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.
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.'
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
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.
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.
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.'
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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:
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.
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.'
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.'
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:
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?
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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