Wasfia Nazreen is a Bangladeshi mountaineer, activist, social worker and writer. She is the first Bangladeshi and only Bengali to complete the Seven Summits record following mountaineer Reinhold Messner’s variations. National Geographic recognized Nazreen as one of their Adventurers of the Year 2014/2015. She was selected in honour of her activism and commitment to empowering women through her work in the field of adventure. She was again selected as one of their Emerging Explorers in 2016. Becoming the only woman to hold the simultaneous title of National Geographic Explorer and Adventurer of the Year. She was named by Outside (magazine) 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 human rights situations in Tibet, environmental impacts, Bangladeshi sex workers and minority groups.
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 singer and school teacher, and Nazmee Jahan Chowdhury, an employee at James Finlay Bangladesh. Nazreen lived in Khulna, where she studied in 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 Samity Girls’ High School (BWA). In early 1996, when Nazreen was thirteen, her parents divorced and 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, who stayed in Chittagong with their father. When Nazreen went to the United States for college she changed her name to Wasfia Nazreen.
Nazreen often discusses accounts of dealing with depression and trauma as a child following her parents tumultuous 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.
Because of certain tragic circumstances in her childhood, Nazreen had to take care of herself from a very young age. This also made her realize early that the only way to set herself free, and to be independent, would be to educate herself.
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 in 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 university, Nazreen was involved with African Dance Theatre part-time. Nazreen is a distant scholar at Samye Ling College of Scotland.
While still in college, Nazreen received a grant to go to India and study 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. She decided to quit her work in the States and moved to the Himalayas to work with refugees instead.
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 chosen as the first Goodwill Ambassador of BRAC (NGO), an international development organization. She is 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).
Nazreen also worked for 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 forthcoming Ösel Foundation, which she describes as an “educational institute set in the outdoors, which integrates the latest scientific findings about development of the mind and combines it with mindfulness techniques and training in nature to empower adolescent girls.”
On 18 November 2015, Nazreen reached the summit of Carstensz Pyramid, summit of Oceania, completing a four years long journey to the Seven Summits. She dedicated it to the “Spirit of 1971 Liberation War of Bangladesh and all those who are fighting to protect it.” 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 was the first Bangladeshi to summit Aconcagua, South America’s highest peak and the highest peak outside of the Himalayas. 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.
Patrick Morrow, the first person in the world to have climbed the highest peaks of all seven continents (in accordance with the Messner list) has overseen her training.
Nazreen dedicated her successful Everest climb to the women of Bangladesh, saying “We have achieved freedom 41 years ago, but our women are yet to enjoy freedom”. Nazreen started trekking to base-camp of Everest on 26 March 2012 to mark Bangladesh’s Independence day.
Nazreen is vegetarian. A long-time supporter of Tibet, Nazreen is close friends with HH the 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje and HH the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso. She often 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 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 is currently on tour around the world and is being 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.