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Updated: February 12, 2012 00:32 IST

Controversy's child

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TASLIMA NASREEN: Fighting to go back to Bengal. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury
The Hindu
TASLIMA NASREEN: Fighting to go back to Bengal. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen on what it means to live under death threats and in a world where cultural freedom is constantly under attack.

Controversy has become second nature to Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen. The most recent was the cancellation of the release of her latest book Nirbasan at the Kolkata Book Fair after fundamentalists threatened to disrupt the event. This came days after Salman Rushdie was barred from coming to India to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival. Nasreen, whose strong views on Islam and women's issues have regularly sparked controversies, continues to fight for her right to freedom of expression. Excerpts from an interview:

You have been barred from entering Bangladesh, your homeland, and can't live in Kolkata, where you feel at home. How painful it is to live like this?

Very painful. Both the ‘Bengals' — Bangladesh and West Bengal — have abandoned me. I am a Bengali writer but am not allowed to go to either of these places. But I'll fight until my death for my right to go back to Bengal. I am against the idea of not being allowed to live there and express myself only because I say something that some people do not like. I want the government not to violate freedom of expression. Even if I offend or criticise others, I should still be allowed to stay there with dignity and honour. Also, not being able to live in the country or the state where my language is spoken is affecting my writing. I don't know how my language is evolving. I want to know how the young talk today, whether they use the same words as my grandparents and parents did. This is important for me as a writer.

How real is the threat from the fundamentalists?

It was not the fundamentalists who demanded that Nirbasan not be released at the Kolkata Book Fair. It was the authorities who decided to stop it. This problem of fundamentalists attacking me started when the West Bengal government banned Dwikhandito. Had they not banned the book, the questions of attacks on me, setting price on my head, demands for my deportation and cancellation of my book launch would not have risen. I could have continued to live in Kolkata had the government wanted and the fundamentalists couldn't have done anything.

This intolerance towards freedom of speech and expression is growing. Does it worry you?

Yes it does. It seems intolerance is increasing all over the world. In that respect, India is no different. Islamic fundamentalism started rising after the collapse of communism. It's destroying the possibility of many countries becoming secular and democratic. But it is also true that people who believe in human rights and freedom of expression have been protesting all over the world.

What does it mean to live with fear and under death threats?

I have got used to it. I started getting threats from the late 1980s. There is one incident, dating back to the 1990s, which I can never forget. I used to write columns for newspapers on women's issues. Once I was going to my medical college in a rickshaw. On the way, I came across an anti-Taslima procession of some 50,000 fanatics. They were shouting my name and asking for me to be hanged to death. I sat still as the procession passed. I was scared and the enormity of the situation was still to sink in. Once the crowd cleared, the rickshaw puller said, “Taslima should be hanged, she dared to attack Islam.” He had no idea that Taslima was sitting in his rickshaw. I sometimes feel that I'll be killed by the fundamentalists. But I don't want to restrict my movements.

Isn't it sad that, despite having written so many books on women's issues, you are still referred to as the author of Lajja?

There are many people who read only one book of mine and that is Lajja. And there are many people who hear that I criticise Islam, so they dig out the book to find some traces of criticism. Many get disappointed for not finding anything. What is interesting is that Lajja is probably the only book I have written where there is no criticism of Islam.

You have written extensively on feminism and vociferously supported women's issues. Do you think feminism in South Asia has evolved over the years?

Feminist movement is not very strong here. After all, women didn't really fight for the rights they have in India. They didn't have to fight for voting rights like their counterparts in the West. It was men who fought for women, to educate them, to ban sati, to stop child marriage, to get widows remarried and so on. A recent survey has found India is the fourth most dangerous place for women; and is the deadliest place for a girl child. This is shocking. Female foeticide (It is ‘femicide', a kind of genocide against women), female infanticide, sex trafficking, sexual slavery, domestic violence, dowry murder, bride burning are increasing. It's actually a war against women.

Do you plan to write the eighth part of your autobiography?

I guess so. I earlier thought I would finish it with the seventh volume but I continue to live. That means I'll keep writing.

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It is a very good interview giving some insights to the thoughts of Nasreen. It is very easy for her to criticize any given sensitive subject, but she should also give the possible solutions to overcome the problems. Since she is not wanted in India and in Bangladesh and may be in many other Asian countries, and thousands of peoples hating, then the problem lies in her thoughts not on the other side. Freedom of expression must not be misused to hurt the feelings of others. Otherwise it will be taken as insulting others' feelings. This is the case with Nasreen.

from:  Hoosein Kader
Posted on: Feb 24, 2012 at 11:54 IST

This is one woman that I truly admire for standing up to Islam and sharia law.

She is a beacon of light in a sea of darkness that is reaching out to women all over the world where Islam exists. The wholesale slaughter of women under Islam is well documented going back hundreds of years, if not farther back.

The persecution of women from Islam here in the USA is becoming more of a problem as honor killings have increased, as Islam has spread across our country. It is quite sad that the feminists in the USA do not speak out against Islam, sharia law like Taslima does. In my opinion the feminists in my country are cowards for not calling out against this injustice and persecution of women. They are cowards, afraid of offending Islam or Muslims if they dare speak out against such crimes when they are committed against women here in the West.

from:  Rick Lakehomer
Posted on: Feb 13, 2012 at 14:40 IST

As a writer, Taslima Nasreen has a right to express her views, whatever they are. The readers can accept them, reject them, disagree with them and debate them. No one has the right to ban the book. It is the readers who decide whether the book is worthwhile. On that score, Taslima is a successful writer. It is the height of folly to call for the death of a writer. It is very disturbing that she and Rushdie are subjected to this threat. The late Christopher Hitchins wrote the book God is not Great. No one called for his death. Bertrand Russell wrote his famous essay "Why I am not a Christian". No one called for his death. E.V. Ramaswamy Naickar led processions beating Rama's image with sandals. He attempted to rewrite Ramayanam as Keemayanam where Ravana was the hero. No one called for his death. Let the spirit of freedom prevail. Let Taslima's writings be a matter between her and her readers. She is motivated to uplift the downtrodden and the suppressed. She deserves support not hate.

from:  K.V.Nagarajan
Posted on: Feb 12, 2012 at 09:26 IST

Thanks for fighting the cause of freedom to speech & write.As per jawahar Lal nehru in his book discovery of India we are the resultant of the good 7 bad experiences humanity has made to this time.Strugglewill continue for ever between reasoning & blind faith. Once again thanks for the efforts

from:  Prabhdial Singh Randhawa
Posted on: Feb 12, 2012 at 07:25 IST

Liberal views should be welcomed across all places.
It is for these liberal views and sounds of reform that the world has witnessed the truth.

from:  Nisha Jamwal
Posted on: Feb 11, 2012 at 23:37 IST

Tasleema please carry on with your brave work...continue to fight for
the cause of the women and the issues that are killing her everyday...

from:  raghavendra
Posted on: Feb 11, 2012 at 22:12 IST

Great fearless personalities like Taslima Nasreen are responsible
for pushing the human civilization to the great height it occupies
today. She is following Buddha wisdom “"Do not believe in anything
simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply
because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything
simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not
believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and
elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed
down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when
you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the
good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it."
Not surprisingly Islamist fanatics consider her questioning attitude
heretical. Shameful persecution of her validates a saying “When
one person suffers from delusion it is called insanity. When many
people suffer from delusion it is called Religion."

from:  N.G. Krishnan
Posted on: Feb 11, 2012 at 19:58 IST

Great job 'The Hindu'...In these grim situations when evryone is closing the doors for liberalism...our Indian Media in general and 'The Hindu' in particular have had strongly supported the reformers' views...Taslimaji we are there with you...continue your social reformation...

from:  Swapnil Julme
Posted on: Feb 11, 2012 at 18:37 IST
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