THE target of the attackers at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka were primarily foreigners, but there were two Bangladeshi women among the 28 dead, including one whose courage in the face of death was the hallmark of her life.
Ishrat Akhond, 45, fondly called “Nila” by her family and friends, was the Human Resources Director of one of Bangladesh’s largest garments manufacturing company — ZXY International FZCO.
That Friday night, she had gone to dine with two Italian designers who were visiting the country.
Speaking to The Indian Express on condition of anonymity, Akhond’s friends said they were told that she was hacked to death because she was not wearing a hijab, and refused to recite from the Quran when asked to do so.
Her friends said that courage was a part of the same unbending principles that came to symbolise “Nila Apu” in Bangladesh’s social and cultural circuits, and also her business career.
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Having studied management in different countries across the globe, including the Australian Institute of Management in Sydney, Akhond described herself as an “art provocateur” and had been for years a patron of the arts in Bangladesh, discovering and encouraging young artists to exhibit their work at an art gallery in Gulshan, a stone’s throw from the attack location.
Her business exploits made her a powerful business woman and she became a member of the Bangladesh-German Chamber of Commerce — a bilateral business organisation promoting trade between the two countries — rising to become a member of its election committee.
A former colleague in the chamber said Akhond “was an invaluable member of the Chamber and had just recently finished conducting its elections”.
“But her real love was art. And she was constantly promoting young artists. When I went to her place for dinner last year, she wanted to discuss a number of issues, including what she should do in the future. Her flat, in Gulshan I, was absolutely beautiful, each wall and corner adorned with beautiful art,” said the former colleague.
But Akhond had also fought and won a far more significant and difficult battle.
Said close friend and IIM-Kolkata visiting faculty member Prof Aloke Kumar: “After China, Bangladesh is the biggest manufacturer of readymade garments. But an ugly truth about the industry in Bangladesh is that it employs child labour. I remember Ishrat being disturbed by this and we had several conversations regarding the issue and I had told her that she must do something about it. Like other outlets, the company she worked for also employed children. Ishrat fought a lonely battle to make sure that the children were taken out of the factories.”
He added: “She got in touch with UNICEF and numerous other NGOs and ensured that the children were rehabilitated, that they were sent to school. It took her some time but she did it. They were out of the factories by 2014.”
Founded in Dhaka in 2000, ZXY International, is a Europe-based garments company that supplies to North and South Americas, Europe, Middle East, Australia, India and Africa. It has production sites in Bangladesh, India, China, Turkey and Pakistan and concentrated on manufacturing sports wear.Kumar said it was art that had brought the two aficionados together.
Kumar said they last met a year ago.
“She had come to Kolkata for Eid. I had taken her out with another friend of ours and we went to Tollygunge Club to celebrate Eid. That was the last time,” he said.