Bangla Desh Taslima Nazrin
Seemingly overnight, a young woman from the provinces [of Bangladesh] - an unknown anaesthiologist in a government clinic - had become the newest victim of religious intolerance, threatened not only with death by Islamic militants, but a blasphemy trial.
Demonstrations, in in which thousands of fundamentalists took to the streets demanding Taslima's death, had become an almost daily occurrence this summer, and seemed particularly explosive on Fridays after mid-day prayers. As I looked down at the demonstrators from a balcony near the city's Central Mosque, they seemed a sea of flowing white prayer robes and caps as they flailed bamboo clubs, iron pipes, and machetes in the air. A number of the marchers had pythons and cobras coiled around their necks. They had threatened to release ten thousand snakes on the streets of Dhaka if Taslima Nasrin was is not publicly hanged.
She is an Eastern fatalist by birth, a Marxist by conviction, a self-proclaimed athiest. She is a doctor by choice of her family, a novelist, a columnist and a poet by her own. She is also a thrice-married feminist who has given voice to ideas never before publically expressed in Bangladesh. "She is either the bravest, orthe most foolish woman I have ever met".
To most Bangladeshis Taslima's pronouncements - collected in sixteen outspoken and often sexually explicit books "are like the pronouncements of someone who has dropped in from Mars. She's not even part of the Dhaka or the provincial elite, but comce from a little town way up in the hills. Where on earth did she get these ideas?"
Strong, often startling challenges to Islamic taboos on the role of women are an essential ingredient of her work. 'Religion is the great opressor and should be abolished' she has frequently said.
I was told that the location [of our meeting] was not to be identified, wince some seventy-five thousand Muslims were living in Sweeden, a large number of them from Iran, and members of her security detail still feared that the death sentence against her could be internationalized.
I asked her what it was like to live under a death sentence and to live underground. She smiled shyly, then answered in hesitant, but articulate English, "You become anonymous. You can't walk on the streets, you can't go shopping, you can't go to bookshops, or even to the Book Fair. Before all this happened, I didn't go to the mosque, I didn't go to Islamic meetings, I didn't go to the cinema. 'That meant that I had no other choice except for literature and art.
In the West, the money on my head is a small amount. In Bangladesh, twelve hundred and fifty dollars is a huge amount. You can give somebody two dollars to kill someone in Bangladesh. But perhaps what was most frightening to me was that my own government did nothing- it took no action against those who issued the fatwas against me.' Her voice was soft and quiet as she searched for words. Only her eyes betrayed the emotion that she must have felt.
According to officials of international aid agencies, who administer much of the critically needed two billion dollars in development assistance that Bangladesh receives each year, a steady quiet infusion of education and social programs had just begun to help the country turn the corner - lowering its birth rate, educating girls, and providing employment opportunities for women (whose literacy rate remains frozen at fifteen per cent).
And then the highly explosive, potentially lethal battle between Taslima Nasrin and the fundamentalists began:
The Stoning of Noorjehan: A woman named Noorjehan Begum was, by most accounts, the daughter of a landless peasant - a twenty-one-year-old who, in January, 1993, after her first marriage was dissolved, married again. The local mullah, giving no reasons, declared that a second marriage was contrary to Islamic law. A few weeks later, just after dawn, she was led to an open field in a small village in the district of Sylhet a stronghold of the fundamentalists - where a pit had been dug overnight. She was lowered into the pit and buried waist deep. Then, slowly and methodically, she was stoned - a hundred and one times. Her death horrified Dhaka's elite. It has horrified me into action.
A few months later, in another village another woman - also named Noorjehan - was tied to a bamboo stake after being condemned by a fatwa for adultery, she had abandoned her husband to elope with a neighbor, it was said. Kerosene was poured over her, and she was burned to death.
By 1993, use of the fatwa had travelled to the most remote hamlets of Bangladesh. It seemed that no areas were left untouched by the fundamentalists' ire. Over the countryside, women and non-governmental organizations, or N.G.O.s, whose programs for women begun transforming village life, came nder attack, as they challenged the staus-quo, a hierarchical system over which mullahs and moneylenders had presided tionally. The mullahs' particular targets were the Grameen Bank and the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, whose success vath women's programs in the villages had earned international renown. In the first three months of this year, a hundred and ten BRAC schools were torched, and many of them burned to the ground. Women, as the focus of the efforts ofthe N.G.O.s, were the objects of the mullahs' wrath. Throughout the countryside, they were being humiliated, driven out of their villages, or pushed to suicide if they dared to leave their homes, whether to work, to remarry, or to go to school.
As the atrocities continued, Taslima began to make a name for herself as an advocate of social, legal, and religious reform. She had arrived in Dhaka in late 1990, and had been assigned to the gynecological department of a small hospital in a working-class neighborhood.
Much of what she saw there, along with her earlier experiences in hospitals in Mymensingh, provided her with material for the harsh realism that became a defining characteristic of her work. She had already published small volumes of poetry, and now she began writing a syndicated newspaper column, mainly about the world she knew: about the oppression ofwomen in the provinces, and religious intolerance. Her language was Swiftian and direct. Her readership consisted largely of women - and of fundamentalists. Over the next year or so, her writing became increasingly stark and angry, making references to sexual organs, and featuring tirades against men and an uncompromising rejection of the status quo - The mullahs were enraged. In early 1992, angry mobs had begun attacking bookstores that carried her works; they also attacked her physically at the Dhaka Book Fair. She received threatening threatening anonymousletters and phone calls. She was called "whore" and "pornographer"!
In 1992 she wrote Shame a fictionalized account of the brutalization of a Hindu family by Islamic extremists in India, which was lauded by Hindus but resulted in her first fatwah from the Muslims.
A few months later in Calcutta, she told the English- language daily Statesman, according to the newspaper's account, that 'the Koran should be revised thoroughly,' and added, almost as an afterthought, that women activists in Bangladesh - who, at some risk to themselves, had earlier spoken out in her behalf played limited roles, and were only too happy to serve as housewives, faithfully following Islam's Shariat law.
Subsequently, in an open letter to the Indian and Bangladeshi press, she denied making the reported remarks, but her denial struck the already outraged as even more provocative than those initial remarks, for in it she wrote that "the Koran, the Vedas, the Bible and all such religious texts' were 'out of place and out of time.' The clear implication was that they should all be abolished, not revised.
In Bangladesh, fundamentalists took to the streets by the tens of thousands in a frenzy. What had begun as a minor, if nettlesome, incident was assuming the form of a major political crisis. ... All the Bangladeshis I talked with agreed that, intentionally or not, Taslima had become an Islamic lightning rod. The government filed blasphemy charges against her. She left her apartment and went underground. For the next two months, she never saw daylight.
"I guess what I remember most about my life in hiding
was the dark. I stayed in a dark room all the time. I moved ten
times in two months, but all the rooms were small and dark. My
friends used to lock the door, the window shades were drawn. I
had no books, no pens or paper, no radio, no phone only darkness.
I wanted to see my family, - my friends refused. I couldn't sleep
at night or during the day. I used to hear the chants of the fundamentalists
outside on the street 'Kill Tastima! Kill Taslima!' I was terrified.
I was sure they would find me and chop me into pieces with their
swords and knives.'
Meredith Tax, the chair of the Women Writers' Committee of Intemational PEN, remembers a tiny, quiet voice in a call that came this June, in the middle ofthe night: 'Please save me, Meredith. They are going to kill me.'
She was eventually charged, given bail and flown secretly out of the country after extensive international negotiations.
But they're also killing people in the name of God. If they really believed in God, they couldn't kill. they only use the name of God.' "Some of your friends have suggested that you're really quite religious yourself,' I said. She smiled before replying. 'Did they give you proof?" she asked. Then she said, 'I've seen many religious people, like my mother. Theyre afraid of God. They obey God because, they say, if they don't, God will punish them later. Thats not my kind of God. So' she spoke with an air of finality 'I became an atheist when I was eleven or twelve.' 'What happened?'
'I'll tell you another day. My
lawyers ave told me, Close your big mouth about religion; zip
it shut. Otherwise, they'll leave me.' 'Did you say that the Koran
should be revised?' 'No,' she wailed. 'How many times I have to
say it? I've said it over and again. I said that Shariat law should
be revised. I want a modern, civilized law where women are given
equal rights. I want no religious law that discrimiates, none,
period - no Hindu law, Christian law, no Islamic law. Why should
a man be entitled to have four wives? Why should a son get two-thirds
of his parents'property when a daughter an inherit only a third?'
She fell silent, then turned toward me and asked, almost as though
she were about someone else, 'Should I be killed for saying
Her father Dr. Rojab Ali told me as he greeted me at the door. He looked pale and spoke without emotion, in a flat, subdued tone. A man of medium height and late middle years who had recently retired from a professorship at Mymen- singh Medical College, he was now in private practice as an internist- Three times in as many weeks, he told me, his chnic had been attacked by Islamic mobs.
Think not that Taslima is irreligious, she is upholding the sanctity of life and its true respect. "She's so shy its painful. ... I dont know if she fears talking or if she's dumb. But when she writes, she does so in such a disarmingly direct way that everyone understands. ... It was only a year ago that she began buying books on Islam and the Koran. I don't understand what drives her" - an editor.
What was it about Mymensingh that so caused Tashma to rebel?' I asked. 'Women are sold here for taka, for money!" Dr. Ah responded. 'Men are encouraged to beat their wives. We had a relative, a pir, a learned Sufi holy man, who issued fatwas to prevent our women s from leaving the house, fatwas against his own family for years. He declared me an apostate who would bum in Hell, along with my entire family, including Taslima. She was only nine years old."
"[The pir] was mad," she said. 'An Old Testament religion is what he preached. My mother used to take me to his house. He used to sit in a very comfortable place. His supporters surrounded him, reading their religious books. Women were behind a partition, a screen. There were many young women there; he always liked young girls. He would tell us that we should never get married, that the world would be destroyed and we would go on to a new life - that we would go before God, and he would punish us. Religion was punishment-, religion was sanctions.
"I'm not the female Salman Rushdie. We're very different. I respect Rushdie as a writer - he's very powerful. But he's repented, he became a born-again Muslim, and that I don't respect. I will never be like him. I will never repent.
I know if I ever go back I'll have to keep silent, stay inside my house. I'll never lead a normal life in my country, until my death."