‘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.
Human rights activists issued fresh protests, Indian writers and intellectuals – both Hindus and Muslims – demonstrated against the Bangladesh Government, and Western Governments once again interceded on Nasreen’s behalf. Salman Rushdie published an open letter of support for Nasreen in the New York Times, and the international media went into high gear to cover her story. Hysteria mounted in Bangladesh, as Muslim extremist groups attacked Western embassies, called for the death penalty for blasphemy, and demanded the expulsion of foreign aid missions on the grounds that they had turned Bangladeshis against Islam in the name of development. Four journalists from Janakantha, a liberal Dhaka newspaper, were arrested in June and thrown in jail for writing a satirical piece about village mullahs. Members of Nasreen’s own family received death threats; her father’s clinic in Mymensingh was ransacked, and her parents and younger sister moved for safety to Nasreen’s Dhaka apartment. Militant Islamic newspapers blasted both Bangladesh and Western Governments for their support of the ‘apostate’, and the Bangladesh Government was perceived by the Western aid community as pandering to Muslim fanatics. Meanwhile, arrangements were quietly under way for Nasrecn to obtain bail and be granted asylum outside Bangladesh.
On 3 August, one day before the expiry of her arrest warrant would have rendered her a fugitive, Nasreen emerged from hiding and surrounded by a small army of lawyers and dozens of heavily armed police guards, appeared before the High Court. She had covered her head with a dupatta, a long scarf, in deference to Islamic requirements for women’s dress; she looked thin and tense, and seemed unsteady on her feet. When one of the judges suggested that she remove the headscarf, she demurred, and apologised extensively for all the discord her case had created. She was granted bail and left the court under heavy police escort, returning to her apartment for a brief reunion with her family. Still under police guard, she was driven away to an undisclosed place and went back into hiding for several days, while speculation mounted as to her next move.
On 9 August, she turned up in Sweden, having been permitted to leave Bangladesh quietly and legally, and to travel to Stockholm as a guest of Swedish PEN. There, Swedish officials and PEN members have said, Nasreen will have the opportunity to work, meet people, and recover from the stress of her two-month ordeal. She has indicated that she will soon meet with ‘her friends in the press’ to give interviews. With several long-standing invitations to speak in other countries as well, she is about to join the international celebrity writer’s circuit.
In late 1989, when I arrived in Bangladesh, Nasreen was a young medical officer and gynecologist at a Dhaka hospital, who had published a few slim collections of her own poetry in Mymensingh, her home town. One of my collaborators, Farida Sarkar, another young feminist poet, urged me to include Nasreen in the anthology of Bengali women’s poetry I was assembling. Sarkar even located an office phone number for a journalist friend of Nasreen’s – like many young professionals in Bangladesh, she had no phone of her own. I called the friend, Naimul Islam Khan, who took a message and indicated that he was now Nasreen’s husband. Nasreen returned my call, and came to see me in January 1990.
She was pleasant-faced, soft-spoken, tallish for a Bengali, wearing a sari and shawl against the winter chill. I liked her immediately, and recall that we began using the informal tumi form of address almost right away, in part, I think, because our conversation was entirely in Bengali – her English, she said, was not strong. (We never did speak English together.) She gave me a short résumé and copies of her books, marking poems she thought should be translated, and telling me a little about her poetry and medical duties. We spent about an hour together before she left for work. She asked – as did practically every writer when I first met them – who else I was including in the anthology and who was collaborating with me on the translations. I told her some names, and said that almost everyone had been enthusiastic.
‘Almost everyone?’ Her eyebrows went up; she seemed concerned. Well, I admitted, there had been one unpleasant conversation with a professor at Dhaka University, who had rather angrily opined that women poets were not worth translating, and who had declared: ‘I do not translate women’s poems!’ But this incident was exceptional, and ...
‘Who was this?’ Taslima asked. Her tone was solicitous, I was still smarting from the incident, and this was a private conversation – I thought – with a new poet friend. I told her the man’s name, but stressed how unusual his reaction was. Taslima departed soon afterwards, with plans to meet me again after some translations were completed.
Ten days later, when I was in the USIS-Dhaka office on an errand, Syed Asaduzzaman Bacchu, head of the Information Section, greeted me cheerfully: ‘Carolyne, you’ve become quite controversial!’ He handed me a copy of Khabarer Kagaj, a Bengali weekly; attached was his English translation of a two-paragraph article with the heading, ‘I Do Not Translate Women’s Poems’; the byline, ‘Taslima Nasreen’.
I skimmed the piece: after a background paragraph on my work, Taslima wrote that she had had ‘a lengthy discussion’ with me about ‘all the important translators’ of Bangladesh I had contacted. Excepting a helpful few, she said, ‘all others have evaded the issue on the plea that they were very busy.’ She concluded by naming the Dhaka University professor and quoting him: ‘I don’t think women can write poems! I do not translate women’s poems.’
I was stunned. Even if I had known she wrote journalism, I wouldn’t expect details from a private conversation to appear in print without my permission. Perhaps she thought that I knew about her journalism and had talked to her deliberately, but even allowing for some misunderstanding of my Bengali, she had given my brief discussion with her a political charge I hadn’t intended.
A week later, Bacchu gave me clippings of the professor’s angry letter to the editor. After stating that he ‘usually does not reply to accusations by women’ but that he ‘had to reply to this accusation because it is a serious one’, the professor criticised my method of translation, advising me to go back to where I came from and learn Bengali well enough to translate without collaboration. ‘Taslima Nasreen’s hatred of men is well established,’ he concluded, ‘yet she could have spared a docile man like me.’
Two weeks later, in the company of three of my women writer colleagues, I ran into this ‘docile man’ at Dhaka University. A shouting match ensued; I finally gave up trying to apologise and explain, and simply defended myself – in English – against his tirade.
As we left for the nearby Bangla Academy, my friends tried to calm me down with some explanations about Taslima: ‘She’s new to this journalism. She began writing poetry during her first marriage, to the poet Rudra Mohammad Shahidullah. This second husband is the editor of that small magazine, that’s how she started writing these articles. She’s ambitious, and she did not think about the consequences of this report.’
By mid-November 1990, my reservations about Taslima had abated somewhat, and I had begun translating some of her poems with the help of Mohammad Nurul Huda. I liked her poetry well enough to include it in my anthology. Mohammad Nurul Huda, a highly regarded poet and one of my staunchest collaborators, would work with me on the remaining translations. We met with Taslima several times to complete another dozen translations. Taslima listened while Huda and I went over my versions, comparing each with the original poem and with Huda’s version; if there were questions about her meaning, she explained in Bengali. But the poems were quite straightforward in most cases, without the multiple entendres that presented challenges in other poets’ work. As I did with everyone, I gave Taslima copies of the translations as they were completed.
Versions of my encounter with the angry professor and Nasreen’s report of it had gone on percolating through the world of writers and critics. Other writers would take me aside and tell their own Taslima stories, making me swear not to reveal their identities to Taslima or anyone else. Women poets and journalists, whose writing criticised male-dominated Bangladeshi society as much as did Nasreen’s, described how she had snubbed them at literary gatherings, focusing her attention exclusively on male editors and writers. Some complained that in her column Taslima had distorted conversations she had had with them or distorted events where they had been present.
Liberals and intellectuals applauded Nasreen’s outspokenness, but many also deplored what they perceived as her self-promotion, her disregard for journalistic accuracy, and her tendency to denigrate the efforts of other women writers and activists. Older women’s rights advocates disapproved of the ‘softcore’ pornographic quality of much of her writing, which they said only undermined the feminist causes it claimed to serve. In one column, Nasreen asserted that Muslim women should be permitted four husbands simultaneously, just as Muslim men may take four wives; in another, she stated – echoing the vengeful tone of the Islamic laws she opposes – that men who rape women should themselves be raped as punishment.
Some women feared that Nasreen’s writings might lead to a conservative backlash against the slow but substantial gains in literacy and vocational training, economic independence, health care and family planning that poor Bangladeshi women had made in the last few decades. One male writer said that in a sexually repressed society with no Playboy and few blue movies, Nasreen’s earliest readers – ironically enough – were young boys and men more interested in erotic innuendo than in the liberation of the women whose body parts were described. ‘So how does this help the women’s cause?’ he asked. As I listened to these comments from liberal-minded Bengalis, I tried to think of an analogous personality in the West. The name that came to mind was Camille Paglia.
Nasreen’s columns began to attack religious scriptures, the Koran among them, and outraged conservative Muslim groups demonstrated in protest, demanding her public trial and execution; but the furor died down quickly, especially during the anti-Ershad pro-democracy movement of late 1990, the subsequent election campaign, and the Gulf War – the really big issues in Bangladesh during my two years there. The demonstrators were often jobless young men paid to shout whatever slogans their ‘employers’ in the various competing political parties or factions required. Without a true ideological commitment, protesters tended to disperse when the funding dried up. I asked some of my Bangladeshi associates if Taslima was in danger. Some waved their hands in a dismissive gesture: ‘This will only increase her book sales!’ Few took the militants’ threats seriously. More thoughtful replies came from senior writers such as Jahanara Imam: ‘Bengal has a centuries-old tradition of tolerance between communities. Muslims and Hindus have almost always lived together in peace, especially in the villages, even observing each other’s festivals. Bangladesh’s extremist Muslim groups are small. They were totally discredited after collaborating with the West Pakistani Army during our 1971 Liberation War. Their actions led to the deaths of thousands of Bengali fellow Muslims! These fundamentalists are razakars, traitors to our cause; everyone knows that, and we have all written against them.’
Jahanara Imam’s elder son, a freedom fighter, disappeared after Pakistani soldiers arrested him in 1971; her husband died after being tortured. Both she and her colleague, Bangladesh’s foremost poet and women’s right’s activist, the 83-year-old Sufia Kamal, worked in the 1971 resistance movement, providing food, medicine and shelter to freedom fighters and victims of West Pakistani atrocities. It was common knowledge in Bangladesh that such writers and social activists are on fundamentalists’ death lists.
Sufia Kamal has worked for seven decades for women’s rights, beginning in the Twenties when she was a teenage bride doing literacy and social work with poor village women and urban slum-dwellers. Now, she chairs the Bangladesh Women’s Council, the country’s largest women’s organisation, and continues to speak out in favour of religious tolerance and women’s equality. She is also a devout Muslim. She and her family have received numerous death threats over the years – even during this latest uproar over Taslima Nasreen – but like many other women activists and liberals, she has ignored them and gone on with her work. Sufia Kamal’s moral stature is so great in Bangladesh that Nasreen even went to her after receiving the Ananda Puraskar, West Bengal’s highest literary prize, for her Selected Columns in May 1992.
Ill for the last several years, Jahanara Imam died of cancer in late June. At her funeral in Dhaka, thousands of Bangladeshi intellectuals, determined to halt the upsurge of Muslim militancy, circulated a statement full of quotations from the Koran designed to expose the ‘reactionary fundamentalists’ in their distortions of Mohammed’s message of tolerance. ‘The Prophet has never asked for killing or any other punishment for opposing or renouncing religion,’ said the statement: ‘Let one who wants to believe, believe, and one who wants to renounce, renounce.’
In the light of all this, it was shocking to re-read the other portion of Nasreen’s May 1994 Statesman interview, where Sujata Sen asked her which Bangladeshi women writers and human rights activists she admired. Nasreen replied: ‘I have no comments to make on this. You may write this.’ When Sen pressed her – ‘What about women like Sufia Kamal and Jahanara Imam?’ – Nasreen replied: ‘In Bangladesh most women activists are with a political party or an organisation. Most are afraid of fundamentalists. They play limited roles. Following the Sharia is all they believe in. They are happy to live as housewives.’
When I first read this interview, I understood the dismay of Bangladeshi intellectuals who knew Nasreen, the vehemence of what they said about her to me even before she attained global fame, and their reluctance to speak publicly on her behalf since then. They would appear petty and envious in the eyes of the world, while Nasreen, who has turned to the West for support, has become the misunderstood heroine. Western press and human rights organisations have taken what Nasreen says about herself and her situation at face value, and turned her into a cause célèbre.
Taslima Nasreen appeared to enjoy taking ever more confrontational stances. At times, she even appeared to taunt her enemies, smoking a cigarette while handling the Koran in a BBC television feature filmed before she went into hiding. The gesture offended many liberal-minded Bangladeshi Muslims who, though not necessarily practising themselves, felt that the Koran should not be insulted just because Nasreen is opposed to Islamic militants who have distorted its message. Such actions increased Nasreen’s visibility – as a target for terrorists and a symbol useful to both sides in the controversy. Her letters to the Statesman and Bangladesh Parliament in May represented a belated attempt at damage control.
Gone was her defiance of the religious hard-liners, and her criticism of Rushdie for seeking reconciliation with his accusers. The faxes she sent from hiding to the International PEN Women Writers’ Committee and Amnesty International struck a terrified note: ‘I am in grave danger. Mullahs are everywhere. They must kill me to save Islam. Please save me.’ She, too, has made conciliatory gestures – wearing a headscarf to the High Court, apologising for the trouble she has caused, the many lives besides her own which have been endangered. In the photos taken at the High Court, she looked haggard and haunted; she told the judges she had not surrendered earlier because she feared for her life. She had heard of the fundamentalist death squads, she said, and even in the small, darkened room where she had been confined for two months, cut off from contact with family and friends and denied use of the telephone, she lived in dread of an assassin’s bullet.
As many of my associates in Bangladesh feared, the international melodrama has given fresh resolve to the country’s Islamic extremists: defenders of a beleaguered faith, they have been emboldened to attack liberal newspaper offices, threaten female development workers, destroy schools and family planning centres funded by foreign aid organisations, and put new political demands to the weakening secular government. During the weeks Nasreen was in hiding, several people were killed in Bangladesh and scores injured in violent demonstrations and clashes with police. Compelling photos in the New York Times have shown Bangladeshi women clad in burkah and veil, as if Bangladesh were an Iranian-style Islamic theocracy – when in reality very few women dress so severely. The upheaval fuels Western stereotypes of Bangladesh as a ‘basket case’ of a country, and reinforces the misconception that all Muslim societies – even normally moderate ones like Bangladesh – are ridden with fanatics. The Government of Bangladesh has been shaken by the crisis, and its opponents have seized their advantage, forming unlikely coalitions of liberals and religious conservatives to press for its removal. And along with Nasreen, many other progressive Bangladeshis fear for their lives.