Women’s untold stories
By Michael Deibert
Le Monde diplomatique
(Read the original article here)
The Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasrin, 47, has the European parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, and the Unesco Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non-Violence. Nasrin is an outspoken feminist and secularist, and a stern critic of the role of religion in the oppression of women and the poor. She worked as a physician in Bangladesh’s understaffed public hospitals before her exile in Europe and the US in 1994.
Since she published her first book Shikore Bipul Khudha (Demands) in 1986, Nasrin’s works, including Lajja (translated into English as Shame), have offended Muslim fundamentalists in Bangladesh, and the government has banned some of them. In 2004 she settled in Kolkata (Calcutta), India, which has a Bengali-language intellectual tradition. There she ran into trouble with Indian fundamentalists. In 2007 she was assaulted while attempting to speak at a book release event in Hyderabad; among her assailants were members of India’s Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen party, including Indian lawmakers. In Kolkata, religious decrees called for her death and there were violent protests. Nasrin was therefore forced to move to the capital, New Delhi, before once again seeking exile in Europe in March 2008.
Michael Deibert spoke to her in Paris.
MD: Can you tell me what inspired you to become a writer?
TN: I studied medicine, my father was a doctor, and he inspired me. I wanted to be an artist, but when I studied medicine, I really liked it. I always believed in signs, and I had a rational, logical mind, so I became a doctor. I had a practice in public hospitals, but unfortunately I had to quit my job because the government asked me to stop writing if I wanted to continue working in public hospitals, they didn’t like it. As a doctor, I could treat the patients, but as a writer my work was a prescription for a sick society. Lots of people were influenced by my writing, they became agnostic or atheist or secular, and also very aware of their rights and freedoms.
MD: How would you describe the political and social situation in Bangladesh today?
TN: The situation is ever worse. All the politicians use religion for their own interests. They want to get votes from ignorant masses. They don’t think of improving women’s conditions, or economic conditions, or social conditions, even though 80% live below the poverty line, and not many women have access to education or politics. Whoever comes into power, man or woman, from whatever party, they are corrupt, they are hypocrites, and they don’t do anything for women’s equality. They keep Muslim religious law, which is oppressive to women, only to please the fundamentalists, but don’t take action against them even though they are a big threat to the progress of the society and to the equality of women. Half of the population is female, but women don’t have jobs and are forced to stay at home. This economic condition is not good for the country.
MD: How would you characterise the reception your books received in Bangladesh?
TN: People either loved me very much or they hated me very much; there was no middle ground. I got a lot of support and solidarity from the people who were truly secular and humanist. As long as I was writing about oppression of women or criticising traditional customs and culture, I got lots of support. But when I criticised Islam, then I lost support.
It was very difficult to criticise Islam in a Muslim country. Of course, I don’t just criticise Islam, I criticise all religions. But when I criticised Christianity, Judaism or Hinduism for oppression of women, I had no problem; nobody came to kill me. When I criticised Islam, they issued fatwas and put a price on my head. And the government threw me out.
MD: Can you describe the circumstances of your exile?
TN: It happened in 1994. I was in hiding in Bangladesh; the government filed a case against me, claiming that my books hurt people’s religious feelings. I had to go into hiding because prison was not safe for me – my lawyer told me that I must not be arrested because the police might kill me. It was difficult. I got support from western countries, from the European parliament, and from the US. I was granted bail and I had to leave. From then, I moved around in Europe, but life was never easy: I was a Bengali writer, not a writer who writes in a European language, so it was very difficult.
Exile was like waiting at a stop for a bus to get home. After 10 years the bus came, but I couldn’t go back to Bangladesh, so I went to the Bengali part of India, where I could speak the language, where we had the same culture and where I had my publisher and friends. I settled there in 2004. But after three or four years I was attacked by Muslim fundamentalists in India, and 10,000 people came on to the streets and demanded my deportation. I was physically attacked in 2007 in Hyderabad; before that I had been attacked in 1993 in Bangladesh at a book fair, where they destroyed a shop and burned my books publicly.
I always had police protection in India. But in Hyderabad, the organiser who invited me to release my book there didn’t provide police protection. After the programme I was about to leave, but 100 or so Muslim fundamentalists started screaming at me in Telugu (a local language), which I don’t understand, except (for the prophet’s name) Muhammad. They started throwing whatever they could find, chairs and things, at me. I thought I would be killed. I was very sure about that. I was really, really scared. I didn’t want to lose my life in that way. The police saved me. Some people tried to close the doors, but they were breaking down the doors and shouting that they would kill me. It felt like a decade passing.
Later I heard they were members of parliament present, but nobody was punished. They said: “We are sad we couldn’t kill her today, but next time we will kill her.” That was broadcast and no one was punished for that.
MD: What was your status in India?
TN: I had a residence permit. When I came back to Kolkata, where I was living, the Chief Minister of Bengal, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, was constantly asking me to leave the state, and sent policemen to tell me to leave the state and even the country. I said “no,” because I knew leaving the country meant the West, and India was my adopted country. I didn’t want to leave. So the government put me under house arrest in Calcutta, I wasn’t allowed to leave. Then violent protests started and they bundled me out and put me in a cantonment in New Delhi, where I was also under house arrest. The Foreign Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, came to me and said that I must leave. I told him I would not leave: if they wanted to put me in prison, fine, I was not leaving. He was very, very angry.
I finally had to leave in March 2008 because my health was getting very bad. I asked my friends to bring all my belongings from Kolkata to Delhi, and the government put them in storage. I don’t know where the storage is. (The Indian government) gave me a residence permit on condition that I don’t live in the country, so it’s a meaningless permit.
MD: How did you arrive in Paris?
TN: Paris is the first city of my life outside of the Indian sub-continent. I came here a long time ago when I was invited to talk about press freedom. My books were published in French. I was invited by FNAC, and by the Nouvel Observateur.
MD: Why do you think it’s important to have a discussion about the role of religion in public life?
TN: I have seen how women suffer because of religion, and because of religious law; if we can have secular law, and a uniform civil code based on equality, then women wouldn’t suffer so much. My writing is not only about religion; it also criticises anti-female traditions and culture.
When I was in India, I wrote that Hindu culture is very discriminatory against women. Nobody punished me for that. Yet they branded me as anti-Islam. But I am not anti-Islam, I’m a secular humanist. Women suffer and people hate because of religious faith. That should end. There should be no Christian, Muslim, Jewish or Hindu law. This is not secularism, this is not democracy, and women do not have equal rights.
I continue to write because lots of people encourage me to go on writing, and to tell their untold stories. They say they get strength from me. And it is important to me to give strength to vulnerable, weak people.
Michael Deibert is the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti (Seven Stories Press)