An eternal exileBy Helle Merete Brix for HRSRecently, a human-rights organization in Kolkata, India, held a demonstration in support of author and feminist Taslima Nasrin’s right to return to the city. Nasrin has been described as a female Salman Rushdie. But before I tell you more about who she is and why she cannot live in Calcutta, allow me to offer a brief geographical footnote: Kolkata, formerly Calcutta, is the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal. The city is located in eastern India, near Bangladesh. Bangladesh is Taslima Nasrin’s homeland.
Nasrin was born in 1962 into a Muslim family in the city of Mymensingh. She was nine years old when Bangladesh, in 1971, separated from Pakistan and became an independent country. Nasrin became a doctor like her father, but from a young age was preoccupied with poetry, stories, and fiction.
In 1982 she ran away from home to be married. And in 1993, the year after her divorce from her third husband, she published the book Shame, which marked a dramatic change in her career as an author – and in her life.
Before the book’s publication, Nasrin worked as a gynecologist and published op-eds in Bengali newspapers, often about the unfair living conditions of women. She had also published poetry and essays and had earned the wrath of radical Muslims because of her criticism of religion and of the oppression of women. At a book fair, she was physically attacked.
But with Shame, Nasrin violated a real taboo, for the book tells about Muslims’ pogroms and assaults on Hindus in Bangladesh. Shame has also been published in Norwegian. It was the brave William Nygaard who translated and published it in 1994, the year after he was the object of an assassination attempt because he had published Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses.Censorship, snakes, and death In the autumn of 1993, when Shame came out in Bangladesh, a group called the Islamic Soldiers’ Council offered a bounty for the murder of Nasrin. Shame was banned, but managed to sell 50,000 copies undercover.
The next year, 1994, another Islamic group threatened to set poisonous snakes loose in the streets of the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka if Nasrin was not executed. Violent demonstrations against her spread across the country. The Bangladeshi government accused Nasrin of wounding Muslims’ religious sensitivities and wanted to have her arrested. The government has also banned several of Nasrin’s later books.
Nasrin had to spend several months underground. Under pressure from international human-rights organizations, the government granted permission for her to leave the country. Nasrin went into exile in Sweden, and thereafter lived in France and the U.S. In 1999 she was allowed for the first time to visit India, where she settled in 2004. Now she is back in America.
I met Nasrin for the first time in the mid 1990s when she addressed a meeting of the Gyldendal publishing house in Copenhagen. It was before the names of Ayyan Hirsi Ali, Robert Redeker, Ibn Warraq and others became household words and it was – perhaps apart from Rushdie’s visit – rather unusual for an author to have to be protected by the Danish Security and Intelligence Service while giving a speech. .Nasrin was small in stature, spoke clearly, and seemed quite fearless. After the meeting, the security people followed her and representatives of PEN out to a waiting car. The Koran’s call for terror In 2001, I had the opportunity to speak with her at greater length. A group of Danish women authors invited Nasrin and me to make presentations about Islam, women, culture, and other topics. On that occasion, no special security arrangements were necessary, even though Nasrin had, at one point, been attack by Muslim students in Britain.
During the visit I wanted to introduce Nasrin to a friend who speaks Bengali and knows the region. I can still remember how disappointed she was that she wasn’t able to meet him. At that time she didn’t often get the opportunity to speak her native language with anyone.
Nasrin has written about her homesickness in an essay which appears in a 2002 anthology edited by me and the historian Torben Hansen, Islam in the West. Nasrin introduces her essay with a poem that includes the lines: «Religion made me leave my own country” and ”made me leave the Brahmaputra River / where the kash flowers dance with the waves / and where I used to storm against the wind.”
When Nasrin has spoken, in interviews and elsewhere, about Islamic fundamentalism, she has most often directly criticized Islam itself, as in the essay «Islam Is the Greatest Problem Today.” ”What happened to the World Trade Center on September 11,” she writes, ”is not an isolated story. Nevertheless, many people claim that what happened has nothing to do with Islam, that Islam is a religion of peace. No, I do not agree with them at all. It is not the terrorists who have misunderstood Islam. They do literally what the Koran encourages them to do.” Forbidden to draw people If you go to Nasrin’s website, you can see the many prizes and honors she has received. Most recently, in November of this year, she was awarded a medal and given the title of ”honorary citizen” of the French city of Lyon.
But her direct criticism of Islam has also made her enemies, including Muslims who are considered liberal. In the afterword to the Indian edition of the historian Daniel Pipes` 1998 book The Rushdie Affair, the Belgian orientalist Koenraad Elst writes about Taslima Nasrin’s case. Elst mentions that the world-famous Moroccan-French author Tahar Ben Jelloun has accused Nasrin of being a careerist, and that Jelloun is displeased by her desire to revise the Koran.
During her 2001 visit to Denmark, Nasrin told me that although she shared her atheist father’s defense of reason, she felt a strong affinity to her deeply religious mother. One understands this when one reads her book Meyebela: My Bengali Girlhood: A Memoir of Growing Up Female in a Muslim World.
Although Shame is, content-wise, an important book, it can scarcely be characterized as a literary masterpiece. By contrast, Meyebela is a beautifully written book. In it, Nasrin describes a brutal class system, the war of secession, and more. But what is especially strong is the story about a gifted, dreamy child who grew up in a family with a secular but terribly brutal father and a mother who fled from her husband’s infidelity and despotism into obsessive religiosity.
Nasrin’s father wanted her to spend all her time studying, and he beat her thoroughly if he felt she was being disobedient. Her mother wanted Nasrin to turn to Allah and took her to a popular preacher who had a great number of female followers. Among them were young girls who were taken to the preacher because their parents believed that they were up to something that might violate the family’s honor. While under the preacher’s supervision, the girls lived in the broiling heat in a room without windows. Muhammed, they were told, lived in this fashion.
The girls spent their time learning only about the Koran and hadith. The preacher believed that Judgment Day was near, and talked the young girls into forgetting worldly things and into not returning to their families when their parents came to take them home after a couple of years to marry a man their parents had selected for them.
The book also describes the sexual assaults on Nasrin by two of her uncles. It describes women who are entirely at the mercy of men. It describes the fear of Allah’s hellfire. And it provides specific examples of Islam’s intolerance, such as when Nasrin’s mother refuses to have any more to do with the Hindus in her neighborhood.
Throughout the book, Nasrin increasingly asks questions about Allah’s and Muhammed’s authority. But even as a little girl she broke a taboo: she drew a picture of a man rowing a boat. Her color pencils were taken from her. It is not permitted to draw people, for one cannot give them life. Only Allah can do that.
House arrest and homesickness I 2004, Nasrin was given permission to live in Kolkata in the Indian state of West Bengal, which shares a culture and language with the Bengalis. There she wrote books and contributed to Indian newspapers.
But in 2007 a Muslim group offered to pay a bounty to any person or persons who decapitated Nasrin. In the same year she was physically attacked by fundamentalists at a book reception. And after that it just didn’t let up. A death fatwa was proclaimed. A demonstration against Nasrin turned violent. The military had to step in.
The government forced Nasrin to move to New Delhi, where she spent seven months in house arrest. Under hard pressure, the otherwise uncompromising author declared that she would no longer write about Islam. She also removed a few passages from a controversial book which had infuriated Muslim groups in Kolkata. And she cancelled the publication of the sixth volume in her series of autobiographical books.
But on March 19, 2008, Nasrin was forced to leave India. Today she lives in New York and is a research fellow at New York University. In June of thi year she wrote to the prime minister of Bangladesh asking to be allowed to return home.In an open letter to Sonja Gandhi, the head of the Indian National Congress Party, a group of Italian authors and intellectuals protested against Nasrin’s expulsion from Kolkata Are such gestures of any use? I doubt it. But I certainly wish this author would be allowed to live in the country she wants to live in. If Muslim-dominated Bangladesh is an impossibility, secular India should give her asylum – and do what they can to make it possible for Nasrin to live there without a threat of fatwas, expulsion, or censorship.
Translated from the Danish by Bruce Bawer