Taslima Nasrin under Second Death Threat: A Background Paper
The International PEN Women Writers' Committee
June 23, 1994
Taslima Nasrin, the Bangladeshi feminist writer who regained her passport last spring  after a nine months international campaign on her behalf, is now under death threat for the second time this year. Islamic extremists have posted a $2500 reward for her execution. She is also being sought by the police on charges of blasphemy.
Nasrin, a newspaper columnist, novelist, and poet, has been a controversial figure for some time because of her outspoken defense of women's rights, her criticisms of Islamic traditions, and the sexual content of her writing. In January, 1993, the government confiscated her passport on a technical violation as she was en route to a conference in India. The next month her novel Lajja, a story of communal riots against Hindus in Bangladesh following the destruction of the Bahri mosque in India, was published and became an immediate bestseller. Communalists and Islamists consider the book so unpatriotic they have accused Nasrin of being an Indian spy. In July, after months of pressure, the Bangladeshi government banned Lajja on the grounds that it "created misunderstanding between communities." In September, 1993, the Council of Soldiers of Islam, a fringe group in Sylhet, declared a fatwa against Nasrin and put a price on her head. Despite a court order that she be given police protection, police were not stationed outside her house until weeks later, after International PEN and Amnesty International had initiated a campaign on her behalf. International calls for restoration of her passport, an end to the censorship of her book, and prosecution of those who threaten her life, resulted in a partial victory in April, 1993, when the government returned her passport and she was able to leave the country on May 3 to speak at a human rights conference in Paris.
On her way home, she passed through India and gave an interview to a reporter from the Calcutta Statesman, who asked if she would support changes in the Koran. She replied, "Whoever has written the Koran has made it absolutely clear that not a single word can be changed." Asked if she would support changes in the Shariat law, she was quoted as saying, "I'm not in favor of minor changes. It serves no purpose. The Koran should be revised thoroughly." (Statesman, May 9, 1994). This statement directly contradicts the one just before it and she said it was a misquotation, but it created a great furor in Bangladesh. She wrote the Statesman to clarify her views on May 11, 1994:
I do not hold the view that "the Koran should be revised thoroughly," because I think it is impossible to revise the Koran....Why should we try to change a religious text which is held as sacred by many? My view on this issue is clear and categorical. I hold the Koran, the Vedas, the Bible, and all such religious texts determining the lives of their followers as "out of place and out of time." We have crossed the sociohistorical contexts in which these were written and therefore we should not be guided by their precepts. The question of revision, thorough or otherwise, is irrelevant. We have to move beyond these ancient texts if we want to progress. In order to respond to our spiritual needs, let humanism be our new faith.
A leading muslim cleric, Moulana Amini, told the press that her retraction was worse than her original statement and more filthy than
The Satanic Verses by Salmon Rushdie. Another Islamic party leader, Azharul Islam, called Nasrin "an apostate appointed by imperialist forces to vilify Islam." He called for Nasrin's immediate death by hanging and posted a price of $2500 on her head. The following week, five thousand members of the Islamic party Jamaat-e-Islami, which has 20 seats in Parliament, staged a demonstration calling for her execution. On June 4, 1994, the police chief in central Dhaka filed a case against Nasrin under Section 295A of the Penal Code, which provides for two years' imprisonment for "deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage the religious feelings of any class of citizens by insulting its religion or religious beliefs." A warrant was issued for her arrest. She and her family immediately went into hiding. As of this report, Nasrin is still in hiding in Dhaka. Meredith Tax, Chair of the Women Writers' Committee of International PEN, received this fax from her on June 15th:
I am in grave danger. At any time the fundamentalists will kill me. My lawyers have decided to go to the high court for bail the day after tomorrow. I don't know what will happen. The fundamentalists declared more prize money for my head than before. The government are against me. So I have no hope to escape from this dangerous situation. All the mullahs are now in the street. They are continuously demanding my death sentence. The government is helping them. I wanted shelter in any Embassy. But they did not give me shelter. Now if you want to keep me alive, please inform your government and create pressure on our government to withdraw the case against me and to give me police protection. If you can do this, only then I can live. Otherwise I have to die. They must kill me. They have decided they will kill me to save Islam. I am not safe even inside the jail. Mullahs are everywhere. Please try to give me political asylum in your country. If I stay here, they must kill me. Meredith, please save me.
Love, Taslima Nasrin. 13.6.94
International PEN protests the arrest warrant issued against Taslima Nasrin as a blatant violation of international standards protecting the right to free expression. It urges that all charges against Nasrin be dropped, that she not be arrested, that the government give her police protection, and that they offer her a safe conduct out of the country if such be her desire. It repeats its urgent request that Bangladeshi authorities publicly condemn all calls for her execution and that they vigorously prosecute any person making threats against her or posting a reward for her death.
The International PEN Women Writers' Committee is circulating the attached petition originated by the Women Writers' Committee in PEN Nepal. Signatures should be turned into the local Bangladeshi Embassy, with copies to the IPWWC.
Faxed appeals should be sent to Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia at: 880-2-811-0115 (residence); 880--2-813-244 (office); 880-2-813-243 (press secretary); and to President Abdur Rahman Biswas at 800-2-813-243.
International Signature Campaign in Solidarity With Taslima Nasrin
Initiated by the Women Writers' Committee of PEN Nepal
Distressed at the news that a warrant for the arrest of Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin and the offer of a cash reward for whoever carries out the "fatwa" declared upon her has forced her into hiding;
Perturbed that the authorities of a country, which has only within the last two decades secured its independence against the forces of communalism, have not been able to control the "mob rule" element in this matter; and
Concerned at the repercussions this might have throughout the rest of South Asia in the context of both freedom of expression and women's equal rights, we the undersigned call upon the Government of Bangladesh to ensure the safety of Ms. Nasrin and her family and to ensure adherence to democratic norms and principles by her attackers.