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"Some of my uncles were in the march against me and demanded that I be hanged," said Taslima Nasrin last week, as she described street protests during the 1990s in Dhaka, Bangladesh, against her writing. The novelist and poet's challenges to Shariah, or Islamic law, produced strikes, rallies that sometimes drew 200,000 people, and a recent court ruling that condemns her to jail if she returns. Muslim fundamentalists put a fatwa on her head in 1994, and almost a decade later security for Nasrin was still evident at a public interview with writer-activist Meredith Tax at the Asia Society, jointly sponsored with the PEN American Center and the South Asian Journalists Association.
People filled the auditorium to see the woman who fled Bangladesh in 1994 after official action was first taken against her for work that exposed the oppression of women there and the realities of Muslim-Hindu violence. Nasrin, now 40, was reported that year to have told a newspaper that the Koran should be thoroughly revised. She still insists she was misquoted, but at the time she sent a correction to the paper that fundamentalists objected to even more. Nasrin was forced into hiding, but with PEN's help, was finally allowed to leave, and she escaped to Sweden. In Bangladesh, her books are banned, and recently she was tried in absentia and found guilty of blasphemy.
Despite a request at the reading for written questions only, someone asked out loud if the uncles who raped her as a child were in the marches against her. She simply replied, "Yes." The rapes and other horrors of a childhood in a well-to-do Muslim family, marked by the sometimes brutal rule of her father, are told in Meyebela, My Bengali Girlhood (Steerforth Press), the first volume of her memoir, just now being published in the United States. Speaking of the title, Nasrin said there is no word in Bengali for girlhood, and Meyebelais her coinage to fill that void.
The absence of that word is significant to Nasrin because she says girls in her country are deprived of childhood pastimes and the autonomy of their bodies. "Girls suffer, especially in Muslim countries," she said. "I could not go out and run in the fields. I was supposed to stay home to learn how to cook, to clean. Women are not treated as human beings. They are taught for centuries that they are slaves of men." Nasrin, who is also a doctor, spoke of the frequent molestation of children inside extended families. "When I was at the hospital [in Dhaka], 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."
Her first newspaper article, and a key incident in her emergence as an activist, was about the death of a teenage girl who was flayed 101 times for having intercourse with a Hindu boy. Acts taken against Bangladeshi women in 1993 and 1994 alone included the stoning of a woman for remarriage after divorce (and the woman's parents were flayed); a burning at a stake over an accusation of adultery; flaying for adultery; burning of schools teaching girls; and the denial of medications to pregnant women on the grounds that they would turn them Christian.
Meyebelais a rather straightforward book, reminiscent of work by Egypt's Nawal El Saadawi (also a full-time doctor and activist). While there are more poetic works, such as Fatima Mernissi's Dreams of Trespass, Tales of a Harem Girlhood,this memoir belongs on the shelf with those of Dorothy Allison, Alice Walker, and others who have pried open doors locked on shattered girlhoods.
Nasrin spoke with astonishment that "seventh-century law" should rule any Muslim societies today and said that "secularization in Islamic countries is urgent." Some women's groups in Bangladesh did support her, she said, but others did not "because they believe you can have women's rights under religion. I don't believe in reformation of Shariah law." She does not think feminism is possible in Islamor in any faith.
"I don't think there is a feminist interpretation of religion," she said. "I don't believe in religion. Because of religion, there is war, ignorance, injustice, women's suffering." Her work has been used by at least one Hindu political party against a Muslim party in Bangladesh, so when asked how she felt about people here using her work to condemn Islam generally, she said, "I cannot control that. Some people think the West is against Islam; it's not a conflict between East and West but fundamentalism and secularism, tradition and innovation."
Nasrin has often been called the female Salman Rushdie, a term that she has obviously wearied of hearing. "Sometimes I wonder that no one calls him the male Taslima Nasrin," she said, smiling. Rushdie came to her defense in 1994 in an eloquent open letter, writing, "It is our adversaries . . . who seem to believe in divine sanction for lynching and terrorism." While some have said that the threat to Nasrin is nothing like the worldwide reach of those who were determined to kill the author of The Satanic Verses, she sees two differences between herself and Rushdie: She was living in her own country during protests against her, "and I didn't apologize." That last bit, she said, didn't sit well with Rushdie, whom she has never met but who she said was angered by her remark that he shouldn't have apologized for giving offense.
While Rushdie is the most famous writer to have a fatwa on his head, women writers have long been targets after documenting the lives of women in Muslim societies. And the trend continues. Women writers elsewhere in the Muslim world have received death threats for writing about the conditions of women. Prominent Sudanese writer Kola Boof (Every Little Bit Hurts) has recently taken refuge in the U.S. after death threats in Sudan. She earned the ire of the Islamist government by insisting that there is slavery in Sudan despite official denials. Toujan al-Faisal, the first woman ever elected to the Jordanian parliament, was arrested in March for publishing material deemed "harmful to the country's reputation,"and in Iran, a writer, Mehrangiz Kar, and publisher, Shahla Lahiji, received sentences in February based on protests made at an international conference in Berlin in 2000.
So why did Nasrin think that she was singled out for such protest? "Fundamentalists in Bangladesh don't allow women to protest very much," she said, but the real reason, she thought, was that women were reading her work. Even after it was banned, people read Meyebela on the Internet, and she is now considering putting the second volume on the Web. She seemed dumbfounded that the mullahs would think book banning could be effective in this age, and finds their motives in general to be crass. "They don't think of the future of the country," she said, "only of their temporary gain."
The audience at the Asia Society audibly praised her courage as they streamed out to stand in line for books and her signature. While the chill in our own air here is taking its toll on the numbers of outspoken public figures, it was for some members of the Bangladeshi community at the Asia Society astounding to hear Nasrin say that revision of Islam for the freedom of women is impossible. Everyone laughed with sympathy when she said, "My mother thought I would go to hell, and she worried about me." But then she probably no longer believes in those hellish fires so often questioned by the child Nasrin in her book. "I have told the truth, so I don't regret what I have done."
For information on these writers, see Women's World: www.wworld.org.