‘Watch out for that Taslima Nasreen,’ warned my Bangladeshi friends. ‘She’s going to get into big trouble one of these days.’ We were discussing the uproar over Nasreen’s Selected Columns, which had just been published. It was February 1991, and I was in the capital of Bangladesh on a Fulbright Research Grant, translating the work of Bengali women poets and writers.
Taslima Nasreen is the 32-year-old Bangladeshi doctor-turned-writer who flew to Sweden after appearing on 3 August in the High Court in Dhaka to receive bail, following two months spent in hiding. A radical right-wing Islamic group’s most recent death threat, and the 4 June arrest order issued against her by her own government on charges of offending the sentiments of Muslims, had put her life in danger. She has been known in Bangladesh since about 1989 as a poet, columnist and women’s rights advocate – growing ever more notorious for her sexual subject-matter, her criticisms of male-dominated Bangladeshi society and of the Islamic religion, and her own multiple marriages.
Nasreen’s name has appeared with increasing frequency in the international press ever since the publication in February 1993 of her first short novel, Lajja (Shame, in emulation of Salman Rushdie’s book of the same name). Lajja became a runaway bestseller in Bangladesh and West Bengal despite its hurried composition. As Nasreen herself has declared in interviews, her style is blunt and deliberately provocative, dramatic to the point of being sensational, with a tendency to simplify and often distort issues. The novel brought her fame and censure at home, and made her the propaganda darling of Indian Hindu militants seeking further excuses to persecute India’s large Muslim minority. The Bangladesh Government banned it in mid-1993 on the grounds that its ‘inflammatory’ tone had increased misunderstanding between Muslims and other religious communities.
Lajja, published in English translation by Penguin India in spring 1994, depicts a fictional Bangladeshi Hindu family who suffer atrocities at the hands of Muslim extremists in the aftermath of the December 1992 destruction by Hindu extremists of the mosque in Ayodhya, India. Conservative Muslim leaders accused Nasreen of ‘conspiracy against Islam’; groups of militant youths demonstrated in the streets and burned her in effigy; and in September 1993 an obscure fundamentalist group put a price on her head.
The unprecedented – for Bangladesh – attempt to declare a fatwa against an individual caused Nasreen to be labelled ‘the Salman Rushdie of Bangladesh’. Earlier that year, the Bangladesh Government had pulled her off a Calcutta-bound flight at Dhaka airport and confiscated her passport, on the grounds that she was travelling abroad under a false identity – the passport gave her profession as ‘journalist’, not ‘government medical officer’. She quit her government medical job in protest, and began to write full-time.
After Nasreen contacted the Western media, there was an international storm of protest on her behalf. For months she was in and out of hiding in her high-rise Dhaka apartment, giving interviews to the Indian and Western media, revising and expanding Lajja (from 79 to 200 pages), making ever bolder statements against Islam, and sending faxes to human rights groups urging them to save her from her enemies. Two police guards were posted outside her apartment door. From this position of relative safety, she maintained a defiant stance. ‘There is a distinct difference between Salman Rushdie and myself,’ she declared in an October 1993 interview. ‘He has apologised. I have not and will not.’ Months of international efforts to ease Nasreen’s plight partially succeeded when the Bangladesh Government issued her a new passport in late April 1994. In early May, she flew to Paris for a human rights conference, stopping in Calcutta on her way home. There she gave an interview to a reporter for the English-language daily, the Statesman. The interview, published on 9 May, quoted her as saying, among other things, that ‘the Koran should be revised thoroughly.’ In response to immediate furor from Bangladesh, Nasreen wrote a letter to the Statesman, claiming that she had been misquoted, and that her real view – also cited in the original interview – was that ‘not a single word’ of the Koran ‘can be changed. Anyone who proposes to bring in changes is a kafir.’ In her letter she said that she advocated changes not to the Koran but to the Sharia – the texts of Islamic law – to give equal status to men and women.
In this letter, in other letters sent to Dhaka newspapers in late May, and in a statement delivered to the Bangladesh Parliament after she went underground, Nasreen asserted that the misquotation was due to the inexperience of the ‘non-Muslim female reporter of the Statesman’, Sujata Sen – a Hindu. Ms Sen reprinted the relevant portions of the interview, and in her own statement declared: ‘I absolutely stand by my story.’ While Nasreen was in Europe, she had reportedly made the same comments about revising the Koran in an interview with Der Spiegel, so her claim that she had been misquoted cut very little ice with her critics in Bangladesh.
Religious hard-liners staged massive demonstrations, demanding her execution for blasphemy. Another radical Muslim cleric, vying for political advantage, doubled the previous bounty offer for her death. On 4 June, the Bangladesh Government, once again under intense pressure from the religious right wing on which much of its shaky support has come to depend, issued a no-bail warrant for her arrest. Within a few hours, Nasreen vanished from her apartment and went into hiding somewhere in the capital.