Report on Taslima Nasrin
Meredith Tax, USA
July 16, 1994
In October 1993, the International PEN Writers in Prison Committee sent me an AP clipping saying Taslima Nasrin, a Bangladeshi feminist, had been condemned to death by an Islamic extremist group. I set out to see if this were true, and to locate her. I was able to find her in three days with the help of people in the global women's movement; we began a regular correspondence; and I worked with the Writers in Prison Committee to develop a campaign to protect her from the death threat, lift the ban on her novel Lajja, and restore her right to travel (the government had confiscated her passport).
The WIP Committee has a very large volume of cases. As I had a particular interest in this one, we worked out a division of labor wherein they carried on the contact with governments and other human rights groups except in the US, while I concentrated on mobilizing the global women's movement and developing a network of sources in close touch with the situation, who read the Bangladeshi press, and could help PEN understand how to proceed.
Our first task was to get Nasrin police protection, which we were able to do, with the help of Amnesty International, after several weeks of agitation and letters. The death threat was also withdrawn on the claim that it was all a misunderstanding or joke. We then began to campaign for the return of her passport. I asked her to write an op ed and got The New York Times to print it; the WIP visited or wrote letters to the Bangladeshi government from a number of countries; and we all kept up the pressure. In spring, Nasrin wrote me that she would certainly be in jail were it not for the efforts of International PEN.
Her passport was returned in late April, and she left for a conference in Paris. She was scheduled to go to Sweden, Denmark, England, and the US, but returned home first and gave an interview to a Calcutta paper on the way, in which she was quoted as saying the Koran should be revised because of its treatment of women. Though she wrote the newspaper to say this was a misquote, Islamic fundamentalist groups again began to call for her death, this time with support from Jamaat-e-Islami, a political party with 20 seats in Parliament.
Although incitement to murder is against the law, instead of prosecuting the Islamists, who were demonstrating in the streets waving nooses, saying they would hang Nasrin on sight, the government issued a warrant for her arrest on charges of offending the religious sensibilities of a large portion of the people. Fearful that she would be killed if she were arrested, Nasrin went underground, where she remains. The Islamists have now put a price on her head of $33,000, a fortune in Bangladesh.
Fearing for her life, she asked me to help her get political asylum. I distributed a background paper [LINKS to background papers in archive], including her letter, at a human rights meeting in New York on June 23 and on June 25th a copy appeared in a Bangladeshi government paper. The case has now become a major press sensation. The WIP, several centers, and I have been negotiating on Nasrin's behalf while conducting an international campaign asking Bangladesh to drop charges against her, prosecute those who have sought her death, and give her protection and allow her to leave the country. The PEN Center in Nepal, which borders Bangladesh, has been particularly active in this effort, initiating a signature campaign and calling a demonstration,
I have spent a great deal of time on this case because I see it as of critical importance to women all over South Asia, and indeed, in the whole Islamic world. If political fundamentalism is able to gain power by targeting women writers, the emancipation of women will be set back for generations, as it has been in Iran. The same groups who target Taslima Nasrin burn down the Women in Development projects that teach girls to read.
An oral report made to PEN American Center, July 16, 1994.