The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Profile: Taslima Nasrin


The one whose wife dies is lucky.
But not so the man whose cow dies
- Bengali proverb

The Blanket will feature a biography of each of the 12 signatories of Manifesto: Together Facing the New Totalitarianism, along with each of the Danish cartoons their number represents.

This is the third in the series.

Anthony McIntyre • 25 March 2006

When in 2002 Taslima Nasrin brought out her book Meyebela, the intention of the author was to insert into Bengali literary discourse the concept of girlhood. Meyebela is a term created by Nasrin, which she uses to express girlhood. Bengali had in its lexicon a word for the lives and experiences of boys but no equivalent for girls. Since the book hit the shelves Meyebela, as a term, has featured significantly within the region's discourses. Nasrin's promotion of her own gender was nothing new. Long before she published Meyebela, she had anchored her intellectual life in the shark infested sea of women's rights.

Taslima Nasrin was born into a middle class family in what was then known as East Pakistan in 1962. On completion of her medical exams she graduated as a doctor in 1984. By then she had been composing poetry for nine years. Five years into her medical career she began writing newspaper columns. Much of what flowed from her pen was fuelled by what she had witnessed in her profession as a doctor. 'When I was at the hospital I treated so many seven or eight-year-old girls who were raped by their male relatives, some 50 or 60 years old. I treated them, and I remembered when I was raped.'

As a columnist she doggedly returned to confront the oppression that sat heavily on the shoulders of women. She refused to let her readers retire for the night without leaving them a little something with which to disturb the tranquillity of their dreams. Adeptly wielding the scalpel that peeled away society's mask she exposed the sorrow beneath the veil; every day women were the victims of rape, drug traffickers, acid attacks, dowry killings and other kinds of torture. The demand for her material was reflected in the spiralling rising sales of newspapers. 'Before me, women would write love stories or advice on childcare and cooking. I wrote something different.'

When she took her first footsteps in the world of political commentary, editors were not inclined to censor her. But as the bigots smarted and writhed ever more feverishly under the crack of her whip and responded by attacking newspaper offices, the censor demon unleashed its pestilence. She then found it more difficult to get her views beyond what the thought police would permit.

A widely regarded author she wrote numerous books, poems, short stories, and essays. By 1993 after the appearance of her book Shame, the Council of the Soldiers of Islam slapped a fatwa death sentence on her. 'Hundreds of thousands of fundamentalists went to the streets and demanded my death. They called a general strike, which paralyzed Bangladesh.' Undeterred, the attitude with which she put it up to the obscurantists is to be gleaned from her challenge: 'I will continue my fight against all the evil forces without any compromise until my death.' Unlike Salman Rushdie she has steadfastly refused to apologise for giving offence to theocrats.

In response to the march of the mullahs the government then charged her with blasphemy and insisted she would be denied bail. Fearing that she would be murdered inside prison, human rights bodies and writers campaigned for other governments to shelter her. The European Union agreed and she fled to Sweden. The interim period was spent on the run. 'No political party came to my support except one or two small leftist parties.' This was in stark contrast to the attitude of the even smaller leftist sects in Britain and Ireland today who, it seems, would gladly kick her off the scaffold and into the eternity of nothingness. 'When I first went into hiding, I took refuge in the home of total strangers. At that time, if I was found, the family would have been killed along with me. Like Nazi Germany.'

Ultimately her crime was to be inquisitive, to demand answers from those responsible for abominable crimes against women, to ask women themselves to reflect on their own oppression.

I thought it was natural to ask "why". I don't understand why they accepted being beaten by their husbands, being prevented from going outside without permission, being forced to marry somebody and stopping their studies after marriage. I know that this is a very, very difficult situation because if you divorce your husband and try to be independent, you'll be called "prostitute." But, you know, I don't care what people call me. Maybe that is the difference. If you want to be a human being, a good person, you first have to be bad in this society's eyes. If you're not willing to be "bad," you'll never be a truly strong and independent person.

What probably alienated her within society more than anything else was the link she made between the wretched conditions women were forced to endure and religion. She has vented astonishment that "seventh-century law" should rule any Muslim societies today.

My comments about religion made people angry. I said that Islam oppresses women. I criticized verses in the Koran that treat women as property, as sexual objects. And I argued that we don't need religious laws … when I began to study the Koran, the holy book of Islam, I found many unreasonable ideas. The women in the Koran were treated as slaves. They are nothing but sexual objects.

It is comments such as these which show the contested meaning that can be inscribed in any of the Danish cartoons. In a mindset that is itself not afflicted by totalitarian sentiment and is willing to engage with the vast, uneven and complex flexibility of intellectual pluralism, meaning is positional and rarely fixed. A Nasrin-style reading of the cartoon in which bombers are refused entry into heaven on the grounds that there are no more virgins left could easily conclude that the cartoon, far from being racist, protests the place of women within Islamic society where even in the afterlife their allotted role is to provide sexual pleasure for men.

Nasrin articulates a view of the Koran that sharply collides with the conventional wisdom in the West. Rather than it being the fundamentalists who read the Koran dishonestly, she claimed it was in fact the 'liberal' Muslims who are guilty of this:

They're not following Islam honestly. Fundamentalists are. They're following the "word of God," and the orders of Prophet Muhammad exactly. So it's not true that Islam is good for humanity. It's not at all good. Islam completely denies human rights and treats women very badly.

A confirmed secular humanist she takes grave exception to those Western intellectuals who promote the view that to demand separation of church from state is tantamount to Western colonization of Islamic culture. 'Some liberals always defend Islam and blame fundamentalists for creating problems. But Islam itself oppresses women. Islam itself doesn't permit democracy, and violates human rights.'

She argues that many Western intellectuals take the position that because the West is opposed to Islam then it is a radical position to support Islam and its culture. She sees this as very bad for the Islamic countries, which need to be secularized. 'I love my culture - my food, my music, my clothing - but I never, ever accept torture as being culture.' Here she is referring specifically to practices such as genital mutilation. Western donors who give money for "cultural education," she contends, are financing madressas or religious schools which the churn out 'ignorant, foolish fundamentalists.'

She dismisses those who subscribe to the cultural relativism school as hoaxers. This tendency invariably finds ways to avoid giving full-blown support to extending the human rights currently enjoyed in the West to other societies on the grounds of cultural difference:

There can be no difference in the concept of human rights between the East and the West. If the veil is bad for the western women, then it is bad for their oriental sisters as well. If the patriarchy is to be fought against in the West, it should be equally fought against in the East … in fact the fight is more urgent in the East, because most of the women have neither any education nor any economic independence. If modern secular education is good for western women why should the eastern women be deprived of it?

Nasrin argues that there is a strategic rationale underlying the Western approach to Islamic society. Under the guise of respect for alternative culture the West is in fact pursuing a policy akin to cultural imperialism:

Does the West really want secularism in the Muslim world? I do not think so. They want to keep these people ignorant. Do you think they did not know that religious education makes ignoramuses, and only now they have realized it? They made Osama bin Laden and then they gave all the arms and everything to those fundamentalists.

She explains the rise of Islamic fundamentalism as being rooted in two separate but related phenomena. The failure of western democracy and capitalism coupled with the global collapse of socialism. Fundamentalists are now trying to 'present a religious substitute to modern western ideologies.' It is no great surprise to learn then that she is critical of US involvement in the Arab world and East Asia: 'bombing is not the solution. Bombing creates more and more anger among the people and they become fundamentalists.' In diametrical opposition to the sects of the Western Left, Nasrin suggests an alternative 'real conflict' which polarises the world today:

The real conflict is not between the West and Islam, or even Christianity and Islam. It's been secularism and fundamentalism, irrational blind faith and a rational, logical approach, between innovation and tradition, between past and future, between those who value freedom and those who do not.

Taslima Nasrin has been persecuted for her resolute defence of women's rights. She has taken considerable risks in a bid to make the world a better place for women. Like Rosa Parks before her she has taken with ferocious energy to the thankless task of rejecting the racist notion that there are second-class human beings. More voices like hers will need to step into the front line if women are no longer to be sent, apartheid style, to the back of the Mosque.

 

 


 

See also:

MANIFESTO: Together Facing the New Totalitarianism
Freedom of Speech

Profile:
Taslima Nasrin
Irshad Manji
Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Debate:
For Freedom of Expression
Muslim News Interviews The Blanket
Who Fears to Speak
Fundamentals
Cartoons and Caricatures: An anarchist take on the cartoon row
Taslima Nasreen (2000)
The Clash of the Uncivilized
Misunderstandings Abound
A Vital Question Not Easily Washed Away
Zen and the Heart of Blasphemy
Closer to Home
The Right to Offend
Threads
Wrong to Claim Freedom of Speech
The Parameters of Free Speech
Unreal Paradigms
Cowardice on Cartoon Controversary

Letters:
Controversy over the publication of cartoons
Stereotypes Must Be Challenged Openly
New Convert
Cartoons
About the Possible Posting of the Muslim Cartoons
Well Done
A Muslim's Response
Straight Talk vs Orthodoxy

One Man's Terrorist is Another Man's Prophet
Christ Collage
An Eye for An Eye
Glad to See Someone is Not Afraid
There Are No Sides to Peace
Rights and Responsibilities

Censorship: The Blanket's first article (2001): Silence is Not Golden; It is Complicity


 

 


Index: Current Articles + Latest News and Views + Book Reviews + Letters + Archives

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



 

 

There is no such thing as a dirty word. Nor is there a word so powerful, that it's going to send the listener to the lake of fire upon hearing it.
- Frank Zappa



Index: Current Articles



26 March 2006

Other Articles From This Issue:

Profile: Taslima Nasrin
Anthony McIntyre

For Freedom of Expression
Taslima Nasrin

Muslim News Interviews The Blanket

Who Fears to Speak
Richard O'Rawe

Fundamentals
Dr John Coulter

Cartoons and Caricatures: An anarchist take on the cartoon row
Jack White

Taslima Nasreen (2000)
Anthony McIntyre

Who Said
John Kennedy

The Key
John Kennedy

Getting Away With Murder
Mick Hall

Will the Real Army Council Please Stand Up
Geoffrey Cooling

Upcoming New York Events
Cathleen O'Brien

The Letters page has been updated:

Controversy over the publication of cartoons

Stereotypes Must Be Challenged Openly

 

Message for Dr. Coulter

 

Excellent Work

 

Swift Satire Poetry Competition

Freedom of Speech index


19 March 2006

Profile: Irshad Manji
Anthony McIntyre

How Muslims are Caricaturing Ourselves
Irshad Manji

The Clash of the Uncivilized
Imam Zaid Shakir

Misunderstandings Abound
Mick Hall

A Vital Question Not Easily Washed Away
Malachi O'Doherty

Zen and the Heart of Blasphemy
Liam Clarke

Gerry Peacemaker
John Kennedy

Surrendered
John Kennedy

Closer to Home
Anthony McIntyre

Drawing a Line Under the Past
David Adams

It's Our Easter, Too, You Know
Dr John Coulter

'The Way Ireland Ought to Be'
Michael Gilliespie

Former Hunger Striker leads 1981 Commemoration March in St. Pat's Day Parade
Deirdre Fennessy

Corn Beef & Lunatics
Fred A. Wilcox

The Letters page has been updated:

New Convert

Cartoons

About the Possible Posting of the Muslim Cartoons

Well Done

A Muslim's Response

Straight Talk vs Orthodoxy

Freedom of Speech index

 

 

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