She was named by Outside as one of 40 women in the last 40 years who have advanced and challenged the outdoor world through their leadership, innovation, and athletic feats, and by Men's Journal as one of the 25 most adventurous women of the past 25 years.
Nazreen is also known for her campaigns to raise awareness of animal rights, human rights situations in Tibet, environmental impacts, Bangladeshi women's rights (including of sex workers and garments factory workers) and Indigenous groups. Nazreen is credited in Bangladesh history as the nation's inspiration and one of the legendary women to have made pioneering contribution. She is an icon for millions of Bangladeshis:
Wasfia symbolises patience, endurance, and determination for conquering the Seven Summits against all odds. But statistics alone is an incomplete assessment of her strength which, surprisingly, lies also in her humility. She remains remarkably unchanged by the adulation and attention her victories have brought her. By reveling in the unusual distinction of boasting the world's best at something, she becomes an outstanding role model for a youthful nation that won freedom not too long ago. In hailing Wasfia, Bangladesh today hails a symbol of what, as a nation, we collectively aspire to be. Her perseverance, we are sure, will be an inspiration to the youths of the country to achieve the challenging objectives in fulfilling the dream of the nation.
Early life and education
Nazreen was born in Dhaka with the birth name Wasfia Nazreen Chowdhury. She is the youngest child and only daughter of Mahmuda Nahar (Ruby), a musician and teacher, and Nazmee Jahan Chowdhury, an executive at James Finlay Bangladesh. Nazreen lived in Khulna, where she studied at Sunflower Nursery school and then Coronation Girls’ High School. When she was still a child, the family moved to their previous home in Chittagong. There she studied in Bangladesh Mahila Samiti Girls' High School (BWA). In early 1996, when Nazreen was thirteen, her parents officially divorced following which she went to live with her aunt, Chobi Rouf, and uncle, NAT Rouf, in Dhaka where she was enrolled in the English medium Scholastica school. At this point, she was separated from both her parents as well as her only sibling and elder brother, Sarwar N. Chowdhury, who stayed in Chittagong with their father. Nazreen competed in volleyball and handball alongside studying theatre in high school. She was in the first batch of now popularly known Prachyanat School of Acting and Design.
When Nazreen went to the United States for college on her own, she took off her family last name from all official papers. She credits her childhood as the most impactful time of her life:
I may be the wealthiest and happiest person today, but I might wake up in the morning to find out that an earthquake took it all. Life is unpredictable and there will always be loss, and in fact, a myriad of joys and sorrows. If we can recognize difficulties as opportunities–as methods to improve ourselves, our perspectives–then I think we are able to bear it better. We then learn to identify loss as a blessing, and not as a curse. In one sense, it may be the most brutal and morbid experience—but it’s also the most basic teaching in life–that every thing, every being, every state, no matter how powerful they may seem—is impermanent. It’s when we take everything for granted, is when we suffer so much.I still remember the times when I barely had the money to eat, or the time when I didn’t have any guarantee about the place I’d be able to live in the following week. Because I experienced that, am able to appreciate loving homes and the families I chose, much more. Likewise, Khalamoni, my aunt who raised me, has firsthand accounts of depression and trauma that I battled as a child following my parents tumultuous divorce. But it’s because I experienced that so early on in life that I pursued true friendships and am able to appreciate the art of joy much more.
Nazreen had to take care of herself from a very young age because of certain tragic circumstances in her childhood. This also made her realize early that the only way to set herself free, and to be independent, would be to educate herself.
Throughout my life I have been told all the things that I couldn’t do instead of being encouraged to chase what I could do. Because of circumstances involving my parents’ divorce, I had to stand up on my own and think for myself from a very young age (twelve years to be precise!) From the very beginning, I have had more than a fair share of struggles raising myself and finding my true path. By the time I was thirteen years old, I had moved in with my aunty and her husband, in a completely different city and environment, and by nineteen, I left my motherland to pursue higher education and live the “American Dream.” Those formidable years, now that I look back, provided a strong foundation to tackle challenges when I grew up and went out into the world. But back then I didn’t know that obstacles are only opportunities. I grew up and functioned in an environment where success is measured by achievements only. With every setback comes great learnings and growth, and we have to be open to seeing it that way. The more we welcome the bitter events, the richer the experience.
Nazreen received a scholarship to Agnes Scott College (ASC), a private women's college in Decatur, Georgia. Nazreen left Bangladesh with the intention to pursue a double major in Theatre and Aeronautical Science. In her first semester, Nazreen played in her university's volleyball team and toured for the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association), but she dropped volleyball in third year, when she struggled to keep up with her academic grades. By her second year, she switched to double majoring in Studio Art and Social Psychology.
Outside the university, Nazreen was involved with African Dance Theatre part-time.
While still in college, Nazreen received a grant to go to India and research how women were using art as therapy. In Dharamsala of Northern India, she started working with Tibetan women who had gone through torture in their lives at Chinese prisons. She describes it as a "life-altering experience" for her where "forgiving your enemies and really embodying that principle in your day-to-day life" was something that was very new to her. Following graduation, she decided to quit her work in the United States and moved to the Himalayas to work with refugees.
Work, activism and climbing
Nazreen was chosen as the first Goodwill Ambassador of BRAC (NGO), an international development organization. She was also the youth ambassador for JAAGO Foundation and its concern Volunteer for Bangladesh. In 2011, Nazreen was part of the Indigenous Peoples delegates at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII). She is part of the Save Sundarbans movement, and was a critical voice to pressure the GOB and other concerned bodies in cleaning up efforts following the disastrous oil-spill of 2013/4.
Nazreen worked for the international humanitarian aid group CARE (relief agency). When the funding for one of CARE's projects dried up, 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.
Since finishing climbing the seven summits, Nazreen has been hard at work on her Ösel Foundation, which she describes as an “educational institute set in the outdoors, which integrates the latest scientific findings about the development of the mind and combines it with mindfulness techniques and training in nature to empower adolescent girls.”
In 2016, Nazreen became the brand ambassador for Grameenphone, becoming the highest paid female athlete of Bangladesh and one of the highest paid athletes of the nation. During her two year contract with Bangladesh's largest telecommunications network, she used the platform to challenge social responsibility and holistic development of the society through Grameenphone’s various social initiatives like online schools, easy internet education for the common people, women empowerment and other development initiatives.
Nazreen represented Bangladesh in Nepal at the closing ceremony of the two Nation's first ever Business Forum in January 2016. Nazreen highlighted the power of youth and the importance of sustainability and respecting nature while developing infrastructure. The conference was closed with a recitation of her poem, written in Nepali, about the ancient connection of the rivers that criss-cross her motherland Bangladesh with the Himalayas.
Her work with Tibetan human rights took her to Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, the exiled-capital of the Tibetans, where she lived for several years in her early twenties. Since 2007, Nazreen has been banned by the Chinese Government from returning to Tibet after she was found with a photo of the 14th Dalai Lama.
Nazreen was part of the international movement for greater freedom and better human rights conditions inside Tibet and some high-profile protests and uprisings, leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, including the March to Tibet protest in solidarity with 2008 Tibetan Uprising and several concerts and other events throughout the globe.
In 2009, with pressure from the Chinese Embassy in Bangladesh, her photography exhibition titled "Into Exile: Tibet 1949-2009" in partnership with DRIK, was shut down in Dhaka. The exhibition was still shown online while riot-geared police barricaded the premises and audience waited in the streets and consequently, she was intimidated and harassed for months by authorities and intelligence in her country.
Bangladesh on Seven Summits
On 26 March 2011, to celebrate 40 years of Bangladeshi independence, Nazreen launched the "Bangladesh on Seven Summits" Campaign. For the campaign she has climbed each of seven continental summits to mark 40 years of women's progress in Bangladesh. The campaign received widespread support from the mass and was run completely independent of any political support, contrary to various claims made in the media by a number of Ministers in the Bangladesh Government. Among notable civilians, cricketers from the Bangladesh national team supported by advocating in their own rights, most outspokenly Shakib Al Hasan, world's number one all-rounder and Mashrafe Mortaza, the captain of the Bangladesh national cricket team.
Nazreen started trekking to base-camp of Everest on 26 March 2012 to mark Bangladesh's Independence day.
On 18 November 2015, Nazreen reached the summit of Carstensz Pyramid, the summit of Oceania, completing a four years long journey to the Seven Summits. She became the first Bangladeshi and first Bengali in the world to do so. She dedicated it to the “Spirit of 1971 Liberation War of Bangladesh and all those who are fighting to protect it." Nazreen dedicated her successful Everest climb to the women of Bangladesh, saying: "We have achieved independence 41 years ago, but our women are yet to enjoy freedom".
Nazreen became the first Bangladeshi to summit Aconcagua, South America’s highest peak and the highest peak outside of Asia. She is also the first Bangladeshi to summit Denali, North America’s highest peak, Mt.Elbrus, Europe’s highest mountain, Vinson Massif, Antarctica’s highest mountain and Carstensz Pyramid, Oceania's highest mountain. Nazreen has several more mountains and volcanoes under her belt which she summited as a first Bangladeshi.
Free Shahidul Alam
In 2018, Nazreen was a vocal activist in the international "Free Shahidul" campaign to free the renown jailed Bangladeshi journalist Dr. Shahidul Alam. One of the protests outside the Headquarters of the UN that she had organized were met by violent thugs and opposition. Nazreen managed to get a permit the following day and flew a plane carrying a message that had an image of Shahidul reading “#FreeShahidulAlam”, as well as a text banner saying “Free Our Teachers #Bangladesh #UNGA” in New York skyline, traversing the Statue of Liberty, while the United Nations General Assembly was in effect. This followed a weekend of demonstrations and talks held at various parts of the city calling for greater press freedom in Bangladesh, particularly addressing the case of Shahidul, who was picked up by plainclothes men in Dhaka, and sent to jail in a case filed under the notorious ICT Act.
Nazreen likes to stay private and has often been quoted to say she shies away from social-media and the spotlight. She is dubbed in Bangladeshi media as a fashion icon and role-model.
A long-time supporter of Tibet, Nazreen is close friends with the 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje and the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso. She credits them in interviews as the two most important teachers in life who has shown her the way when she was derailed in life. Nazreen openly discusses accounts of dealing with depression and trauma as a child following her parents divorce that made her homeless as a result. She credits such struggle at early life for giving her "abilities to bounce back after adversities and greet change and difficulties as an opportunity to welcome greater self-reflection, learning, and growth." She studied meditation with Tibetan teachers Dilgo Khyentse Yangsi Rinpoche and Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche.
Life is meditation–it’s not a separate thing. The essence of meditation is recognizing awareness. If we’re not aware, we cease to exist. Yoga, meditation, mindfulness—these are like compasses when we’re lost at sea. Thanks to my mother, I was born into yoga. And then later in my adult life I have been extremely blessed not only to be directly guided by some of the most profound teachers of our times, but also to work in movements and environments led by HH the Dalai Lama and HH the Karmapa, and experientially learn how great beings like them who also went through so much atrocities in their personal lives—deal with it all, behind the limelight. Whenever I have (in the past) got derailed somehow, they’ve pulled me out, often in miraculous ways. So having this circle of family, and the particular purpose I have–I’m really blessed and I wouldn’t in my awakened mind for a second want to imagine it any other way.
Nazreen was diagnosed with COVID-19 in March 2020 and during her worst battle, she used the platform to send positive messages and advocated for mental health, by going on podcasts and live shows with notable personalities such as cricketers, actors and astronauts. She was one of the first Bangladeshis to have gotten diagnosed while being abroad.
In 2020, in the Bruce Lee Podcast, she stressed about the importance of mental-health and ancestral trauma healing, and how individual mental-health is directly linked with the health of our planet.
Relationship with nature
Nazreen is often quoted in TV and other media requesting against labeling her mountaineering expeditions as a "conquering" feat due to its colonial and patriarchal nature:
I have been extremely blessed this lifetime to be introduced to nature and wildlife from very early on in my life–whether that was through upbringing near the Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world or living in Chittagong in close proximity with the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Growing up in Bangladesh, I witnessed natural disasters as long as I can remember–hurricanes, floods, typhoons, cyclones–you name it. As a child, one of my earliest memories is, having to wade out of our living room in boats when the floods came every year. All the pets and animals that lived on our land, would be struggling to swim across with us–the dogs would eventually be rescued out of water, and so on. Abbu, my father was in shipping so we also got to witness the wrath of raging Bay of Bengal a lot as kids.
Even though all these experiences combined instilled the exposures required to realize firsthand who was the real boss–I think people in general in my region and culture, from time immemorial treated nature differently. For example the mountains are referred as gods and goddesses. So I always found it strange, when people so gallantly proclaim to have “conquered” an entire mountain, which is also a very patriarchal perspective if you think about it. Before summit bids on big mountains, the usual scene is that everyone’s praying and promising of things they’d do only if allowed for that one short window to open up just so we can stand on top in all her glory for a brief moment. Therefore, it’s really a process of surrendering to nature and then if it’s your time, she will most likely bless you.
Wasfia in books and documentary
- Nazreen and her quests are subjects of HSC exam quiz and various other school textbook contents in Bangladesh.
- Nazreen's philosophy of life is featured among five of the most adventurous souls in National Geographic's Special Publication “Adventures of a Lifetime.”
- Nazreen is the subject of the 2016 documentary Wasfia made by Apple Inc. and produced by Academy Awards nominated RYOT Films. The documentary was shot on the iPhone 6s and premiered at the Telluride Mountainfilm festival same year. The documentary was on tour around the world and was shown as part of the National Geographic Shortfilm Showcase. It received critical acclaim internationally, including a nomination for the prestigious Tribeca-X award at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival and The New York Times calling it a bait for the Academy Awards.
- Nazreen is one of the subjects in Astronaut Ronald J. Garan Jr.'s book The Orbital Perspective.“What really struck me in Wasfia’s description of her experience was that overriding feeling of gratitude, which in some way connected her to every single being. This was exactly what I experienced in space: immense gratitude for the opportunity to see Earth from this vantage, and for the gift of the planet we’ve been given. In some way I can’t explain, being physically detached from Earth made me feel deeply interconnected with everyone on it. I distinctly remember this feeling of profound thankfulness, but Wasfia’s words helped me to process that awareness of interconnectedness with the inhabitants of the planet.”
- Nazreen is one of the twelve Women Explorers to grace National Geographic's 2020 Explorer calendar. 
Awards and honors
This section needs additional citations for verification. (February 2022)
- Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina's National Honor, 2012
- Former PM and Opposition Party Leader of Bangladesh Khaleda Zia's Honor, 2012
- Nobel Peace Prize Recipient Muhammad Yunus's Honor, 2012
- Female Pioneer Award by Prime Minister's Office, Bangladesh, 2013
- National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, 2014
- The Mayor's Medal of Honor, by Councillor of London Borough of Hounslow - first to be given to any female civilian, 2014
- Pioneer Athlete, Global Sports Mentoring Program, U.S. State Department and espnW, 2014
- Anannya Top Ten Awards, 2015
- Sri Chinmoy Torch Bearer award - for her commitment to non-violence strategic campaigns, 2015
- Outstanding Young Alumna Award, Agnes Scott College, 2016
- The Meeto Memorial Award for Young South Asians by SANGAT (South Asian Feminist Network) - in recognition of her commitment to communal harmony, peace, justice, and human rights, 2016
- National Geographic Explorer, 2016
- Inspiring Woman of the Nation by Bangladesh Brand Forum, 2016
- Amelia Earheart Memorial Award by Zonta Bangladesh, 2016
- Icon of Bangladesh by Dhaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry, 2016
- People's Choice Award, National Geographic Explorers Symposium, 2016
- Young Global Leader, 2019 (unaccepted)
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