Taslima Nasrin: A Background Paper
Meredith Tax, International PEN Women Writers' Committee
November 5, 1993
Taslima Nasrin, 31, is a Bangladeshi poet, novelist, and feminist journalist. Because of her writing, she has been condemned by a Muslim fundamentalist group that has put a price on her head and set Nov. 18, 1993, as a day of mass mobilization in Dhaka aimed at her death. Nasrin lives in Dhaka and is unable to leave because the government has confiscated her passport. International action is required to save Nasrin's life and secure her rights.
Until this year, Nasrin was known mainly for her poems and her newspaper columns, which often focus on the condition of women and the role of religion in their oppression. Her most recent novel, Lajja (The Shame), tackles an even more taboo subject, communal discrimination and hatred. Lajja describes events in Bangladesh following the December 1992 destruction of the Bahri mosque in Ayodhya, India, which led to two months of communal riots during which 2000 people were killed. As Nasrin puts it:
While Hindu fanatics were killing innocent Muslims, Islamic fanatics were killing Hindus in Pakistan and Bangladesh. As a human being, I tried to show how a Hindu family was persecuted by Muslim fanatics in Bangladesh. I also wrote that the administration was of no help to the minority Hindus....I tried to say, shame to all dark aspects of fundamentalism. In the book I said, let's uphold humanism instead of using religion to kill each other.
Released in February during Bangladesh's biggest book fair, Lajja won critical acclaim and sold 50,000 copies in six months. But Islamic fundamentalists considered the book blasphemous and unpatriotic; a group of them even threatened to assault her at the fair. In July, after months of pressure, the Bangladeshi government banned the book on the grounds that it had "created misunderstanding between communities." The ban, seen as a sign of the growing influence of religious extremists, was publicly protested by many writers and human rights activists.
According to Bangladeshi women's rights organizations, there has recently been a noticeable increase in crimes of violence against women, as salish (religious) courts have begun to take the law into their own hands, going back to punishments outlawed for many years. In January, a newly-married couple in Sylhet was buried chest deep and stoned for zina (adultery) because the woman had previously been divorced; in May, a woman in Madhukhali was burned at the stake, also for zina. In response to such events, Nasrin's newspaper columns became more militant. On Sept. 1, 1993, a salish court in Kaligani, led by the superintendent of the local madrassah (religious school), condemned a sixteen year old girl to being publicly flayed with 101 lashes; she had been accused of having an affair with a Hindu boy. After the beating, the girl died, allegedly a suicide. Taslima Nasrin called upon the government to indict the mullahs involved for premeditated murder.
On September 16, five hundred members of the Bangladesh Sahaba Sainik Parishad or Council of Soldiers for Islam (CSI), a militant group based in a madrassah in Sylhet, held a rally calling for Nasrin to be executed by the end of the month for "blasphemy and conspiracy against Islam, the Holy Koran, and its prophet." On Sept. 23, they offered a bounty of $1250 for her death within fifteen days. On Oct. 2, they staged another march, this time threatening a general strike in Sylhet on Oct. 7 unless she were arrested by that time. Strikes aimed at individuals are unprecedented in Bangladesh. The CSI also demanded the arrest of another prominent feminist poet, Begum Sofia Kemal, who is eighty years old, along with three male intellectuals, Ahmed Sharif, Kabir Chowdhury, and Dr. Sayedur Rahman, all of whom stand for the separation of church and state.
Nasrin appealed for police protection. She was denied it on the grounds that such a request would have to come from the Home Secretary. She approached the Home Secretary to no avail. Having no other recourse, she went to court. On Oct. 7, the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate ordered an investigation into the activities of the CSI and ordered the police to protect Nasrin. The police did not respond. Only on Oct. 20 were two policemen finally stationed at Nasrin's home; according to Bangladeshi human rights activists, this was in response to letters from Amnesty International and the Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN.
On Oct. 21, clerics who lead the CSI held a press conference in Dhaka to announce they were spreading the campaign against Nasrin throughout the country. They set Nov. 18 as the date for mass mobilization in Dhaka to demand that the government execute her; if the government did not do so, they would try her by sharia law in their own court. This is illegal but the government has not been prosecuting such offenses. They also announced the inauguration of a new campaign to rally Islamic clerics to demand the death penalty for crimes against Islam, the Prophet Mohammed, or the Koran. Members of the group have already brought charges against two of Nasrin's books in private legal suits, on the grounds that they question Islamic law and incite women against men; the Sylhet Court has agreed to hear these complaints.
Bangladesh is currently led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party under Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia. Closely aligned with the BNP is a Muslim party, Jamaat-e-Islami, which holds twenty seats in Parliament. Jamaat-e-Islami is rumored to be linked with the CSI. In the words of one Bangladeshi writer, "Islamic extremists have only a small base in Bangladesh. By capitulating to their demands in order to preserve her electoral coalition, Prime Minister Zia is giving them the space and credibility to become a real threat to human rights." This is also the opinion of Taslima Nasrin, who says in a recent fax:
I am in grave danger. Making a death threat and offering a reward to execute it is a serious criminal offence in our country; surprisingly, this offense went unheeded by the government, who have done nothing to take action against it as required by law. The court ordered the police to protect me, but this order was not carried out; I was given no protection. The fundamentalists are moving ahead with their program and the government of Bangladesh itself has become part of this barbarism; they are trying to find a pretext to ban all of my fifteen books. But I am determined to uphold my ideals.
In January, 1993, Nasrin's passport was confiscated at the airport as she was en route to a conference in India, on the grounds that she had lied about her identity because she listed her occupation as a journalist, not a doctor. Though she is known primarily as a poet and journalist, Nasrin has a medical degree and at that time was employed by the Ministry of Health. She has since tried to quit her job to protest seizure of her passport, but the Ministry of Health has refused to accept her resignation. Nor has she been able to get another passport. Some groups are now calling on the government to prosecute her on charges of espionage.
Editorialists—and fundamentalists—in Bangladesh frequently compare Taslima Nasrin to Salman Rushdie. Beyond gender, there are important differences in the situation of these two writers. Rushdie lives in England and, despite his dreadful danger, has been able to rely on the protection of England, while it took international protests to win even two police guards for Taslima Nasrin. Rushdie is also world famous, while Taslima Nasrin, like her persecutors, is little known outside her own region and language group. Many feel that only a sustained international campaign can put enough pressure on the government to counteract pressure from extremists within it.
International PEN calls for strong, sustained international pressure upon the Bangladeshi government to restore Nasrin's passport; lift the interdiction upon her novel Lajja; give her real, effective, and continuous police protection; and prosecute those who are trying to have her killed.
SOME POEMS BY TASLIMA NASRIN
Would you like a woman, a woman?
Various kinds of women are in stock
White, tall, knee-length hair,
Slim waist, well-endowed body,
No fat, no salt,
There's no crease in her skin,
She has the right perfection
In the nose in the ear
Also in her digestive system,
Check for yourself with your own fingers
That there are no other holes
She is a virgin, still unbroken.
She is unsmelt,
Would you like such a woman, a woman?
Give her meals three times a day,
Give her sari, jewelry and a good soap,
For her face and body
She won't look up, she won't raise her voice,
She is indeed a shy person,
She can cook seven times in one noon.
This product can be used in any way you like
If you like you can chain her feet,
Her hands or her mind.
If you like, you can divorce her;
Just say, "I divorce thee,"
And get rid of her.
Translator not given
You're a girl
And you'd better not forget
that when you step over the threshold of your house
men will revile you and call you a loose woman.
If you are worthless
you'll turn back,
and if not
You'll keep on going
as you're going now.
Translated by Farida Sarkar & Carolyne Wright
A monster of a man
has taken possession of my life like a sandbar.
He wanted my body under his control
so that if he wishes, he can spit in my face,
slap me on the cheek
and pinch my rear.
So that if he wishes, he can rob me of my clothes
and take the naked beauty in his grip.
So that if he wishes, he can pull out my eyes
so that if he wishes, he can chain my feet
if he wishes, he can, with no qualms whatsoever,
use a whip on me
if he wishes, he can chop off my hands, my fingers
if he wishes, he can sprinkle salt
in the open wound,
he can throw ground-up black pepper in my eyes.
So that if he wishes, he can slash my thigh
with a dagger,
so that if he wishes, he can string me up
and hang me.
He's wanted my heart under his control
so that I would love him;
in my lonely house at night,
sleepless, full of anxiety,
clutching at the window grille
I would wait for him and sob.
My tears rolling down, I would bake home-made bread,
so that I would drink, as if it were ambrosia
the filthy liquids of his polygynous body.
So that, loving him, I would melt like wax,
not turning my eyes toward any other man
I would give proof of my chastity all my life.
So that loving him
on some moonlit night, I would commit suicide
in a fit of ecstasy.
Translated by Muhammad Nurul Huda & Carolyne Wright with the author