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Asian University for Women in

Chittagong, Bangladesh


“Women’s war has its own colors, its own smells,
its own lighting, and its own range of feelings”

—Svetlana Alexievich, The Unwomanly Face of War

They come from 17 countries in Asia, and make up the 1500 strong student body at Asian University for Women (AUW) in Chittagong, Bangladesh. These are women who speak frankly about their personal wars, and redefine what it means to be on the “front line”, one story at a time: She was confronted by the Taliban in her own home because she sought education and employment; Bombs exploded in her classroom on three different occasions; Her family members disappeared simply because they were educated; They grew up in a refugee camp, where basic needs were prioritized over schooling; Her uncle tried to destroy her passport so she could not leave the country to learn in a safe setting. She worked long hours in a garment factory to support her family.

All these women and others opened up about their lives during my week at AUW’s temporary campus. I shot video interviews and created photographs. I attended commencement, and a heady conference on women’s and caste issues in the developing world. Daily engagement with the students revealed the magic of this community, and passion with which the women are determined to change their own lives and create new possibilities for women around the world.

A first-year class on women’s health, taught by a graduate of AUW, began with a discussion on women’s bodies. The topic was met with raised hands, strong opinions, personal experiences, and open discussion about the female body. Silence, embarrassed expressions, and apprehensive glances had no place in the classroom. AUW is a space for openness, a place for questioning tradition and forming a unique point of view.


Between classes, students gathered in “the lane” between the two buildings. An Afghani woman carried a tray with tea to share with her fellow students. We drank together as they shared stories from their homes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, East Timor, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. Cross-cultural connections like these do not exist in the homelands of these women.


Their stories differ, but they share a common dedication to improving their own lives and elevating the status of women throughout the developing world. According to the United Nations, educating women improves a nation’s health, economic opportunity, political participation, and increases GNP.

And these women will graduate knowing the true meaning of diversity and empowerment, and will carry that wisdom. Many expressed goals of returning to their home countries to fight for the women who could not escape. They will lift each other up and become leaders and change agents. These are the women of AUW.

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